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Last showing

Fight goes on, but F Street artists prepare to lose downtown studios to wrecking ball

(Published May 22, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The current show at the 505 Gallery just south of MCI Center on Seventh Street NW is an eclectic grouping of paintings, photographs and sculpture. And the show’s opening reception May 18 drew an equally eclectic crowd of community activists, art lovers and historic preservationists.

It is billed "The last showing of the F Street artists," not because the artists are quitting the business en masse, but because soon there may be no artist space on F Street, and thus no more F Street artists. The show was not so much a last hurrah for the soon-to-be-displaced artists as a show of perseverance on their part.

Through a technicality in D.C. law, the Archdiocese of Washington was issued demolition permits that allow them to destroy most of the last remaining row of low-density commercial buildings that made up the turn-of-the-century downtown business district.

Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation Rohulamin Quander ruled Nov. 9 that the church’s proposed 11-story office complex did not qualify for a special exemption from historic preservation laws. The only problem was that Quander missed a new 60-day deadline to file his opinion and when the archdiocese appealed based on that technicality, city lawyers decided they would not fight the appeal.

After raze permits were issued Jan. 31 preservationists and a group of artists in the buildings filed a lawsuit to have the raze permits revoked and Quander’s original decision upheld. That lawsuit is still pending.

Michael Berman, founder and president of the Downtown Arts Coalition, said the group is not giving up its fight to save the buildings that house their studios. He said the group has reached an agreement with the John Akridge Cos., who will be developing the site for the church, that would allow the artists to remain in their studios until construction begins. Berman estimates that buys the artists another nine months to a year before they would have to relocate.

Stuart Gosswein said that even if the artists are forced to leave downtown, the fight they put on now will help others throughout the city who face similar situations.

"The longer we can keep in their faces and keep them negotiating, the better it is for artists in the long run," he said. He mentioned artists in the so-called NoMa area north of Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest could face the same problem as developers seek to build up that area near the new convention center.

Berman’s work on display at the gallery most overtly revealed the underlying politics of the situation. A series of multimedia paintings called "F Street Lament" depicts the endangered buildings on the block nearly obliterated by red spray paint that bleeds down the canvases. One of the paintings from that series was the first piece sold at the show.

On the opposite wall of the gallery, Jen Semo’s photos make a more subtle point. Her black and white photos of the block are reminiscent of early daguerreotypes or pinhole camera photography that give the scenes an antique feel. The photos look like they were shot around the turn of the century, about the time the buildings in them were built.

In all, 16 artists’ works are shown at the gallery. They are all of the artists with working studios in the Downtown Arts District — if the Catholic church gets it’s way, they will be the last group of artists downtown.

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The exhibit runs through May 31 at 505 Gallery, 505 7th St. NW. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator