There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jefferson Pinder is a community artist. For his Inertia Cycle, he typically engages in some act of tension or labor—pushing a stalled car, for example, or running a relay—only there’s never any end in sight for whatever task he’s working on. It’s a performance that turns African-American physical labor into shared emotional labor. For this weekend’s By The People festival, Pinder is creating a kind of sound installation at the Parks at Walter Reed, using the walls of the former military hospital to echo and amplify the sound of an engine revving in a vintage muscle car. That’s a Halcyon project.
Lucianne Walkowicz is a scientist who studies the ethics of colonizing other planets. She is the chair of astrobiology for the Library of Congress and an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. For the By The People festival, Walkowicz is talking with Armstrong Wiggins, the director of the Indian Law Resource Center, about the cultural footprint we might leave on other worlds. That’s also a Halcyon project.
Antonius Tin Bui is a nonbinary Vietnamese-American artist. They use textiles and performance to examine Vietnamese history, queer culture, and the intersections between them. For By The People, Bui will be doing something along those lines at THEARC West in Congress Heights all weekend. That’s another Halcyon project, and Bui is a Halcyon Arts Lab fellow.
Yousef Bashir is a Palestinian activist. For By The People, he is talking with Yossi Klein Halevi of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute about finding peace in the Middle East. An ambitious Halcyon project.
The Dupont Brass Band is the Dupont Brass Band. For By The People, they’ll be all over the festival, playing for the people.
Halcyon’s reach extends across the District. By The People, the citywide festival that the nonprofit is launching this weekend, may be unprecedented here. Neko Case and Ray LaMontagne opened the festival on Wednesday night with a concert at The Anthem. Most of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums plan to stay open until midnight on Saturday for a solstice party coordinated with Halcyon. While the national acts and federal venues are impressive, all weekend long, visual artists from D.C. will anchor the main tents and dozens of satellites on the By The People calendar. That’s unheard of.
Plus it’s free. “South by Southwest is $1,600 a ticket,” says Kate Goodall, the CEO of Halcyon, an incubator that’s become ubiquitous in D.C. arts and events. “Aspen [Ideas Festival] is $3,000. Summit Series is $4,500. These things are not for regular people. They’re lovely, they’re wonderful, they’re important, but we wanted to make it where everybody could attend from wherever.” (From the contemporary ballet pop-up to the augmented-reality art hunt, virtually every performance, installation, activation, lecture, and reading on this weekend’s agenda is free to the public.)
By The People is the culmination of Halcyon’s fast-track takeover of arts programming in the District. Halcyon grew out of the charitable S&R Foundation, which Goodall joined as chief operating officer in 2013. Japanese biotech moguls Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno—S and R—launched that foundation in 2000; to further its work, they purchased three of Georgetown’s most exclusive properties, including an 1801 Federal-style manse on 28th Street NW known as Evermay. Before the couple’s divorce in 2016, they bought another stately mansion called the Halcyon House, as well as the late 19th-century Fillmore School building.
The Halcyon organization, which split off as its own entity last year, occupies two of these historic facilities. One is an incubator for next-gen entrepreneurs who want to build businesses and nonprofits with a direct social impact. The other is an arts lab for some of the luckiest young artists in the world.
Halcyon is shaking up the arts scene in the District, and at times, the feeling is not just disruptive, but jarring. Halcyon hosts an annual awards event, for example. It’s a fundraiser to support the social entrepreneurial incubator and visual arts lab. This year’s Halcyon Awards took place at the Washington National Cathedral (which is apparently available to rent for galas). Its vaults were festooned with crimson-colored lights and dazzling light projections. The tinny snare of trap beats echoed over the alcohol-soaked after-party in the Cathedral’s northern transept.
From spinning Migos to colonizing Mars, Halcyon’s vision is expansive. “Halcyon is about believing in the power of creativity and the power of compassion to do really good things,” Goodall says—a statement that’s just a bluetooth headset away from a TED Talk. But this much is certain: Halcyon is building something cool, even crucial, in Georgetown. And its goal is even broader.
