Priced Out: Can Philanthropy Keep D.C. Artists Within City Limits?

Washington, D.C. is the quintessential "company town," though the company in question is the U.S. federal government. And as long as the spigot of federal dollars remains open, all is (relatively) well inside the Beltway.

In fact, it's precisely because of the federal government — and, more specifically, two wars and taxpayer stimulus — that the district was able to weather the Great Recession better than its big-city counterparts. Unemployment remained low. The housing market rebounded. Development exploded.

But as New York magazine noted, that federal spigot closed around 2010. As a result, Washington’s economy slowed down just as the rest of the country's picked up. The city is still in decent shape, all things considered — after all, the federal government isn't packing up and moving back to Philadelphia any time soon — and yet this slowdown has done nothing to reduce rents or stem the exodus of longtime residents to more affordable suburbs.

In short, just like their brethren in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Portland, it's becoming increasingly difficult to be an artist in Washington, D.C. "There’s almost no free space and very little affordable space in the city," said S&R Foundation COO Kate Goodall. And so Goodall's Washington, D.C.-based grantmaker is doing something about it.

The S&R Foundation is offering 10 local artists six months of free space in the Fillmore School in Georgetown under its new Studios Program. Specifically, the foundation is looking for artists who are "engaged with social issues and/or seek to inspire social change through their art." (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Eligible disciplines include visual, performing and culinary arts and fashion. Applicants must be district residents and at least 21 years old. Those who are accepted must participate in an exhibition at the end of the six-month program.

The application deadline is April 6. Applications are available here.

For foundations concerned about the lack of affordable artist space in rapidly gentrifying cities, S&R's program is a lesson in simplicity: Just buy a building yourself. S&R purchased the Georgetown property in June 2015 from George Washington University, which had acquired it in the court-approved breakup of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

What's more, the timing of the purchase is cloaked in symbolism. Earlier this year, a developer purchased the home of Union Arts, the last collective art space of its kind in the city, and announced the property would be converted into a boutique hotel. Faced with public backlash, developers said the space would "keep supporting local arts and culture" through a partnership with the nonprofit CulturalDC.

But the damage was done, and so the S&R Foundation acted. "We felt the urgency of the climate," Goodall said. "We want to fill the gap as soon as possible."