Union Arts & Manufacturing to continue without founder

October 16, 2013

Union Arts & Manufacturing didn’t work out the way Mike Abrams planned. But the arts and music studio project just might work anyway.

Abrams converted two of the four floors of an industrial building at 411 New York Ave. NE into workspaces for artists and musicians, which opened at the end of March. But barely six months later, Abrams was out, unable to keep current on the rent to the structure’s owner, Harris LLC. That leaves the arts entrepreneur’s plans in doubt, but he remains hopeful that much of what he intended will continue.

“I succeeded in getting additional studios in D.C.,” Abrams said, “but my failure was just to finance it well. Everything for me was out of pocket. It was all my time. I did the build-out. I did the leasing.”

Some Union Arts tenants followed Abrams from a building on I Street NW near Mount Vernon Square, known informally as Gold Leaf Studios. (This name referred to a business that had previously moved out.)

Abrams, a Corcoran-trained sculptor, ran the I Street studios for 13 years. They closed in January 2012, after the structure was sold for redevelopment. Union Arts was designed to replace the previous building as a home for art and rehearsal studios, as well as under-the-radar performances.


Musician Luke Stewart, left, and hip-hop producer Jamal Gray, both tenants in the building. (Mark Jenkins)

The tenants Abrams brought to the building are still there, and the project’s initiator continues to work on its Web site. “I want to keep the connections alive,” he said.

“We’re talking about starting an organization that would manage things” at Union Arts, said Luke Stewart, a multi-instrumentalist who plays bass with both an alt-rock band, Laughing Man, and a jazz group, OOO (pronounced “Tri-O Trio”).

Stewart’s space is on the building’s third floor, once home to the Warehouse Loft, an after-hours club that could get rowdy. Part of the former nightspot survives as a common area with a kitchen, but Abrams divided much of it into individual studios.

The bassist shares the floor with such artists as sculptor Wendy Lehman and painter Carolyn Reece-Tomlin, as well as Jamal Gray, a hip-hop producer and promoter. Gray said he plans performances and light shows, but also one-off art exhibitions and even an artist-in-residence program.

The opening concert of this year’s Sonic Circuits festival, which featured Stewart, happened this month at Union Arts. Yet the building is “primarily a workspace,” the musician noted. “Sure, we have events, but that’s not the main focus. We want to legitimize it as an arts center.”

That was part of Abrams’s blueprint. “I wanted a one-stop place, sort of like the Torpedo Factory” in Alexandria, he said. “D.C. doesn’t have that.”

But he also wanted to organize a latter-day crafts guild, bringing together painters, sculptors, videographers, printmakers, photographers and technicians for possible collaborations. That’s reflected in his name for the undertaking.

“You’ve got Union Station and Union Market,” said Abrams, referring to the nearby upscale consumer food hall. “So I go, ‘Union Arts.’ Then I say, ‘manufacturing,’ because I want people to understand that artists are, in fact, manufacturers of goods. That name is the way to say, ‘This is a business like any other business.’ ”

By maintaining and expanding the Web site, Abrams hopes to further that model, even if he doesn’t manage the building that houses it. “I think that, regardless of having a brick-and-mortar place, I can get that group, with all those skill sets, together to operate and function as a business.”

Among Abrams’s immediate concerns is paying the back rent from the period when he was renovating part of the structure. So it’s hardly surprising that he still emphasizes the “manufacturing” part of his concept.

“I want the artists themselves to say, ‘Hey, I can be part of a team and have a business that makes money.’ So we get away from this idea of starving artists. That’s really the main goal, and I think it’s still workable.”

Union Arts & Manufacturing will host an open-studio event Nov. 9 from noon to 6 p.m. Visit www.unionartsdc.com for information.

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