Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why long term, DC's Anacostia's commercial district isn't likely to become an "arts district"

The Washington City Paper has a nice collection of articles in the current issue on Anacostia and its future as an arts district ("How to Build an Arts District: Will Anacostia become D.C.'s next great arts corridor? It’s complicated").

Arts as a revitalization augur is something I've spent quite a bit of time studying and was involved in some as it related to the revitalization program on H Street NE in DC.  (H Street has a handful of arts oriented venues, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and a couple of galleries, some on Florida Avenue.  Mostly what attracts people to the corridor are the taverns and restaurants.)

I've written a lot about this issue, but the tour de force piece is this one, "Arts, culture districts and revitalization," which was the basis of a presentation I made at the national conference of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas in 2009.

The main point is that artistic disciplines need to take the lead on their own planning, that they can't expect real estate developers to represent their interests.

The paper also discusses space access, cost of space, anchoring institutions, and the difference between "arts as production" versus "arts as consumption."

A good example of anchoring institutions and space supporting artists is the A. Salon on Willow Street in Takoma DC.  It's a big space, with not much opportunity for office use, so it's used as relatively low rent studio space for artists.  But while the rent is cheaper than office space, it's not super-cheap either.  Many of the artists probably have other jobs.  Plus many of the studios are shared, which cuts the cost, but means the rents are higher.

And as far as "arts as production" vs. "arts as consumption" is concerned, DC's arts are mostly about consumption--going to museums, concerts, and plays--and are not too focused on the development and support of artists, especially in the visual arts.

There are 4-5 key components that support the development of arts districts and especially artistic production, and because from a long term standpoint, these components won't likely remain present in Anacostia--even as some cool capacity building organizations are being created from a radio station to the Anacostia Arts Center--means it won't really be able to develop into a full-fledged "arts district" even if it has some arts institutions (note that the Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County, despite their recent winning of a $250,000 ArtsPlace grant, has the same problem).

The paper has some good citations of key works in the field, which are worth your reading if you care to learn more about the topic.

Arts districts need:

1.  Cheap space that's going to remain cheap for a long long long time (preferably a couple decades and ideally longer).
2.  And lots of it.

These are probably the two most important characteristics that support "naturally occurring arts districts" and Anacostia has neither.

Sure its commercial spaces are cheaper, comparatively speaking, than other space elsewhere in DC, but compared to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, the space is pretty expensive, and there isn't very much of it.  One big old factory in Baltimore probably has more space for artists than a combination of half of DC's equivalent facilities.

3.  Anchoring institutions that support artists and capacity building  -- Anacostia does have the arts efforts of the community development organization ARCH, but while there are a couple of cool spaces, there aren't many

4.  Anchoring presenting institutions that attract audiences -- Anacostia is getting the Anacostia Playhouse, which is the rebranding of the H Street Playhouse which has moved because of higher rents, but one or two institutions doesn't build a cluster either.   For example, compare the Station North Arts District in Baltimore or the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative in Pittsburgh.  There are dozens of presenting institutions, stores, artist spaces, etc.  (And for what it's worth, one of the best tours at a conference I ever went on was of the Penn Ave Arts district, led by the coordinating organization.)

5.  And for arts consumption, location helps a lot too.  This case study of the Station North and Highlandtown arts districts in Baltimore (from 'Natural Cultural Districts': A Three-City Study) demonstrates the value of location and the presence of strong anchoring institutions.

Station North is better located and has many more arts organizations including two universities and continues to develop and expand, while Highlandtown, cool and all, hasn't seen near the same level of success, as it is on the edge of the city and only has a couple of anchoring institutions, but ones very good for supporting artists (see "Former Crown Cork Complex still bustling" from the Baltimore Sun and the Creative Alliance website), if not consumption.

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At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the DC government would be better to take one of the abandoned high schools like the big one in SW that was owned by the Corcoran and Bill Woobey before hthey both went bust- and open it up to commercial art galleries- it is the commercialism of selling art that we need for both artists and the gallery owners- yes both need cheaper places that will remain cheap a long time but DC has the unique opportunity of being close to numerous world class museums- the city- if it so chose- could enact tax free areas for art galleries or schools or co-ops and link them to the museums as Santa Fe and other art towns have done- we just do not think like this- we are talking about a city where at a public art monument unveiling the name of the ARTIST is seldom even mentioned- this place is full of grandstading white collar types that are anathema to creativity and all about themselves. They need to step aside and allow some of this to happen- and it cannot be done piecemeal it has to be big and comprehensive and directed to visual art or organizations specifically. I keep harping on what the city did to the Washington Sculpture School when they aquired the land for the new stadium. DC needs to clean up its act on arts matters and stop focusing so much on just sports and performing arts as though visual arts are third rate when we have huge world class art museums here. I question the educational levels of our city administrators.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ARCH should try to get a couple of the schools that are being "de-accessioned" in Wards 7 and 8. It reminds me of the arts district proposal I developed for outside of H Street proper back in 2004... (then the idea was to capture the old E10 and Precinct 9 buildings for arts orgs., like the Washington Glass School, + the vacant school building on the Miner campus, and do a whole bunch of stuff with the schools. In fact I will dust off that proposal for another blog entry, and prove myself "wrong" on this basic blog entry...

