There are people who just talk. Then there are people who talk about doing. And then there are those who just do. I’ve not known Emily Arden long, but it doesn't take much time with her to realize she falls into that last category. Local DC dancer, space-changer, and co-founder of ReCreative Spaces Emily Arden sat with me in her newly acquired space in Northeast this week and gave me the scoop on the company's beginnings, their DIY philosophy, and how they are already becoming arts’ programming junkies.
Emily and her business partner/photographer, John Kagia, met during a panel discussion on artists’ space at Artomatic. Once they realized they were both exploring the same ideas and models for developing self-sufficient artists in DC, they decided to join forces. Over the past year they have evolved into what is now ReCreative Spaces. Their first events were held in a home in Reston, one of which was called Reel Talk (what’s up R. Kelly) where they screened a film then had a discussion over dinner, catered by a local chef.
As their vision expanded they approached local Northeast community developers the Menkiti Group (who Emily had established a connection with during her time at Artomatic) about possible spaces available to lease. Menkiti offered them the space they are in now (that video right there tells a pretty complete story so I don’t have to) on Bunker Hill Road, which was for lease but sitting vacant for quite some time. It needed a bit of love and care, but the idea was that ReCreative would inhabit the space on a short term lease, while Menkiti continued to show the space to other potential occupants; It’s a win/win situation. This partnership will continue once their lease is up and they will move into another Menkiti owned space.
“The partnership is great because we get to test things out, and there is less risk for us. But it’s great for them because they get people through these doors. It’s sort of like staging for them—people can see what the space looks like with programming, and furniture, when before it was just an empty shell,” Arden says.
They already have a massive amount of programming scheduled for the space, which is spot-on perfect as an art gallery, and they plan on having openings the first Friday of every month. This month they are showcasing a group photography show called Washington Through the Lens. Yoga and hop-hop classes are also on the docket, and this weekend they just hosted a partnering and improvisation workshop led by Hassan Christopher. They have also partnered with Jonathan B. Tucker, who runs the youth programming for Split This Rock, to offer a series of up-coming writing circles and slam poetry events.
The only downside in all of this is that they feel they are already outgrowing their space, especially when it comes to what they can offer for movement classes. The rooms in ReCreative Spaces are apartment sized, which means movement space is quite limited. However, the essential stimulus for opening the space is simply about making space available. High quality art for for less dough is also paramount, with low cost programming that doesn’t price out audiences and artists. “We’re being really creative about how we work with people,” Arden explains, and they are open to private events, ticketed events, or rentals.
This guerrilla style programming is not entirely new to Arden and Kagia, in fact, it is exactly the business model they aim for. They have been operating Elemental Spaces, a fundamental appendage of ReCreative Spaces, since they were programming out of their house.
“It is how we can afford to operate - how we've been able to test things out and experiment and get artists on board to do fun things with us,” Arden explains. “It’s also become part of our business strategy as we get deeper into this thing. For starters, there is so much unused space in cities. So let's find ways to activate them and fill them with life (aka art)! And instead of being seen as a liability, let's position ourselves as an asset to real estate companies and business improvement districts and those with space.”
“Part of the experience now," Arden continues, "part of the branding so to speak, is that people know we will be leading them around town. That a part of the experience is discovering our spaces. We've talked about being in more permanent space, and we want that, too. But a part of our model will remain this temporary use of underused space. We just totally dig it. And we think, given the response we've gotten to what we're doing, that other folks dig it, too.”
Elemental Spaces has had a hand in projects for Artomatic, DC Artist Exchange, The Jump Off, and a project I’m particularly stoked about, Swap Meets (the launching pad for DC Artist Exchange), which are all about encouraging shared resources amongst artists.
In conversation the other day, Emily and I spent some time scrolling through a list of voids and deficits we've identified here in the DC dance scene, many of which I've written about in past blog posts. We realized that we both lament a readiness, or enthusiasm, for shared resources amongst many local dancers. How can this be? Why does it not come more naturally for dance artists? Is it just ingrained in us to not play well together because we've worked so hard for what little we've gained? But this is exactly what Swap Meets were intended to tackle.
“The idea of sharing resources and ideas and harnessing the collective power of creativity is a majorly exciting one to me,” Arden says, but she also admits that “getting it right” is key to the success of this model, and they are still working on the “right recipe” (referring specifically to their Swap Meets initiatives).
Honestly, from what I’ve observed, their recipe doesn’t need too much tweaking. Emily and John have identified two worlds that need to come together, and they have perfectly positioned themselves to facilitate this convergence. As their website states, “We accomplish so much more together…"
So I encourage you to follow what is going on in this space and what Emily and John have up their sleeves for the future. Email them, stop by and see the space, and engage them in conversation. These folks have much to share, and we have much to learn from them.