Kate Goodall is always ready to dive right in.
By training, she is a maritime archaeologist. She got her master’s degree in exploring shipwrecks, namely the U.S.S. Monitor, an iron-hulled steamship that sank on New Year’s Eve, 1862, off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Earlier that year, the Monitor had proven pivotal in the defining naval battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Hampton Roads, by preventing the Confederate Virginia from breaking the Union’s blockade of the James River. Nearly a century and a half later, Goodall surveyed the Monitor as a support diver, excavating the turret gun platform that made its debut during that battle, and which still contained the human remains of the sailors who died during the vessel’s final voyage.
“When you do that kind of work, it’s either cold, zero visibility, or you have environment overhead or animals around you,” says Goodall, who today works on land, from a desk in one of Georgetown’s finest mansions. “You need to go through a lot of training to learn how not to panic. I always joke that my amygdala doesn’t work anymore. I just don’t have that normal panic response.”
It’s a narrow road that leads from the underwater graveyard of the Duel of the Ironclads to the toniest social incubator in the District of Columbia. Goodall followed shipwrecks to artifacts, and then artifacts to museums; now, as the CEO of Halcyon, she’s gone from diver to driver, running an organization that in a short time has emerged as omnipresent in the D.C. metro area. Between its twin outposts—the Halcyon House and Halcyon Arts Lab—the organization has turned Georgetown into a funnel for creative talent from around the world.
“Kate and I met in 2013, just when I started to think about something new for me after stepping down from the business world and biotech world,” Kuno says. “She always surprises me. She is a dynamo.”
Halcyon Arts Lab’s niche in the art ecosystem is clear. The program supports artists who want to change the world. In its short time, the Arts Lab has offered socially conscious artists the space and opportunity to generate projects and performances focused on identity, politics, activism, and representation. The next class of Halcyon arts fellows, who will enjoy a nine-month residency from September to June 2019, includes a Cherokee Nation poet (Jessica Mehta), a Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist (Kokayi), and a human-rights photographer (João Pina). Every class features artists from D.C., too—and many Halcyon artists have established deep ties to the local community.
Some of Halcyon’s tactics are harder to place in the arts world, however. The organization’s work is often dressed up in the language of the creative class, of thought-leaders and change-agents. To a certain extent, Halcyon’s founders see a dance performance and a nonprofit startup as one and the same—a potential means to a progressive end.
“Kate’s very open about saying, ‘We’re still figuring this out. This is a work in progress,’” says Victoria Reis, co-founder and executive director of Transformer, another (smaller) D.C. art incubator. (Transformer is participating in By The People, too, by staging a “crochet jam” in Farragut Square Park with fiber artist Ramekon O’Arwisters.)
The Halcyon party saw Goodall diving again: this time from a stage, in a leap inspired by Dirty Dancing. To close out the awards program (before the gala dinner and auction), Goodall and her Halcyon staff performed a spoof of the film’s famous flirty dance sequence. The group changed the lyrics to flatter corporate execs and private donors. “We’ve had the time of our lives/ Thanks to Carl M. Freeman Companies,” Goodall sang.
“I find it so boring to list the name of sponsors,” Goodall says. “Septime [Webre, former director of the Washington Ballet] got his hands on it last year and we ended up doing this whole medley to Queen. The staff basically spent the week in puddles.”
Halcyon’s Dirty Dancing remake was appropriately cringe inducing: funny and earnest, a performance along the lines of a well-rehearsed routine in an office talent show. Goodall nailed Baby’s swan-like dive, it must be said, and when she danced her way down the nave of the National Cathedral, it was clear she’d sold the crowd. The bit didn’t fail: With that single event, Halcyon raised more than $650,000, all of which will go toward fueling the organization’s arts and entrepreneurial activities.
That’s more money than many D.C. arts organizations will see in a year—more than most would know what to do with. Which has led some in the District’s art scene to ask what, exactly, Halcyon is doing, even as everyone seems to be doing something for Halcyon. For a city that’s struggled as long as the District has to support and keep its artists, Halcyon’s seemingly fathomless funds represent uncharted waters.
