Where The Arts Go Home To Play

Affordable lofts offer creative communities for local artists of all stripes

May 24, 2013

D.C. resident Marquita Mangum checks out the jewelry on offer from the artists who live at the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts.

It’s an eclectic set of wares for sale at 3311 Rhode Island Ave. in Mount Rainier, Md.

Vendors offer up sneakers bedazzled in pink and gold jewels, Mondrian-patterned quilts and coats printed with lush African designs. Folk-art portraits dot the walls. Shoppers browse in tune with a cappella spirituals performed live by a choir near the front door.

It’s just another day in the life of the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts (3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md.; 301-927-3586), which offers 44 live/work spaces for artists, performers and even hairdressers in Prince George’s County. It is just one of a handful of apartment complexes that caters to the city’s creative class.

Lucky residents of Mount Rainier Artist Lofts pay well below market rate for their apartments. In exchange, artists regularly open their studios to the public and host social events. Many also teach art classes at local schools.

The chance to interact with other artists is what first attracted Joanna Lawrence, 65, to the Artist Lofts; she’s lived there for eight years. “I really like the idea of being around other types of artists,” says the landscape and ink artist. “At the same time, it means living with singers performing at 2:30 in the morning or making noise at all hours of the night.”

Still, she loves the opportunity to see singers, dancers and muralists do their thing.

“It’s exhilarating,” she says.

That’s the goal, says Joe Butler, a project manager at Artspace, a community and arts organization that acts as the property manager for two buildings that cater to artists — the Mount Rainier spot and another community in Brookland.

To apply, artists must present a portfolio of their work and interview with current residents and Artspace employees. The selection committee looks for candidates who are committed to their craft and willing to participate in events.

“We’re trying to build a community,” Butler says. “It’s good for the neighborhood and the artists.”

Artspace designed its units specifically with artists in mind. Its apartments have lots of natural light to work by; large open spaces and high ceilings to accommodate equipment; and countertops and floors that can take some abuse. It also means shrinking some amenities that nonartists would be attracted to, such as the kitchen.

“We’ve found that our artists would rather have space that is unassigned that they can set up in whatever way they want,” Butler says. “Our units are usually 15 percent larger than a standard affordable housing unit. We want to build in the space to practice the craft.”

Creating affordable housing for artists has become especially important in the past five years, when the average rent in the Washington metro area jumped 25 percent. “Without affordable housing, artists couldn’t afford to live in the city,” Butler says.

Organizations such as Artspace keep monthly fees low by building units that qualify as affordable housing, which means they are eligible for government grants.

Not having to pay for a separate studio helps, too.

“There’s an economic benefit with a live/work space,” says Juanita Hardy, executive director of the arts organization CulturalDC.

Of course, some artists prefer not to live where they work, and new developments in D.C. cater to those looking to rent a workspace only.

The Brookland Works development (701 Monroe St. NE, 866-339-1487), scheduled to open this summer, is a traditional apartment complex that will also rent 27 artist studios, along with performance spaces and galleries.

Mike Henehan, vice president of the Bozzuto Development Company that runs the project, says many of the studios are not cookie-cutter. The reason, he says, is that a painter might want a different kind of space than a photographer. And to ease the financial burden artists’ face, the units are “priced at a cost-effective level,” he says.

It’s not only the artists who benefit from these arrangements. Neighborhoods that offer a vibrant arts scene attract visitors. Those visitors, in turn, invigorate new bars, restaurants and other amenities.

“Artists bring more disposable income” to a neighborhood, says Duane Gautier, CEO of ARCH Development Corporation, which operates six artist units in Anacostia and Congress Heights.

“Residents want more commerce, more restaurants and places to visit,” Gautier says. “Bringing in artists and new housing helps with that.”

 

At Home With Art

Artist live/work spaces are peppered throughout the city. Here’s a list of the options in the Washington area:

52 O Street Studios: This four-story brick warehouse was converted into apartments in 1978. Today, artists rent out the 30 live/work spaces, which range from 250 to more than 1,000 square feet. (52 O Street NW)

Brookland Artspace Lofts: The lofts started as a modern dance space. Today, you can still find the Dance Place company, along with 41 affordable units that are a mix of residential and studio space. (3225 Eighth St. NE; 301-927-3586)

Loree Grand at Union Place: This Bozzuto property, located in NOMA, is made up mostly of luxury apartments. But 30 units have been set aside as live/work studios. (250 K St. NE; 866-308-6212)

ARCH Development Corporation: ARCH operates a small number of live/work rentals for artists in Anacostia. (1227 Good Hope Road SE)

Mount Rainier Artist Lofts: 40 affordable units in the Gateway Arts District. Property managers keep the definition of “artist” intentionally broad — hairdressers, dancers and performance artists are welcome. (3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md.)

Amanda Erickson is deputy editor of PostEverything.
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