East City Art’s Response to the DC Office of Planning’s 2018 Cultural Plan

By Phil Hutinet on February 26, 2018
Protesters hold up “A Gentrified DC” and “I Will Not Be Moved DC” signs outside a February 1, 2016 zoning hearing to determine the fate of the artists studios at 411 New York Ave. NE. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Art.

The following is a response to the DC Office of Planning’s 2018 draft Cultural Plan.  Read the draft HERE.  The public can submit comments through Feb. 28 via email at dcculturalplan@dc.gov

If you are interested in submitting your feedback to East City Art about its response, please email us at editor@eastcityart.com


The DC Office of Planning’s (DCOP) 2018 draft Cultural Plan encompasses a wide range of artistic disciplines which, as a whole, make up the District of Columbia’s cultural landscape.  As a local publication of record for the visual arts, East City Art will concern itself mostly with the visual arts in its response to DCOP’s Cultural Plan.  However, as a written publication that is also part of the cultural landscape discussed in DCOP’s proposal, we will briefly address DCOP’s proposed Humanities Press which may have a direct impact on publications like ours.

As our city continues to transform as a result of rapid real estate development, the subsequent investment presents DC’s citizens and government agencies with an opportunity to steward this incoming wealth.  However, the window of opportunity to ensure proper stewardship of this unprecedented growth will not last much longer.

Evidence of displacement is apparent in all wards of the city.  While a general discussion of displacement might include housing, commercial and population shifts, East City Art’s response to DCOP’s Cultural Plan will focus on the displacement of visual artists, exhibition spaces (both commercial and nonprofit) and working studios as a result of skyrocketing real estate values in DC.

DC’s visual culture is imperiled by the following: 

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Working studio space scarcity and affordability
  • Exhibition space closures in the face of rising rents and real estate taxes

Affordable Housing for Artists

While some efforts have been made to create affordable housing for artists in Brookland (ArtSpace’s Arts Lofts) and in NoMa (Loree Grand), there seems to be little or no plan to provide long-term affordable housing for artists in DCOP’s Cultural Plan.  This will impact the number of artists working in the city and in effect diminish the vibrancy of the city’s visual arts culture.

Artist Studios

Artist studios are the most critical component to maintaining a vibrant visual arts culture in any city.  As commercial real estate becomes increasingly scarce, artists often lose their leases due to rent increases or as a result of developers seeking a more lucrative use for the space.  For example, over 100 artists and musicians at 411 New York Avenue NE were evicted in 2016 by a developer to create—of all things—an “arts hotel” while providing a fraction of the former studio space (from 35,000sf to 3,000sf).  The new artist studio space will have a series of restrictions imposed on the incoming artists, including having open studio hours for hotel guests.  This will limit who will occupy the studio and the quality of the art produced in the new space.

Without professional artist studio spaces, art production will cease and visual art culture in DC will recede if not vanish.  While East City Art has been compiling a list of studio spaces that have opened and closed since 2009, the following buildings which house large numbers of artists are of particular concern to us as a result of pressure to redevelop these commercial spaces:

  • 52 O Street Studios (52 O Street NW)
  • DC Arts Studios (6925 Willow Street NW)

DCOP’s Cultural Plan should work to identify the number of working artist studios in the city. This information should include who owns the space, how many square feet are dedicated to artistic production, the cost per square foot and the number of artists working in the space.  The DC Government should take steps to protect the remaining artist studios in the city through either tax abatements or other incentives for property owners.  In addition, the DC Government should immediately create a long-term plan to relocate artists facing displacement to newly created facilities that provide permanent affordable studio space.  These can be operated either by the DC Government alone or in partnership with private- or nonprofit-sector partners.  

Exhibition Spaces

Just as artists are subject to the pressures of the real estate market, so too are gallery owners.  It is currently cost prohibitive for young would-be gallerists to open a “brick-and-mortar” storefront and start a gallery business.  Nonprofit and artist-run spaces fare just as poorly as they struggle to find affordable space. In its reporting, the DCOP Cultural Plan references the closure of 70 gallery spaces but does not list the galleries by name.  A complete itemization would provide a helpful fact base for an empirical study of the factors that lead so many galleries to close their doors.  While higher rents, real estate taxes and other costs are factors, other factors such as lackluster sales might also be at work.  The DC Government should commission a study to understand these factors and provide assistance to promote the creation of exhibition spaces throughout the city.

Artist Exodus

The costs of rising real estate has resulted in a slow but steady exodus of artists from DC to cities as far away as Los Angeles and as close as Baltimore, which both possess plentiful and inexpensive commercial space.  Closer to DC, just over Eastern Avenue, the Gateway Arts District along Route 1 has become a welcoming destination for resettling DC artists who seek inexpensive studio space and housing.  In addition, both the State of Maryland and Prince George’s County offer artists a series of perks in the form of tax credits, promotions and other incentives to move over the state line. This exodus from DC to Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville will continue if the DC Government does not offer its own incentives for DC-based artists.

Solutions to Maintaining DC’s Vibrant Visual Culture 

  • Use existing DC Government property to create housing and studio space
  • Partner with DC Parks and Recreation and DC Public Library to build and maintain dedicated exhibition space
  • Create cultural anchors funded by developers
  • Steer the city’s economic growth by redirecting taxes for arts and culture

DC Government Property

The DC Government should use existing property to create studio spaces, affordable artist housing and exhibition space. The DC Government could make use of both “brownfielding” (existing buildings) and ”greenfielding” (raw land)  projects to accomplish this end.