Maybe no one has gotten as much out of her time at Halcyon as Georgia Saxelby. The young Australian installation artist was in one of the Halcyon Arts Lab’s first cohort of fellows, arriving in Georgetown in September 2017. She’s leveraged her time here into an installation that’s already making the museum circuit, along with a solo show currently on view at a Dupont Circle gallery, International Arts & Artists at Hillyer.
“To Future Women,” which has graced two D.C. museums this year so far, is straightforward enough. Saxelby’s piece comprises a suite of pink, high-backed desk chairs, which resemble furniture from a modernist elementary school. “To Future Women” asks viewers to sit at these desks and compose letters to women of the year 2037, when the nation will observe the 20th anniversary of the Women’s March. Whether the U.S. celebrates or tolerates demonstrations by women 20 years from now remains to be seen, but if all goes well, Saxelby’s #MeToo-inspired time capsule will see the light of day again.
That it was seen by so many in the first place is a remarkable feat for a young artist just stepping onto the scene. Earlier this month, visitors to the Hirshhorn’s Lerner Room, which boasts a sweeping National Mall view, were invited to write their own “To Future Women” letters and stick them up on the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Over the course of four days, the Hirshhorn also convened programs associated with “To Future Women,” from museum tours of artworks by women to feminist storytime readings for kids.
Saxelby’s project got a month-long run at the Phillips Collection over the winter, too. As if that weren’t enough, the Phillips has even pledged to archive these collected letters and resuscitate them in the year 2037, a gesture that left the artist gobsmacked.
“As soon as you graduate, you’re a solo practitioner. The amount of mentors I’ve had here in D.C., only living here 8 months, is insane,” Saxelby says.
She and the other Halcyon Arts Lab fellows work in the Fillmore School, a building that the S&R Foundation bought for $16.5 million in 2015, after the failing Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design was forced to sell it. Eight artist fellows—two from the District, six from all over the world—share the Fillmore’s soaring, daylit studios, quite possibly the best art workspaces that D.C. has to offer. All the out-of-towners live together, dorm style, in two Georgetown townhouses (on Kuno’s dime) for their nine-month residencies. “Obviously, we’re like brothers and sisters,” Saxelby says.
Georgetown might seem like the last place to locate the bleeding edge in contemporary art. Nicole Dowd, program director for the Halcyon Arts Lab, makes the argument that the neighborhood is in fact the best possible fit for this project (and vice versa). While artist studios have a reputation as being the “pied piper” for gentrification, she says, Halcyon brings a more diverse crowd into Georgetown. “It’s cool to be in a spot where we’re not displacing anyone,” Dowd says.
The nearby Halcyon Incubator assembles 16 social-impact-minded entrepreneurs for a five-month residency (plus a 13-month post-residency program). These practitioners get an even better address. During the residency, the entrepreneurial fellows live and work at the Halcyon House, a mansion at 34th and Prospect Street NW with a colorful history dating back a century before Georgetown joined the District. The mansion was built in 1787 by the first U.S. Secretary of the Navy—thus linking Goodall to American naval adventures spanning centuries—and served most recently as the home of the sculptor John Dreyfuss.
Goodall estimates that artists and entrepreneurs who participate in Halcyon’s incubators each receive a value of about $90,000. That counts the free rent they get with their residency, along with professional training, legal advice, business consultation, cash stipends, and other forms of career support. But in the case of Saxelby, that figure surely falls short. Exhibiting a solo project at two major D.C. arts institutions is exposure that money can’t buy.
“It was absolutely crucial for me to be here in D.C.,” says Estefaní Mercedes, another Halcyon artist fellow. The artist’s socially minded work might strike viewers as even less obviously art than Saxelby’s. Mercedes’ practice is steeped in deep research into copyright law. She’s working to build an archive of film and photography produced (and suppressed) during her native Argentina’s Dirty War. Access to libraries, museums, and research institutions in D.C. has been critical to her work. So much so, in fact, that Mercedes has decided to move here permanently.
