By Eric Hope
Editor’s note: this article was originally published in the East City Art Spring Quarterly.
With the coming of spring, one of the largest arts-related events in our region is just around the corner. The Gateway Arts District’s annual open studios tour is scheduled for May 10th and this year marks the tenth anniversary of this unparalleled event.
Billed by the organizers as, “the DC Region’s largest one-day visual arts festival,” the studio tour will showcase over 100 artists working out of 70 studios covering 17 locations along the Route One corridor.
Spearheading the event is Carole Bernard, Executive Director of the Gateway Community Development Corporation. The Gateway CDC (G-CDC) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to revitalize the communities of Mount Rainier, Brentwood and North Brentwood, using the arts as a focal point for growth. Some of the organization’s most publicly visible activities include running the Gateway Arts Center and managing numerous artist studios in the Gateway Arts Center and the surrounding neighborhoods. Working alongside Ms. Bernard to coordinate the event is neighborhood artist Tim McLoraine, who is currently meeting with area artists to solicit feedback and incorporate their ideas.
While plans are still evolving, the organizers intend to celebrate the tenth anniversary with several special commemoration events. At 11:30 a.m., the unveiling of public art by Margaret Boozer, followed by remarks from city and county officials will kick-off the tour. The Brentwood Arts Exchange will host Project America’s Next Top Master Artist, an elimination-style competition where audience votes will move artist-contestants through elimination rounds. Lastly, an after-party at the 39th Street Gallery will allow guests to mingle amidst the art of Martha Jackson Jarvis and will feature a raffle of artwork by Laurie Breen, whose studio is located in the building.
Given her organization’s mission, Bernard views the arts as a catalyst for neighborhood change. For the G-CDC, organizing and staging this event is not only a labor of love but a moment to showcase the level of connectivity between artists and the greater community along the Route One corridor. “There is such a linkage with how arts are positioned within the district and how the community as a whole develops,” she tells me. Her overarching goal is to show developers and small-scale entrepreneurs looking for opportunities that engaging artists and art-related entities will enrich their development plans in ways that are not possible in other areas. Viewed through that lens, this event marks a moment for artists to flex their creative muscles and highlight what makes the arts district so dynamic.
The notion that “the arts” can be used to spawn creative development is not new – East City Art has been covering similar changes in neighborhoods such as Anacostia, H Street and Brookland– but my hunch is that individual artists may not view their work through this catalyst lens. To test that hypothesis and explore why artists choose to participate in events like these, I reached out to Margaret Boozer, founder and director of Red Dirt Studios, located in Mount Rainier. Founded in 1996, Red Dirt Studios is an incubator, exhibition space and studio all neatly combined into one large building which currently houses 13 artists.
Boozer has had a front seat to the transformation of the neighborhood from both an economic and an artistic perspective. Artists working in the area were arranging informal open studio tours back in the 90’s, but it was not coordinated into a cohesive, “branded” event until ten years ago when the G-CDC was developed. One of the main benefits from her perspective is the way that this yearly event has really made artists visible to each other in the neighborhood. In the past, artists were mainly working independently in studios, but with the advent of planned openings, artists began to make connections and, ten years later, we can see a very engaged community, aware of its own social and political clout.
As it turns out, her reasons for participating every year really do dovetail with the work of the G-CDC. Boozer contends that one of the unique characteristics of the area is that widely-known, professional artists are working alongside serious hobbyists, and these regular open studio tours encourage “cross pollination” of ideas allowing artists to open their personal and professional networks. In this regard, the Open Studio Tour is a professional networking event as well as a chance to showcase work. As such, she’s been able to cultivate relationships that have led to business collaborations and sales long after the tours have ended.
Boozer also tells me that showcasing the strength of the artistic community in the Gateway Arts District is imperative if the artists wish to remain in this area long-term. Changes are taking place, and given the shear concentration of artists living and working in the district, the arts community is in a position to steer that development in ways that celebrate and promote the arts. But they have to show up- “If you’re not involved, someone else is going to make decisions for you,” Boozer notes.
Indeed artists are stepping up and heeding the call and in many cases discovering that artistic and entrepreneurial mindsets go hand in hand. A great example of this is Art Lives Here, a visibility campaign developed in 2011 that encourages local artists to invigorate their neighboring business districts. This initiative is a great example of the ways in which local artists can harness the power of local political and nonprofit entities in an effort to place the arts at the forefront of neighborhood redevelopment.
In the end my hunch was proven incorrect which is humbling but also reassuring. It is exciting to watch artists develop their business acumen along with their craft and taking control of their community in the process. I hope visitors will get a sense of that shift as they walk from studio to studio on Saturday May 10.