Why call it the Downtown Arts District if there are no artists in it? That's the question being asked by painter Stuart Gosswein and a score of other artists who may be forced to move out of their downtown spaces in upcoming months.
Gosswein and 16 other professional artists of the Downtown Artists Coalition (DAC) maintain studios in three historic buildings in the 900 block of F Street NW. Over the years, they've watched as artist-friendly buildings have disappeared from downtown, one by one. Now it seems their buildings are next--and possibly the last.
Washington's history of downtown artist studios stretches back to Mathew Brady, the Civil War-era photographer whose work space was located at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. "Whereas other U.S. cities have a healthy supply of warehouse and commercial structures that can be used for studios, Washington has a short supply," Gosswein says. Some of the best artist spaces in the area, he notes, are downtown. "The spaces have high ceilings. Some even have elevators."
However, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which owns the F Street buildings, is planning to lease the site to the John Akridge Cos., which will raze all but the facades in order to erect an 11-story retail-office complex. The city's Historic Preservation Review Board has approved the archdiocese's plans. Now the case is under consideration by a city administrative law judge, who will decide the fate of the buildings--and the artists in them--by the end of the summer.
Along with dozens of downtown artists, the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 for the Federal City oppose the development. A letter filed by the organizations with administrative law judge Rohulamin Quander argues, "This case could open the door to the demolition of numerous historic structures in order to build more profitable office buildings simply by making token contributions to worthy causes--an unacceptable outcome from a preservation standpoint."
Gosswein finds that outcome unacceptable from the artistic standpoint as well. He points out a clause from the 1998 law that established the Downtown Arts District. The clause codifies city policy to "Encourage the development of an ample and varied supply of spaces for artists including living, studio, performance and gallery spaces."
Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs says the church is not out to displace downtown artists. "The church has been a supporter of the arts--in this region and elsewhere--throughout the last 2,000 years. But developing the property would provide funds to support Catholic Charities' mission to the poor."
"In this case the church is ready to toss artists out in the street," Gosswein counters. "We're all in love with our spaces," he adds. "We like to think we're contributing to the flavor of the Arts District."
Women & Their Warts
Another artist who rages against the machine is singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, known for those dreads, that voice and her do-it-yourself-or-die attitude. If you missed her Monday night show at Wolf Trap, all is not lost. She's featured in the documentary "Warts & All," by local filmmaker Linda Duvoisin, which premieres tonight at Studio 650. "Warts & All" profiles five women with very different backgrounds. "I was trying to document a certain kind of passion about life," says Duvoisin, an award-winning producer for the Discovery and Learning channels.
Duvoisin started by capturing the folk tales of Jimmie Woodruff, 81, who worked as a housekeeper and nanny for Duvoisin's family in Chattanooga. "Then it seemed interesting to get other people into the conversation," she says. During the course of five years, she filmed New Mexico artist Myrtle Stedman and Special Agents Julie Brunzell and Linda Finney of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Of DiFranco, Duvoisin recalls that she "heard Ani's music in a small bar where she was playing, and it seemed like the musical version of Jimmie." The filmmaker approached DiFranco's record company, Righteous Babe, which hired Duvoisin to shoot concerts and in return allowed the use of clips for the documentary.
Though her five subjects never met, Duvoisin decided to edit as if they shared a round table on the big topics: love, sex, work, God. The women "have this spirit, this fight in them," she offers. "They're all passionate about what they do and they can articulate it well in a story. That's the only thing they have in common. I purposely chose people who're very different so it'd be a conversation they'd never have otherwise."
Warts & All will be screened tonight at 8 at Studio 650, 650 Massachusetts Ave. NW. It will be preceded by a reception at 7 and the screening of "Every Night and Twice on Monday" at 7:30. Call 202-408-0900.
CAPTION: Downtown studios with high ceilings are favored by artists like painter Stuart Gosswein.