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous H St LL said...

Excellent piece. Much better than the Housing Complex ones (which I feel like I have read a bunch of times... I miss Lydia's more eloquent and critical writing).

So what do you suggest for DC to further facilitate an arts scene (rather than just mentioning drawbacks of DC)?

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

You'll have to read the arts and culture districts piece. But these were the basic recommendations.

1. Do a wide ranging cultural plan with artistic discipline specific subelements.

2. Develop a variety of types of spaces for the long term.

3. and capacity building and development anchoring institutions (e.g., like Washington Glass Works or Pittsburgh Glass Center in glass, Studio 33 in Baltimore for general art, or Clayworks in Baltimore for ceramics, a film production group, Creative Alliance in Baltimore etc.

4. Support presenting spaces for small and medium sized groups like they do in Arlington, do co-location space development like they do.

5. Share audiences, improve marketing.

I didn't mention this in the previous piece, but also, provide general assistance to arts group on development and capacity building (this is an extension of the network benefit proposal wrt ANCs and Friends of the Parks groups that I have written about before).

But it has to be done in a concerted way. We don't do it in a concerted way anywhere, other than to their credit, the efforts of ARCH in Anacostia.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger adelphi_sky said...

No mention of the Arts District in Hyattsville? Also, what about Northwestern being approve for a performing arts magnet that would help feed the arts district with potential new artists in years to come? Or is Hyattsville not a good example?

At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still thnk any local large arts district or initiative needs to be near the big museums to be able to leverage this audience from around the world. Santa Fe does this with Canyon Road which has over 100 commercial art galleries- and this is NOT cheap land it is smack in the middle of a high priced area- DC can do this too- but we do not have the real backing or momentum because people like Gray are not educated about how important the arts really are to this city and how much money they bring into the economy. Vincent Gray is only concerned with sports and elite celebrity boxes at new stadiums and basketball games and that kind of thing- he has no concept at all of what we could really accomplish here. We have unbelievable assetts here in DC and they are being squandered.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I've written about Gateway Arts District a lot. I didn't know about the Northwestern thing. For what it's worth, I applied for a job in the City of Hyattsville in 2005 and made a similar point about the schools and the arts district, as well as trying to get PGCCC (or UMD) to relocate their arts program to an arts campus in the Arts District.

Plus, the point I made is that the arts district is looking at the energy for it as emanating up from DC, rather than considering the potential instead emanating from the UMD, a top 50 research university.

At that time, if you did a google search using the terms "prince george's county" and "creative class" there were fewer than 100 hits.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger adelphi_sky said...

I was just looking for some comparisons in your two current articles about Anacostia. I figured you probably already had written articles about the arts district but not in the current context. If you have I'll have to dig through your blog. I value your insight. Here is some info on the Jim Henson VPA program at Northwestern.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

.... also, I haven't yet been to any of the businesses in the retail addition to the "Arts District Hyattsville" development. What's your take on that?

At 9:29 AM, Blogger adelphi_sky said...

I think the project is a success. Of course Bus Boys and Poets and Franklins draws the most visitors. But the other businesses are thriving as well. Yes! Organic Market is doing okay and will do better once the Palette fills in. There is a nice atmosphere in the summer when patrons are able to eat at tables on the sidewalks. Hyattsville had to speed the creation of street parking on Rt. 1 because demand for parking was so high. That's a good sign. Streetsense purchased the old TESST building and is planning to create more retail/office space from that purchase. It will be interesting to see how the retail mix fills in on the west side of RT.1. Perhaps there will be opportunities for more art galleries.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

it's about the node and the "there" being there. Now it's centered. Before it was just some stuff here and there along the corridor.

E.g. Franklins was an outpost and all of the various galleries have mostly failed.

But I didn't know about the TESST sale. Now with the Palette + Franklins (I noticed they had the eat shop dine neon sign lit up the other night, for the first time in years), you have developing critical mass.

I will have to check it out some time soon.

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