A laserlike focus on social impact is one connection between the Halcyon House incubator program and the Halcyon Arts Lab studios. Another link is Kuno, who herself owns the Halcyon House and whose foundation owns the Fillmore. Beyond Kuno’s support—which amounts to the donation of both properties and all the costs associated with their operation and maintenance—the force that binds Halcyon together is Kate Goodall.
There is a plain resonance between social entrepreneurship and social practice in art, Goodall says. Some might call it synergy. It’s the space where Halcyon fits. “A lot of it has to do with the bravery of looking at a blank sheet of paper and turning it into something,” she says. “That requires quite a bit of wherewithal.”
Practically anyone who ventures outside this weekend is going to run into By The People. Each of the festival’s five main hubs—Union Market, THEARC, the Parks at Walter Reed, the National Cathedral, and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building—is showcasing a weekend’s worth of socially engaged and politically charged art. The festival’s wide geographic reach across several wards is in keeping with the event’s aspirational, almost anachronistic plea for unity and mutual understanding.
“Halcyon is producing [By The People] for the entire city,” Kuno says. “We are supported by the city. I would like to see more collaboration with the city.”
Since she joined forces with Kuno in 2013, Goodall has been working at a rapid clip to establish Halcyon as a force for civic change. This work started at the Halcyon House, with the socially conscious business incubator, and expanded to the Fillmore building with artist studios last year. But with By The People, Goodall and Halcyon are leaping into the crowded field of big-ticket events. The closest analog to By The People might be Prospect New Orleans, a contemporary art triennial that brings together local and international artists. Even before its preamble kick-off, By The People was already a much larger undertaking than anything New Orleans has tried.
“We’re coming out swinging,” Goodall says. “We’re coming out really big. Bigger perhaps than I would have anticipated when we started planning.”
The most dramatic projects are centered around the National Cathedral. (Halcyon appears to have struck a contract with God.) Nick Cave, a global marquee artist, is debuting a video projection from inside the cathedral, over the central Rose Window throughout the weekend; he’s also projecting another video at THEARC West in Ward 8. If that weren’t plenty, Halcyon is staging a Cathedral activation by new jazz legend Jason Moran, a one-night-only response to Cave’s project in real time. The clash of these titans can only serve to elevate Halcyon fellow Stephen Hayes, an emerging artist whose sculpture will share the stage at the National Cathedral all weekend long.
The biggest tent for By The People is at the Arts and Industries Building, a venue that gives the festival play on the National Mall, right next door to the Castle. That sort of purchase for an inaugural launch is unrivaled: a massive programmatic subsidy. The festival’s visibility has helped it attract scores of local satellite events, some of which may represent the festival’s best bid to plant real roots here. Altogether, counting in-kind gifts like the Smithsonian’s donation of space, Goodall estimates the cost for putting on By The People at $1.6 million. She notes that Halcyon is paying all of the artists and performers involved.
Sasha Lord, a D.C. promoter, is curating a Sunday-night showcase at Union Market called “Punk Latitudes,” a coast-to-coast presentation of punk solidarity. Lord will be showing punk films by L.A.’s Bradley Friedman, including never-before-seen footage of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. With performances by the Messthetics and Loud Boyz, DJ sets by Baby Alcatraz and Alec MacKaye, a panel about subcultures in one-industry towns, and more, Punk Latitudes is shaping up to be a seminar on D.C. DIY—and it’s just one event among dozens. “I’ve heard people calling [the festival] the South by Southwest of D.C.,” Lord says.
But Halcyon is anything but do-it-yourself. It’s more like do-it-with-your-entire-network. And execute it without any of the constraints that usually come with community-focused efforts. Halcyon’s framework for supporting the arts might be a PowerPoint deck. It’s Basel with a conscience. Whereas Positive Force meant progressive activism by local hardcore bands, By The People is more like inclusive change wrought by a board of directors. None of this is a knock, exactly. Goodall believes that combining art and business can stimulate change.
“Art is soft policy,” Goodall says.
Dani Levinas would have been within his rights if he felt bitter that his own concept never hit it Halcyon big.
