Jackson Center Artists Pursue Long-Term Lease

Photo by Brian Kapur/Current file photo
The former Jackson School has housed studio space for local artists since the 1980s.
The former Jackson School has housed studio space for local artists since the 1980s.

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

As recently as March, the Jackson Art Center in Georgetown faced uncertain prospects.

The nonprofit has for years managed space for affordable artists’ studios in a former public school at 3048 R St. NW. But its lease with the city was set to expire in June 2016, and the historic building was showing signs of disrepair inside and out.

Now, following a concerted effort to reach out to the D.C. government and the surrounding community, the center is in a far more stable position for the future, according to several members of the nonprofit’s board of directors. The city has extended the lease until 2018, and negotiations are underway for a much longer lease of 10 or 20 years.

Members of the art center have said the risk of a lease expiring not only would put in question their place in the community, but also would make it difficult to make long-term investments in the aging building. Artists who work on projects or teach classes in the building have dealt with floods, squirrels in the attic and faulty boilers. Renovations over the past few years included replacing parts of the roof and a boiler, installing a safety alarm system and repairing nearly all of the building’s windows, according to board of directors member Simma Liebman.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to use rent credits to pay for most of the work, but there is still a lot to do,” Liebman wrote in an email. “We are proud of our stewardship so far, but it’s been a struggle.”

Liebman is in the process of moving to Maryland’s Eastern Shore with her husband, leaving the studio behind after 27 years. She said she’ll miss the support of her fellow artists.

“It was my sanctuary, very conducive to painting. In fact, last year when we renovated all the windows in the building, I was awed by the exquisite light that I never realized I was missing,” Liebman wrote of her studio. “And I will always cherish the JAC artists who were as committed as I was to making JAC a vibrant center for working artists.”

The art center has occupied the old Jackson School building since the 1980s, when city officials opted to lease the building to local artists as studio space. The artists banded together to form the nonprofit Jackson Art Center collective in 2000.

The process of securing the building for the long haul has brought the center’s artists closer together, board of directors member and artist Nancy Siebert Murphy said in an interview.

“We’ve gotten more cohesive and feel more like a true arts center,” Murphy said.

Reed Smith lawyer Gary Thompson, who’s working with the Jackson Art Center on the lease issue pro bono, said the city ought to extend the center’s lease as a demonstration of its commitment to the arts.

“Right now Jackson is a wonderful, quiet place that adds to the arts in D.C. in a very rich and valuable way,” he said. “The community does not want to see that replaced with a large multistory condominium development that would add parking and density to the neighborhood.”

Thompson said the extension effort has received letters of support from the Citizens Association of Georgetown and the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission.

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans’ office declined to comment about the lease process.

Now, with the future set for the time being, the artists are gearing up to welcome visitors Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. for their biannual Open Studios event, an open house for members of the public to look at and potentially purchase the artists’ finished products. One table will showcase donated artwork for sale, with proceeds going to the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, an organization that nurtures D.C. children in temporary housing programs.

Such community outreach is key going forward, according to board president Karen Ruckman.

“We’re very good for the city,” Ruckman said. “We give back and we’re very grateful to have this wonderful building.”

This article appears in the Nov. 11 edition of The Georgetown Current newspaper.