Why There Is No Time For Forgotten History

JORDAN MARTIN

In an exhibition entitled D.C. Dirt at the Museum of Temporary Art (MOTA), sediment from D.C. neighborhoods and downtown construction sites of development were analyzed for geological components, sorted, bottled and pristinely exhibited on pedestals (1). Grass and soil extractions from the White House and Watergate Hotel were also on display in juxtaposition to soil samples from Adams Morgan and Georgetown; presenting commentary between the political “swamps” of Washington and DC’s residential community. Along the gallery’s front window, a front line of defense in our daily battle to rid ourselves of the city’s grime included feather dusters, sponges, mops and vacuums, as well as an unopened broom standing at the front door. 
 
Janet Schmuckal, one of the badass DC Dirt artists  and eventual Director of MOTA, wanted this 1978 exhibition to further the conversation about displacement and the value of DC’s cultural and physical real estate (2). MOTA was D.C’s first alternative art space, opening its doors in 1974 on Halloween (3). Schmuckal, who celebrated the impermanence of art, understood the importance of a constant revolving door of artists, curators and art spaces. After fighting many battles with developers and two relocations, MOTA closed its doors in 1982, leaving its history and impact buried in The Smithsonian’s American Art archives.

Fast forward 30+ years to the present and it seems DC is still fighting the same battles Schmuckal was addressing in 1978, illustrated most recently with the forced displacement of Nomad Yard at Union Arts. Desirée Venn Frederic, another badass founder, created not only a one-of-a-kind shopping experience but also a community center for DC’s artists and cultural workers. Now, the soon-to-be boutique “art-focused hotel" equipped with eight artists studios will serve as a massive dose of cruel irony for those that understood the impact of Nomad Yard and Union Arts (4). After the presumed ribbon cutting ceremony, the photo-op with the Mayor, and a self-congratulatory speech on “valuing the arts”, we will still feel the pain that comes from the violent practices of gentrification and erasure. 

When I reflect on the past contributions of these cultural institutions, it is admittedly odd that I would rather see the ancient ruins of MOTA and Nomad Yard still standing instead of a newly activated development in its place. However, as city blocks are “revitalized” the nostalgia that comes from pointing to an empty shell of space feels more comforting than an ironic jab of an “art hotel.” Despite not having many structural remains to point to when recalling D.C’s artistic and cultural past, these stories must be recorded and shared often. We must do our best to share our history within our community, especially with those who are artist transplants that may be unfamiliar with DC’s saga with arts and culture. While it is far too easy to blame the lack of a shared history of our arts community on the transient nature of the city, we must each take responsibility in learning from our past. When looking for solutions to build a strong, supportive and successful community of artists and cultural workers, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. D.C. has always had a strong creative community that supported each other.

It seems we have fallen in a trap where we are perpetually labeled as “new” or “emerging” without acknowledging or choosing to examine our artistic and cultural past. It comes as no surprise that we have trouble imagining the future of DC as a cultural capital in the nation. When we as a city fail to fully utilize the value of our own past and forgo our strength as an artistic community, we begin to actively participate in our own erasure rather than sharing the rich history of DC’s art community. We only need to look back and evoke the history of this city and reclaim our experiences and contributions of today. As Janet said over 30 years ago, “You can't wait 50 years to assess contemporary culture. It's happening now and passing fast.” The stories of intrepid local creativity and resistance are what fuel the duty I feel to record and archive the artistic and cultural happenings of today in my city. 

It is important that DC artists remember Marion Barry as DC’s first Mayor to support the arts with his “Task Force on Art and the Humanities.” It’s important to remember Janet Schmuckal for her seat on this task force and her outspoken criticism of developers in the 1970’s. It’s important to recount Desirée Venn Fredrick’s stand against D.B. Lee Development and Construction Company and Brook Rose Development Company. These names should always be a part of the shared written and oral history of DC’s constant and historical battle with developers and the strengthening of DC’s art community. 

Correction: MOTA was founded by Richard Squires in 1974, after a short term as Director, Squires was replaced by Schmuckal. 

Image Credit: Poster designed by Kristi Mathias, Image courtesy of Museum of Temporary Art records, 1974-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

1. Isberg, Emily, “D.C. Dirt: Now A Work of Art” ; The District Weekly, February 9, 1978.

2. Jaffe, Harry, “Thirty-six hours of access”,  Unicorn Times, January 1979.

3. Isberg, Emily, “D.C. Dirt: Now A Work of Art”, The District Weekly, February 9, 1978.

4. Cooper, Rebecca. “Art-focused boutique hotel planned near Union Market.” Washington Business Journal, August 12, 2015.
http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/top-shelf/2015/08/new- art-focused-boutique- hotel-planned- near-union.html
 

Jordan Martin