Levinas, the board chair for the Phillips Collection, had the idea to turn the old historic Franklin School downtown into a kunsthalle for art called the Institute for Contemporary Expression. He even got the backing of former Mayor Vince Gray, who signed a deal with Levinas and developer Anthony Lanier on his way out of office to turn the long-disused building into a new kind of D.C. museum. As Levinas was fundraising to launch ICE, Mayor Muriel Bowser reneged on the deal soon after she took office in 2015.
But Levinas doesn’t have any hard feelings toward Halcyon.
“I think it’s a miracle,” he says, referring to Halcyon’s rapid rise in the metro ecosystem. “It’s amazing, and they deserve all the credit.”
Perhaps leaders at other arts nonprofits look on at Halcyon’s success with a mix of envy and aversion. While longstanding arts organizations from across the region have scrambled to make do for years, Halcyon appears to be ascending. Its approach to art seems closer to Silicon Valley than Dischord Records.
“We started this from nothing,” says Transformer’s Reis. “[Transformer cofounder Jayme McLellan] and I, we were waitressing. Halcyon started with money attracting money. But Kate’s always been good about giving credit.”
Local arts leaders don’t talk about Halcyon in offended tones. Reis says that Goodall even offered to host Transformer at the Fillmore School—an offer that came around the time when the local cold-pressed juice chain, JRINK, was trying to buy out Transformer’s micro-gallery lease from its landlord. Instead, local criticisms of Halcyon are narrower. The scale of the Halcyon Arts Lab, for example: Reis says it ought to be 20 artists sharing the Fillmore School space. “But that’s just not their thing,” she adds. “They’re doing a very elevated thing.”
“It’s a lot of resources being pushed to eight young artists,” says Philippa Hughes, a social connector for the D.C. art scene. “But that’s also what I like about it!”
Since the Great Recession, the District has lost a great deal of its arts infrastructure. Galleries have shuttered, while artists have moved out to Hyattsville or beyond, pushed out by high rents or in search of workable studio space. Money has flooded into the District, but steady streams of outbound artists flow to Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New York.
Halcyon represents a push in the opposite direction. Beneath all the talk of changemaking and fundraising, the organization is attracting top emerging artists from around the world to the District, and even convincing some of them to stay. It’s giving artists and entrepreneurs the opportunity to build long-term visions into real-world projects by testing them here first. And Halcyon is facilitating quantifiable change in D.C. More than half of the entrepreneurial ventures supported by the Halcyon House, for example, were founded by women; 59 percent of Halcyon’s founders are people of color.
“What I like about Halcyon is that they understand the connection between the arts and social entrepreneurship specifically in D.C.,” says Jessica Stafford Davis, founder of the The Agora Culture, an arts platform that connects emerging artists with diverse collectors. “I think it’s important that they’re steeped in the city.”
While Goodall and others may talk about art in terms that an angel investor would recognize, the organization itself is not so slick. Goodall says her work takes her “all the way up and down the ladder, from cleaning the toilets to being on TV”—her star turn at the National Cathedral notwithstanding. As far as the organization’s deep pockets go, Goodall says that the group has no significant reserves. “We raise the money we need to produce our programs every year.” (After its launch in spring 2017, Halcyon, a 501(c)3, generated $3 million in revenue and $2.5 million in total expenses for the partial year; its budget for 2018 is $5 million.)
In scale and scope, Halcyon is like nothing that’s come before it. Its entrepreneurial incubator aside, the organization reflects the changing role of art in D.C., where the social spectacle is key, pop-ups are big business, and collectives are industry enterprises. Halcyon might be the arts entity to guide the District into the age of Amazon.
By The People will be Halcyon’s first big test in D.C. Goodall says that she is aiming for “a quality product with no injuries.” She’s underselling it, of course. But she says she’s been surprised to see how accommodating other institutions and leaders have been to meeting with Halcyon to make the festival happen.
“Sometimes, the art fields, they’ve had to fight for their survival in every way,” Goodall says. “You can encounter a fair amount of no’s. We’ve got nothing but yes’s.”