Discovering Takoma’s hidden arts district
By Bob Guldin
In recent years, city planners around the country have begun paying attention to the ways art and artists can revitalize a neighborhood. In Maryland for example, nearby Hyattsville has launched an “arts district” with studios, galleries and performance spaces.
But few Takoma neighbors are aware of our own hidden arts district — the DC Arts Studios — where close to 100 artists paint, sculpt, work with computer graphics, dance, teach and form a creative community that has been thriving for over 30 years.
In a way, it’s not surprising that the DC Arts Studios are not more famous. They are tucked away in a large, rambling, yellow brick building at 6925 Willow Street, N.W. – one of several solid edifices built on that block by the Seventh Day Adventist Church early in the last century. As the church gradually moved its business and printing operations out of the city, other organizations moved in.
Douglas Development, a real estate company that also owns much of the surrounding property, bought the building, and DC Arts Studios has been renting from them since 1983. You can see what they’re all about at dcartsstudios. org or www.facebook.com/DcArtsStudios.
Art for the canvas and the stage
The Willow Street building houses not only studios for individual artists; it also contains arts organizations of all sizes and descriptions. If you enter from the street, you’ll immediately encounter TheLab.DC, a breakdancing school and program for kids and adults. Headed by Antonio Castillo, the Lab offers breaking not only as a dance form but as a competitive sport. “I founded the league,” says Castillo. “I’m the guy. I’ve been doing it for 19 years.” Castillo is about to take his team on its first tour this summer.
Castillo is pleased that his classes attract all kinds of young people – girls, boys, black, white, Jewish, Hispanic. “We try to do competitions that are accepting and friendly,” he says. “A lot of kids have studied martial arts, but they don’t have free expression. That’s what they learn here.”
Also part of the DC Arts community: Knock on Wood, a tap dancing studio and school for kids and adults, and Art Options, a church-related group which offers art therapy to people with disabilities. Topping it off, though not part of DC Arts, is the thriving and prestigious Washington National Opera, which performs at the Kennedy Center and which has a full floor for its workshops, props and costumes at Willow Street.
The heart of the DC Arts Studios, however, is the working artists. At any given time, between 70 and 80 artists are renting studio space, which generally involves becoming part of the artists’ community as well. Currently, the studios are almost full to capacity … though the website shows two possible vacancies in case you’re interested.
The studios have a gallery on the first floor, which exhibits work of artist-members. It is open regularly to the public from noon to 2 p.m. on Sundays, which overlaps with the nearby Farmers Market.
We went on a tour of the studios, led by interim director Becky Borlan and Board Member and Treasurer Juliet Morey, and found lots of friendly artists at work and ready to chat about their unconventional workspace.
The range of artists is wide and broad. Some have shown their work nationally, and others are just getting started. They include painters, illustrators, costume designers, photographers, metalworkers, video and sound engineers, screen printers and muralists.
“We help artists get exposure. I’ve seen many artists move up.” —Kristina Bialock
People spoke about the friendships and sense of community the artists have forged, the reasonable rents, the 24- hour access, and the way colleagues are often available to lend a hand, a tool, or a critical eye.
George Koch, a painter who started DC Arts Studios in 1979, explains that unlike other Eastern cities, Washington never had a big industrial base that could be recycled into artists’ studios. So over the years, artists have had a real problem finding or creating studios, or finding landlords who would rent to them.
That’s why Koch organized a cooperative organization of artists. “I found if I had 40 artists together, it gave me some bargaining power with the landlords. Plus, it enabled the artists to manage the building themselves.” The organization – it started out as “a.salon.ltd” – had its first studio space in Georgetown. There it cooperated with the Corcoran School, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and other downtown arts programs.
But as rental space in central DC became more expensive and hard to find, the DC Arts Studios moved to Takoma, attracted by the Metro access and the funky neighborhood feel.
Koch says, “When we moved in, we had to do a major buildout, dealing with industrial equipment, building spaces for studios.” (The Willow Street building still has old conveyor belts tucked away in corners.)
Kristina Bialock, who was the director of the studios for the last three years, says that they add a lot to Takoma Park. “Remember, there are 80 artists who shop and dine in Takoma Park.”
“We also work closely with Laura Barclay (of Main Street Takoma) in December and May; we put on pre-holiday shows and participate in ArtHop, a city-sponsored invitation to the public to visit many artists.”
Bialock notes that Douglas Jamal, the senior head of Douglas Development, “gave us a great deal on the space for 35 years.” But, she says, “The rent is gradually escalating to more of a market rent. It will inevitably go up.” But the studios do have a five-year lease, which keeps things stable for the immediate future.
DC Arts Studios are a good value for the artists, Bialock says. “We try to offer below-market rates for commercial space. There’s a shortage of what we offer; there’s not much studio space in the city. For $200 to $1,000 a month, we offer a mailing address, a place to meet clients. And we help artists get exposure – we have open studio events. I’ve seen many artists move up.”
Bialock says the studios plan to increase their gallery space, and sponsor more wine and cheese receptions in the coming months.
This article appeared in the July 2015 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.