Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Guest commentary: Why We’re Buying a Building

The executive director of Studio Two Three on anchoring the arts in an era of condos.

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We have officially signed the paperwork to close on the Dogtown Dance Building at 109 W. 15th St., the new permanent home of Studio Two Three!

If you haven’t heard of Studio Two Three, we are a community arts space that offers studios, classes and workshops, artist residency, and open doors to over 180 artist members. We provide 24/7 access to printing presses, darkroom, digital lab, communal workspace, and individual studios to support art making for personal and social change. We support the role of the arts in civic voice and engagement, partnering with activists and leaders to provide space for creative advocacy initiatives.

We were lucky enough to get our start in 2009 in a 400 sq. foot space with four founding artists, when it was still possible to scrap it out. Our rent was $600 a month and we worked as bartenders and servers to cover the costs. We were an all volunteer staff until 2013, when I became our first paid employee. I made $15,000 a year–– which was less than I earned slinging drinks but it provided me with the time to focus solely on growing the organization. Flash forward several years and we were able to double our space several times over, quadruple our membership and fill a gigantic warehouse with community events, 30 private artist studios and communal printmaking equipment.

We could not have done this in today’s economic climate. The city has changed in big (and intimidating) ways. Between 2020 and 2022 Richmond’s real estate market exploded, creating a dramatic increase in rent and property values and leading to outmigration and small business closure. Our current neighborhood, Scott’s Addition, saw a 38% increase in real estate costs, and there’s no relief in sight. The dusty industrial neighborhood we once occupied now holds over 1,500 apartment units in condos, is home to 12+ breweries, distilleries and cideries, and has been one of the most expensive commercial real estate markets in Richmond for the last five years.

I co-founded the studio 13 years ago with the belief that, with the right resources, Richmond could be an anchor for artists to stay [here] rather than a gateway to some-place bigger. I believe that the diversity and hyper-local nature of Richmond culture is what makes this place special.

For Richmond to retain its vibrant, remarkable local culture, we need to prioritize spaces that support new generations of makers, builders and dreamers. We need places where people can experiment and fail safely, and apply those lessons forward as they grow. When the costs associated with renting a space are daunting, failure often means closure - or not getting started at all. Studio Two Three has always been committed to providing an affordable space for creative risk taking. This is why we purchased our own building.

In April of 2023, we will make the big move from our long-time home in Scott’s Addition back to Manchester, where we got our start in 2009. This purchase feels like oldschool Richmond kismet. In April, my colleague Kate and I were in Washington, DC for a conference. Over dinner we saw an article in Style Weekly about the closure of Dogtown Dance and the sale of their building. Our first response was similar to many of our peers––we love Dogtown and were so sad to hear that this staple in the dance community was closing.

It wasn’t until the next morning (over lots of coffee) that a lightbulb went off in our heads. “Wait! We need a permanent home for Studio Two Three and this might be it.” We skipped the closing events for the conference and drove straight back to Richmond. Within a few hours we’d already wandered around the outside of the building, peering through the windows, and had called everyone we knew who was in *any way* connected to Dogtown. By that evening we had already spoken with our board chair and had drafted a letter to the building’s owner–and the father of Dogtown’s founder, Dr. Bob (Pops) Petres.

We made an offer the next day at the asking price, joining a few other organizations and developers who were hoping to purchase the building. We were surprised and deeply touched when Dr. Petres picked us. We’re not a quiet organization in Richmond. We have a clear stance, plaster the city with riso printed posters supporting reproductive justice, the movement to defend Black lives and trans and LGBTQIA+ rights and sometimes use questionable humor to convey our messaging. When we submitted our offer, we knew it was very possible that these perspectives could cause the seller to immediately throw our offer into the garbage.

Instead, we found that Dr. Petres shares many of the same positions and values that we hold central. Throughout his career, he has served as a highly regarded OB-GYN in the Richmond community. In 1973 he and a minister co-authored a book on the importance of abortion access. From 2005-2008, he invested his savings into building a beautiful home for his son’s nonprofit organization, Dogtown Dance. We feel so lucky to be part of his community and to have the opportunity to carry the special legacy of this building forward.

Dr. Petres’ faith in Studio Two Three as the next stewards of this treasured space is huge for us. Financially, we will save about $60,000 a year in overhead costs–– which is big money for an organization with a $600,000 annual budget. Emotionally, it will provide us with a form of security and longevity that I never imagined was possible when we started out. It will also provide us with almost exactly the same square footage of our current rental space, with the addition of a 3,000 square foot event space that we can use for large community events, film screenings and artist markets. Studio Two Three has a future in Richmond because of the pure luck of when we started, the real love and support of our community, and people like Dr. Petres, who value, invest in, and treasure locally-rooted arts.

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From the very beginning, we have believed that together is better. When you’re a scrappy, little DIY upstart, you have to open your doors broadly to collaboration, partnership and cooperative organizational models. For this reason, we’ve had the joy of seeing countless organizations, shops and artists get their start in our studio and grow far beyond our doors. In 2011, Quickness RVA had its headquarters here, deploying punks across the city to deliver food on bikes. Earl and Nikko built Chilalay here before moving to their own awesome retail space on Broad Street. In 2015, Performing Statistics began hosting their summer workshops with incarcerated youth–– co-creating powerful advocacy works and inspiring statewide policy change. Artists have written books and launched careers here. Just last month, we saw the announcement that Clara Cline of The Wild Wander, a longtime studio member, is opening her own storefront on Strawberry Street.

We’ve always provided more than space or tools because we know that artists need holistic support to grow and thrive. As we take this big leap, and ask for some BIG HELP from our community to do it, we remain committed to ensuring that artists of any economic background or ability can access Studio Two Three membership.

We are also committed to supporting small and fledgling arts organizations and programs as they take root and grow. For us, this looks like providing organizational memberships that are affordable and provide access to both programming and administrative space. Lastly, we are now providing fiscal sponsorship for individual artists and mission-aligned projects, as well as peer-to-peer collaboration and skill building.

We are so excited for a long future of providing Richmond with a space for creative experimentation, generative failing, risk taking and building toward a dream beyond our doors.

If you want to contribute time, labor or donations, please visit our website (studiotwothree.org) and we look forward to seeing you in Dogtown this spring!

Ashley Hawkins is the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Studio Two Three, founded in 2009, which is a community arts space that offers studios, classes and workshops, artist residency, and open doors.