There's no way to write an easy farewell to Out ch'Yonda Live Artz Studio. For any other venue, it'd go something like this: Out ch'Yonda opened its doors six years ago in Barelas with theater in mind but found itself a catch-all venue, including poetry, yoga, dance performances, workshops, art exhibits and tap-dancing classes. At the end of June, founders Virginia Hampton and Stephanie Willis, faced with rising rent costs, will shut it down.
But the conversation we have in the seats of the darkened, homemade theater space, light peering in around the swamp cooler lodged in the door, turns to gentrification and race. Of course it does. Because Out ch'Yonda has never shied from talking about race, class or gender. Which is not to say it's a serious, scholarly conversation. There's plenty of laughing, plenty of jokes—and soft eddies of a bluer mood throughout.
So what's going to be missing once Out ch'Yonda makes its final farewell? "Having an art space that's run entirely by people of color," says Hampton. But the venue's unique makeup may have also served to be its greatest source of misunderstanding, adds Willis. "People definitely in this city are not very comfortable with, like, Black people doing business or anything," she says, "unless they can become exotic and special and still do workshops that are filled with yuppie white people. Any time we try to make that boundary around this place, we become angry Black women to the world."
The fact of the matter is, Willis continues, plenty of people who aren't Black put a lot of energy into Out ch'Yonda. "People think we've been separatist and anti-white and yada yada. At any given moment when you come in here, there's a couple white people in here all the time. They're in our community, too. We have family with them. We're friends."
At the top of the list for why the space is closing: gentrification. The curving building at 929 Fourth Street SW languished unused for years before the Live Artz Studio opened up shop. As Barelas grows more upscale, the building can probably house a tenant who will pay more rent, Willis says. "The demographic of the neighborhood is going to change, and those efforts would also change the demographics of Out ch'Yonda."
April Freeman, part of Out ch'Yonda's co-op, says she'll really miss the multigenerational aspects of what's become a gathering spot "where my family can come and all be a part of the artistic expression with other people in the community," she says. "This has really been a spot for children to get together and grow together and learn together.”
Elisa Pintor, another co-op member, says she'll miss "being able to claim the physical space that people of color don't normally get to have."
What will co-founders Hampton and Willis miss? "Having it," says Willis. "Having more intimate relationships with all of the artists that worked in here." Hampton says she'll miss "being able to walk down here from my house and see some bomb art on a regular basis."
In some ways, says Hampton, Out ch'Yonda's closing for the same reasons it opened. "Part of our mission was to serve artists like ourselves who are doing things on the edge. I think that's part of the reason we're closing, because people who are on the edge don't have a lot of money. They're on the edge, for real," she laughs. "To some degree, you know, we feel like the revolution's not going to be funded."