By ERIC HOPE
Editor’s Note— please read our open letter about East City Art’s expansion here..
While the visual arts flourish year-round, May marks the unofficial start to spring open studio tours. With the Gateway Art District’s jam-packed Saturday just behind us, we wanted to introduce you to another artist collective opening their studio doors in a few day’s time. The Mid-City Artists annual spring open studios tours occurs May 17th-18th, and I recently sat down with their part-time Director Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams and longtime member Sondra Arkin to find out more about the group and their plans for the weekends’ open house.
While the name Mid City Artists may be new to some of our readers, the organization has been active in the community since its founding in 2004. Arkin notes that prior to that time, several artists living in the mid-city area were showing independently of one another in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Over lunch one day they brainstormed ways generate opportunities and greater exposure closer to home, and the idea for open studio tours took hold. Taking advantage of communications channels spearheaded by the Washington Project for the Arts, the core group was able to connect with other neighborhood artists, and the association held its first open house that year.
Ten years on, the group has grown to over 35 members who meet regularly to support and promote one another’s work and plan a yearly group exhibition. A membership process is in place welcoming new artists new to area (the borders which are roughly Florida Avenue NW to the north, Rhode Island Avenue NW to the south, 17th Street NW to the west and 8th Street NW to the east). The organization predates the economic revitalization of the 14th Street, NW corridor and despite the upward price pressures on studios, Ehlen notes that these artists have managed to blossom as they are integral to the cultural fabric of the community. The support of the business community is evident; local establishments often feature the work of their neighboring artists and several storefronts along 14th street house artist studios within their buildings.
MCA’s twice-yearly open studio days provide a unique view into the world of DC artists. One of the most interesting facets of the MCA Open Studio tour is that the majority of artists work in individual studios, often in a home-based environment (another reason networking and collaboration are so important). This dynamic lends a certain intimacy to the studio tour that is not present when visiting a large facilities that house numerous artists. Arkin notes that she uses the Studio Tour as an opportunity to exhibit new work in progress, soliciting indirect feedback allowing her to understand how visitor interpret her ideas.
To build upon that dialogue, MCA has instituted guided tours of the neighborhood led by curators and other arts professionals. These small-group tours (free; advance registration required) lasting approximately two hours each, focus on a small area of the neighborhood and allow for in-depth conversations with the artists, facilitated by the guide. According to Ehlen, the guides act as a starting point for dialogue and are a great resource for first-time visitors who may feel slightly unsure of how to initiate conversations. This weekend’s tours are led by Beth Baldwin, Gerald Allen Schwinn, Marie Ringwald, Thomas Drymon and Regan Spurlock. To maintain personalized attention and small group sizes, guests are asked to register in advance via MCAs website (information below).
Ehlen views the weekend as the artists’ moment to spotlight their contribution to the cultural dynamism of the neighborhood. In a town known for it’s sometimes “buttoned-up” attitude, she notes that, “when you live here and you work here and invest your time and energy here, it is important to know that creativity is here [as well].” At a time when the issue of tension between the needs of artists and the forces of gentrification is a subject to media scrutiny and debate, it is heartening to see an artist’s coalition embrace those changes and use them to articulate their role within the community. The 2014 MCA Studio Tour will give attendees the opportunity to experience that exuberance and engage with artists in a relaxed and inviting setting.
The Mid-City Artists’ open house weekend takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19 from noon – 5:00pm each day. For more information, including a detailed map of participating artists and businesses and group tours, please visit their website here.