Karen Joan Topping on the Corcoran Acquisition of the Randall School
Last Thursday I mentioned the acquisition of the Randall School by the Corcoran and asked to hear from some of the MAC artists who have studios there, since there have been some past issues between them and the acquisition process. So far Ellyn Weiss has responded and now Karen Joan Topping has the following to say:
Mr. C, thanks for giving us the incentive to speak our minds. This is a little long - I could not resist a "Dylan Thomasy" sort of response, considering my feelings for my time at the Randall School.
You mentioned that DC's lack of affordable studio space was a factor in the deal with the Corcoran to include space for practicing artists in their plan. While no one would argue that financial and real estate issues have touched everyone in the past five years, personally I think that the Randall School community of artists and our cultural presence is of equal importance in explaining what lead us into this Jonah & the Whale scenario.
When I saw the artists that were residents in the building when I was a prospective renter 3-4 years ago, I knew I had to get in on this space. There were a number of artists that I really respected by reputation and work that had just recently cut the graduate school cord and had taken DC by storm. There were artists that I knew as bastions of the Downtown Art Scene in the 80's and 90's, that had had their studios over the porn and wig shops across from the National Portrait Gallery. Back in the day, this group had put on events of smaller scale but greater intensity than almost anything that's been seen at Art-o-Matic. Not surprisingly, many of these people now work their asses-off to make Art-O-Matic's possible.
Lastly there were plenty of people like me; not legendary, not the toast of the town; but with work ethic and solid bodies of work that appeals to some little niche otherwise we would not keep doing it.) Really, at the core that's what almost every resident of the Millennium Art Center (MAC) was, that kind of community is often harder to come by then available space.
Unfortunately when I became a renter at MAC the future of the building as studios, let alone an art center, was already on shaky ground. I was lucky to have my studio in one of the older parts of the building; Randall is a beautiful and old building and honestly it would not have lasted much longer without a deal like this happening. I hope the developers are held to refurbishing as much as they are allowed to demolish.
I had tried to rent studios in the preceding years and had not been successful. I once lost a space to a former employee because the landlord said his voice was on his answering machine before mine. The competition for individually leased spaces was and is high. Most artists are not willing or capable of taking on a lease and responsibility for the bankroll and slum-lording it takes to get the rent paid for an entire floor of a mid-century office building or an unused warehouse, let alone a 6.5 million complex of school buildings. Income statements, credit reports are as much a part of getting a studio as a "regular" person renting or buying a house or apartment.
There is studio space is out there, but there is sorry little initiative out there from investors and agencies that could afford to cut up larger spaces and offer them for fair prices. This was what was on the table at MAC, the opportunity for renting a studio - not having to become a landlord too.
While I've barely left the building, I'm nostalgic for the neighborhood already. Many of the remaining artists had been tenants for close to ten years, I can't imagine how they feel. I'm concerned that this project is a positive move for the neighborhood. There is a lot of public assistance housing in the neighborhood and it needs an art center that is going to reach out to the community more than anything.
Many other mixed use development projects seem stalled in this neighborhood and the Corcoran has not been very forthcoming about exactly what's going on with their project. I'm concerned that this project gets off the ground and doesn't become another shipwreck in the "Corcoran Triangle". Like the large historic church that sits behind the Randall building, it could end up sitting there boarded up for a decade which would break a lot of hearts.
There are only a few entities that can presume taking on a building that fills a city block and a leadership role in supporting a community of more than thirty artists and at least two non-profits; think about it, that's bigger than most graduate schools.
Private entities and city governments come to the top of my mind as good candidates.
The Corcoran has already put some roadblocks in the way of establishing good relations with the artists and the SW community. With the Gehry building not happening, it's hard to say what they have in mind.
Given that these are my feelings at the present moment, why would I presume that the Corcoran would be open to truly working in consort with the community, the government and private investors to create a truly visionary art center that could eclipse the Gehry or a ubiquitous mixed-use development. Outstanding not because of what it looks like or how financially good it looks on paper but in the positive and supportive impact it has on the community and the city. I know that running a museum or any arts organization is not a cakewalk, but I wish I could have more faith in the Corcoran assuming a role that maximizes the leadership role by at least trying to bring in the resources and a spirit of community and communication and could really make something happen.
I am willing to admit, it’s a little unfair to saddle our ‘local’ museum with this huge responsibility when they really do need to fix their school. Sadly, I think it took this bleak lack of faith to spur the Ex-MAC community get organized. If it’s not prudent for the Corcoran to do it, listen up isn’t there “someone” else out there that sees what I am talking about and can step up to the challenge? Stay tuned. Ex-mac'rs will hopefully be having a celebration of some sort in the spring in the hope that we can galvanize much more of the DC community to support art, artists and the positive investment that art is to the city as a whole.
Karen Joan Topping