By Rae Red
As a touring artist and performer, I have relied on every type of space to house my work, often for just one night, with generous and open arms to help me make gas money and put food in my belly until the next stop at the next space the next night. I have performed in venues, art galleries, churches, parks and warehouses, gorgeous theatres and small black boxes, institutions, museums, and homes. I am a non-discerning touring artist: if you will host me and support my work with a stipend or a cut of the door, I will be there with my trusted overhead projector to give you my best offering of song and shadow puppetry, dancing, and painting my face for you.
I have found myself in some strange, unforgettable places on the road, like the back of a donut shop in Nebraska where I played an all-ages show, or the time that I did not have a place to stay after a show in Oregon, and a woman generously opened up her beautiful home to me. The last five summers I have spent traversing US highways, seeking out special spaces to perform. I have a deep admiration for the people who run these spaces. I especially love non-traditional artist-run spaces that are made for and by artists who are making their own way on their own terms. In the following, I will discuss three models of spaces: artist- and community-driven, live/work, and capitalist/revenue-based models. Even though these spaces may not be the most well known in the DIY music and art scene, they provide good examples of different approaches to non-traditional space being implemented right now.
Artist- and Community-Driven Spaces: Rhizome DC and 2640 Space
Underground spaces helped raise me in Albuquerque, where spaces came and went, which seems to be the nature of non-traditional spaces. They ebb and flow based on location, cost of rent, and burn out. However, I have noticed in recent years that in larger cities where the cost of living is skyrocketing (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, for example), these spaces are simply disappearing, with little replacement.
Rising rents mean spaces either have to embrace capitalist ideals and charge more for people’s participation—which inevitably excludes the types of community they proport to foster—or they are simply forced to shut down. There is an increasing trend of large real estate developers buying up blocks of real estate and either tearing them down to build condominiums or allowing them to stay vacant until someone with enough capital to meet their inflated prices purchases them, which can take decades. Allowing properties to sit vacant forces out people who might otherwise occupy those spaces as homes, businesses or arts spaces. In an article titled Who Owns Our Cities – And Why This Urban Takeover Should Concern Us All (first published in The Guardian in 2015), Saskia Sassen writes that “Proliferating urban gigantism has been strengthened and enabled by the privatizations and deregulations that took off in the 1990s across much of the world, and have continued since then with only a few interruptions. The overall effect has been a reduction in public buildings, and an escalation in large, corporate private ownership.” The effect urban privatization has on art spaces is two-fold: not only does it force folks out of cheaper neighborhoods, but it narrows the pool of available spaces causing rents to rise. This obviously effects everyone, not just artists.
In my travels this past summer, I noticed that the spaces that gave me the most hope and excitement were all in smaller cities and towns such as Baltimore, Providence, Pittsburgh and Catskill, NY, where cost of living has not yet made it difficult to obtain a space. Also, in larger, more expensive cities, it seems that spaces are oversaturated with performers in the few venues that survived or hopping from one space to the next as they open and close at a dizzying speed. Because of these factors, I have found that house shows are on the rise in larger cities.
Rhizome, a lovely venue, gallery, and artist residency in a historic house on the border of DC and Tacoma Park, MD, is overwhelmed by the demand of artists. Layne Garrett, Rhizome’s director, said that his biggest surprise in opening the space was how much of a demand there is. The collective initially intended for the old house to be primarily a gallery for visual artists to display their work and hold workshops, but because of the high demand for space in that area, they host one to three music shows every day of the week, with artists on the wait list. This makes me wonder about the viability of maintaining a thriving arts scene in cities like DC when it seems that developers and investors have made it near-impossible for low-income artists to live and work there.
2640 Space in Baltimore is a similar story: they are a noncommercial, collectively-managed space for radical politics & grassroots culture that has been around since 2006. Partnering with a Methodist church, 2640 centers their mission around activism and providing a home to community meetings. They also host about one music show a week, with abundant interest for exhibitions and plays.
Live/Work Spaces: Dirt Palace
When my tour buddy and I walked up to Dirt Palace, Xander Marro was waiting nonchalantly on the stoop of the fairly nondescript building on a busy street in Providence, RI. It seemed nondescript until I noticed the gorgeous intricate stonework façade, a strange lumpy and colorful window display (an installation by an artist-in-residence), and a merry-go-round horse in place of a sign. Dirt Palace is a two-decade old feminist-run warehouse space that is supported by the city government, a future plan, not-for-profit status, and full financial and structural transparency. I had stars in my eyes the whole time we were touring, oohing and awing at the silkscreen shop, music room, artist studios, library, communal kitchen, stage, and living spaces. Then we walked a few blocks away to the Wedding Cake House, the new project space run by Xander and Pippi Zornoza, which is essentially the Dirt Palace for artists of older generations.
What I love about these spaces is that they have maintained their original model of supporting feminist artists by providing affordable live/work space, facilities, shared resources, opportunities, and a culture of cooperation. They have functioned as an incubator for over 40 woman artists over 19 years, while also evolving from an entirely cis-woman-run space to being more expansive around gender and trans-inclusivity. Simultaneously, they are growing into a more refined “adult” space. This notion of spaces growing to fit the needs of the communities they serve exemplifies my ideas around space as evolving, self-aware structures of support for artists by artists. I yearn for more spaces like this existed to exist in the world. Let’s make more!
Capitalist/Revenue-Driven Spaces: HiLo and The Pharmacy
There are also spaces that are trying to be both ideological and capitalist, to varying degrees of “success.” Take The Pharmacy, for example. Despite the fact that the venue hosts almost one show per day, it supports artists by providing a stage and sound, but nothing more. The money made at the shows does not end up benefiting the artists that procure it, but instead goes to pay the space’s rent, which has risen thanks to gentrification.
HiLo in Catskill, NY, run by Laura Davidson and Liam Singer, seems to be striking a balance between community support and capitalism. They have a traditional business plan and operate a small café during the day while hosting community events at night. They also have expanded by running The Avalon Lounge, a restaurant and bar venue. Unlike The Pharmacy, they have more flexibility in their structure. They offer community support by hosting meetings, gatherings, and music and art shows at no cost to the artists. Though they provide support for their community, they still function primarily within an individualist and capitalist flavor.
I am proposing reimagining the idea of success in an art space away from profit and towards supporting artists and building communities, while not taking advantage of free labor from creatives. Most of these spaces are built upon ideologies, community, survival, and support. A well-functioning space abolishes the idea of the starving artist through sharing resources. I am interested in the spaces that ebb and flow around the shapes of people’s lives, and the spaces that are emblems of right now, this moment, in the towns and cities they take up space in. These spaces – temporary or long-term — are evolving with society and are essential for the continual transformation of arts culture. People are excited about making things with their friends and holding space for creativity and performance, for traveling artists and musicians. While none are perfect, each space has its own story and mission and viability in our ever- capitalist world. I am excited to see the artist spaces of the future as we continually and creatively adapt to our ever-changing surroundings.
Rae Red is a traveling performer currently based out of Baltimore, MD. Red encourages laughter in the face of darkness by translating everyday realities into play. Their work exposes the magic and wonder within our daily functions, from the wizardry of sight and color theory, to the way water invisibly flows like a ghost within the walls.