Features

DCArtistExchange Roundtable: The Economics of Arts Incubators

Panel participants (from left): Mike Abrams, Lisa Neher, Paul So, Travis Bowerman, Michael Janis and Kristina Bilonick.  Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

Panel participants (from left): Mike Abrams, Lisa Neher, Paul So, Travis Bowerman, Michael Janis and Kristina Bilonick. Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

Artists Emily Eakland and George Koch have been very, very busy this year. Despite their full-time artistic careers (Koch is Artomatic’s director; Eakland a dancer) the duo has managed in a few short months to create the DC Artist Exchange, a networking/business platform for artists to share best practices, more effectively utilize economic opportunities and generally support each other creatively. In just a few short months, they’ve managed to garner support from a wide array of corporate and arts-centric businesses, from CulturalDC to the Menkiti Group, a real estate services company. The Exchange has begun their public programming with a series of panel discussions examining the current state of artistic affairs in the nation’s capital. I attended their most recent roundtable, where a spirited discussion on the economics of arts incubators and neighborhood arts tour took place.

DC Artist Exchange’s programming is currently being held at the offices of the Menkiti Group, located at 8th and Monroe Streets, NE — an apt location given the burgeoning arts community taking shape in Brookland. The panel, moderated by Koch, included several well-known figures in the arts community, including:

  • Kristina Bilonick, Founder of Pleasant Plains workshop and Manager of DC Art Studios in Takoma Park
  • Mike Abrams, Manager of the Union Arts and Manufacturing space on New York Ave, NE
  • Travis Bowerman, Deputy Director of CulturalDC
  • Michael Janis, Co-Director of the Washington Glass School
  • Paul So, Founder of Hamiltonian Artists and Hamiltonian Gallery
  • Lisa Neher, Director of the Jackson School (an art studio cooperative)

Introductions were made and Koch invited the panelists to describe their spaces and how they worked to support themselves. One common theme running through their business models was the need to quickly establish a revenue stream to support their core missions. Each panelist approached revenue generation from a different perspective, depending on their business needs (some being a bit more capitalistic than others). For example, Bilonick noted that biggest challenge was initial operating capital to secure the space; she funded her startup costs with an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign. For Janis, the answer was to start public classes and rent table space, making the School a “source of technical support”. Abrams stresses the “manufacturing” aspect of the artistic process, and rents his space out for activities requiring production assistance (for example, photo shoots).

Hamiltonian Artists' founder Paul So describing his business model.  Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

Hamiltonian Artists’ founder Paul So describing his business model. Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

While these three panelists took more novel approaches to running their incubators, the other three panelists work in paradigms more widely seen (and understood) within the arts community. For Bowerman’s CulturalDC, that business model began as a partnership with real estate developer PN Hoffman (they have since purchased their space outright). So’s Hamiltonian Artists is a nonprofit tied in with the Hamiltonian Gallery; sales of artists’ work in the gallery space are channeled back into the fellowship program. Neher runs the most “traditional” space – a cooperative of artist studios with no gallery or commercial interest – and her funding consists of studio rent coupled with attractive lease rates from the DC government.

There is of course no right or wrong way to run an arts space. However, comments from the panelists seem to indicate that, given wavering government largesse and rising real estate values, arts incubators need to critically examine how they can generate cash flow from their core business activities and edge themselves to self-sustainability. That first starts with assessing the needs of their clientele, which change over time. Indeed Bowerman states that, “there is a demand and need for incubation space, but the models are shifting.” He notes that among his clients, including many arts groups, the need for true office space is down (“office tasks” can largely be handled at home via the internet) while space for networking and information sharing is still in demand. For other incubators centered on individual artists, such as Pleasant Plains and Union Arts and Manufacturing, the question becomes how can the space create an economic return that covers operating costs while still providing work space easily affordable by artists. For So, the answer was to create a traditional gallery to funnel funds back into the incubator. Janis and Bilonick opened their doors to the community at large through classes, lectures and the like. They engage not only full-time “professional artists” but also part-time practitioners and even devoted hobbiests in an effort to cast a wide economic net.

Panel Attendees, led by CulturalDC's Travis Bowerman (far left) enter the Monroe Street Market Artswalk.  Artist studios ring the walk and public plaza.  Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

Panel Attendees, led by CulturalDC’s Travis Bowerman (far left) enter the Monroe Street Market Artswalk. Artist studios ring the walk and public plaza. Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

These efforts stand in contrast to Neher’s Jackson school studios. Neher noted in her beginning remarks that her incubator stands apart from the others in that it is strictly workspace without an attached gallery or other revenue-generating venture. While the cooperative has recently renewed their lease with the city for three years, she notes that upward price pressures are increasing as her neighborhood (Georgetown) is changing. Abrams aptly noted that artists “tend to just want to work and go home, but maybe that needs to change in the future.” While speaking for himself, his words speak to an issue that all “old school” artist cooperatives now face. Another common thread on the panel is that they are all entrepreneurs to a certain extent, but the degree to which they can promote that same sense of entrepreneurship to their colleagues matters when it comes to discussing the long-term viability of their spaces.

The back-and-forth dialogue led to one prophetic question from the audience: How can we take these individual groups to the “next level” and build a more cohesive, community-wide arts district? It’s a question that is increasingly bandied about at forums such as these across the District, often finding panelists raising questions of their own: Are we talking DC only or the entire region? Who would serve as “gatekeeper”? Do we need a city [government] planner for art? This forum was no different, and given that each incubator has its own economics to consider first, there isn’t always the time (or candidly the energy) to pursue that level of community-building. While it’s a familiar theme at small gatherings like this and sometimes frustrating that answers seem so elusive (this panel didn’t readily have answers for these questions), the fact that the same over-arching question continues to surface means a level of consciousness about this issue is quietly germinating in artists across the region. As more and more artists evolve to view themselves as small businessmen and women, answers to these questions will begin to take shape.

Carla Perlo, Founding Director of Dance Place (left of side table), outside her studio describing the weekly public program in the arts plaza.  Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

Carla Perlo, Founding Director of Dance Place (left of side table), outside her studio describing the weekly public program in the arts plaza. Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.

The session finished with a tour of the new Monroe Street Market flex arts building and artist studios and Brookland Artlofts, as well as Danceplace (which is embarking on a two million dollar renovation). East City Art has covered the construction of the former spaces, but seeing them all together highlights how Brookland is quickly becoming an arts destination in its own right. It is also worth noting that these entities are being created largely as partnerships between private sector developers and arts groups themselves. In his remarks, Koch noted that “we need a multifaceted approach in the city to tackle these issues,” and perhaps we can look towards the growing arts scene on 8th Street, NE as one method of harnessing economics in service to art.

For more details on the DC Artist Exchange and information on upcoming forums, please visit their website here.

Eric Hope
Authored by: Eric Hope

Eric Hope is a curator and writer based in Brookland. He moved to Washington DC in 1997 and a twist of fate found him a volunteer marketing job at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2009, after ten years of marketing work at large museums in DC he moved into the realm of curating, staging a variety of solo, duo and small-group shows for the Evolve Urban Arts Project. He currently freelances as a curator and writes about local artists and the DC arts scene for a variety of online publications. Originally from Missouri, Hope holds degrees in International Relations and Public Service Administration from DePaul University in Chicago.