Parks and Recreation & DC Public Library

Both Parks and Recreation and DC Public Library facilities present a perfect opportunity to create permanent, dedicated exhibition spaces. Many libraries and recreation centers have ample space to create small to medium sized exhibition spaces.  In addition, certain Parks and Recreation facilities have large tracts of land that would be ideal for greenfielding opportunities such as creating artist studio spaces and larger exhibition spaces.

Cultural Anchors

As developers consolidate land and request PUD (Planned Unit Development) status for their holdings, the Mayor and City Council should amend the city’s zoning laws to require a cultural component as part of the PUD process. This was done successfully during the redevelopment of downtown Washington DC during the 1980s. A thriving theater district ensued and, to this day, PEPCO Edison Place Gallery offers local nonprofit organizations over 5,000 square feet of gallery space pro bono.

Stewardship of Growth

With the city’s economy booming, the DC Government should work to reinvest its tax revenues into the arts.  One way to raise funds for creating studios, affordable housing and exhibition space could come from a slight Increase in the restaurant tax and dedicate the increased percentage for the arts.  Another would be to set aside a portion of the real estate taxes to help grow arts and culture in DC.  A number of combinations are possible to dedicate tax revenues towards this end and share in the economic prosperity.

End Creative Placemaking

DCOP’s proposal in the Cultural Plan to continue creative placemaking projects in the District of Columbia should alarm DC residents.  Creative placemaking can take the form of a one-time festival, the adornment of community assets such as bus shelters or even the creation of temporary murals or sculptures.  DCOP has hired consultants, often from out-of-state, to engage communities in creative placemaking initiatives.  Funding for such initiatives comes from various sources, including foundation grants.  In principle, these efforts sound like attractive investments in creating a vibrant cultural landscape in DC. In reality, they do little to benefit local artists or the residents they purport to serve.

Why Creative Placemaking Needs to Stop

  • Creative placemaking can be employed as a form of “art-washing.” The placemaking initiative uses art to render a neighborhood more attractive ultimately creating positive public relations. In turn, the favorable press attracts developers and real estate speculators seeking to redevelop neighborhoods that have struggled for decades with disinvestment.  Existing residents who do not own property are often displaced as a result.
  • Recent examples of creative placemaking as a form of art-washing took place in Ivy City and in Deanwood in 2016. Both are now rapidly changing neighborhoods that have witnessed a spike in real estate investment. Redfin Real Estate recently listed Deanwood as one of the top ten “hottest” neighborhoods in the US.
  • At the end of a creative placemaking initiative, neither the artists nor the ephemera the artists create remain.
  • Artists are often paid very little for their work and community members are encouraged to volunteer to realize the projects managed by the creative placemaking consultants.
  • On the other hand, creative placemaking consultants, some of whom work remotely out-of-state, earn market-rate salaries for managing such projects which ultimately depend on poorly paid artists and community volunteers.

Creating Cultural Anchors

Alternatively, the DC Government should consider investing its resources in permanent public art instead of ephemera.  Permanent public art projects offer the public a long-term investment for their tax dollars while providing local artists with a living wage.  In addition, the DC Government should undertake permanent projects with the aim of sustaining visual arts culture by creating affordable housing, artist studios and exhibition space which would benefit artists long-term and ensure their continued place in DC’s cultural landscape.  The presence of these artist spaces would benefit the community through outreach programs, education and by providing a permanent cultural anchor for local businesses and residents.

Humanities Press

DCOP’s Cultural Plan mentions the creation of a Humanities Press but did not address the following:

  • Who will it serve?
  • What will it publish?
  • Who will it publish and how will the authors or artists be selected?
  • How will the press distribute materials?
  • What experience does the DC Government have in publishing humanities-related topics?

DCOP’s Cultural Plan should identify partners to help publish and distribute works.  Working with existing DC-based publishers who have experience in this field could help both advance the objectives of the Cultural Plan and benefit small DC-based presses like East City Art.

Redefining the “Creative Economy”

The term “creative economy” should be redefined.  The fine arts—including visual art, dance and theater—should not be included in the same category as culinary professions, design or architecture.  While the former group has both direct and indirect effects on the economy as a whole, the latter group has more clear-cut profit-based models.  In other words, the fine arts should not be made to compete with restaurants or design firms for public funding.  While business incubation should be supported by the DC Government, funding for established profit-based economic activities should not come at the expense of the fine arts which struggle with funding in an increasingly expensive city.


The city’s unprecedented growth presents challenges, but also opportunities to expand existing visual arts assets to ensure DC’s vibrant visual culture remains.  The DC Government has a responsibility to ensure that both tax revenues and regulation on new development benefit arts and culture.  As cultural anchors, off-the-Mall institutions in DC have been a catalyst for urban revitalization and in many cases play a crucial role in forming a neighborhood’s identity.

DCOP’s Cultural Plan should do more to reflect the growing threats to attracting and retaining talented visual artists, arts administrators and gallerists who either leave DC due to soaring real estate prices or who have been priced-out from the onset due to the city’s unaffordable cost of living and doing business.

Lastly, the Cultural Plan needs to discuss how the DC Government will address housing, working studios and exhibition spaces for the long-term.  DCOP should cease its investment in ephemeral creative placemaking initiatives which divert resources away from scalable, permanent solutions to the affordability crisis faced by visual arts culture in DC.