City Paper is not for tourists
Do artists in D.C. feel supported by the local government? It’s a complicated question, and one that artist Linn Meyers, a longtime D.C. resident who has displayed her work at museums and galleries across the District, ponders for a while before coming to a conclusion. “What does it mean to feel supported as an artist?” she asks rhetorically. “Does it mean that making a living is easier here? No. Does it mean that the cultural institutions are open to hearing from you? In some ways, yes.”
The District’s first-ever cultural plan is an attempt by the city to make creators’ voices heard and offer them a robust display of support. In mid-January of this year, the Office of Planning (OP), the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), and the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment (OCTFME) released their working draft of the DC Cultural Plan—a comprehensive and exhaustive survey that, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s introduction, “lays out a vision and recommendations on how the government and its partners can build upon, strengthen, and invest in the people, places, communities, and ideas that define culture within DC.”
It was a massive undertaking that took OP, DCCAH, and OCTFME more than two years and, according to contracts and proposal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, cost more than a quarter of a million dollars to complete.
Throughout the process, the Office of Planning hosted a number of input sessions they called INTERMISSIONDC; these included public engagement events in each quadrant of the city and sessions specifically geared toward arts educators and organizations. Some of these events took the form of open houses where participants could speak with representatives from OP, DCCAH, and OCTFME, while others included structured conversations and brainstorming activities. In the process, representatives from the involved offices say they spoke to more than 1,500 people.
Office of Planning Director Eric Shaw is excited about the final result. “This is the first cultural plan that’s been done by a planning office in the country,” he explains. “In the end, there’s no cultural plan like it in the country.”
Shaw recognizes that some people may be befuddled by a planning office tackling lofty cultural goals, but he sees the OP’s connection to all city operations as an asset. He cites the Plan’s thesis, a cheesy Shakespeare knockoff that is repeated throughout the document: “All the city’s infrastructure is a stage and every resident is a performer.”
DCCAH Executive Director Arthur Espinoza agrees with this approach. “Looking at what geographically we have to offer, challenges that exist from transportation to community connections, that was the strength that [OP] brought into this,” he says. In Shaw’s view, the end result “really reflects the community of D.C., the artist community of D.C., and the desire of us to think about culture being everywhere, and using all of our infrastructure as ways to advance cultural goals.”
But not all local artists feel reflected in the Plan. In late February, a group of artists and cultural workers—including those affiliated with Washington Project for the Arts and STABLE, a forthcoming arts space that Meyers helped found—wrote a petition in response to the Cultural Plan titled Keep Artists in DC. The petition asks for a revised draft of the Plan that “makes the retention of artists a primary goal, is led by DCCAH, is guided by a task force comprised of local artists, designers, and creative professionals, and allocates dollars to the goals and investment recommendations.”
More than 1,900 people have signed the petition and left dozens of comments of support. The Plan’s authors also encouraged interested parties to submit feedback following its January release, but many thought the six-week window to do so wasn’t enough time to read and thoughtfully respond to the 131-page document. Even if people did submit feedback in time, it’s unclear when and how it would be incorporated into a final version, and how that final plan will be implemented.
There’s also the question of funding for the next steps of the Cultural Plan. In its proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, the mayor’s office has allocated $10 million in funds supporting “cultural facilities” grants for organizations and $4 million for “general operating and project support grants” for organizations and individuals. However, Plan proposals such as the establishment of an “arts & culture planning position at OP” and launching a “Center for Cultural Opportunities within the District’s Small Business Resource Center” do not yet have dedicated funding attached.
This is all to say: A lot of people in D.C.’s numerous creative communities—artists, musicians, dancers, actors, educators—are skeptical of the Cultural Plan. Not the idea of it—Washington City Paper interviewed artists across all disciplines for this story, and all of them agreed that a comprehensive plan outlining issues and potential solutions for the District’s creative sector is a good thing—but rather, what it lacks and how the agencies that authored it will put it into action.
We asked those we interviewed to respond to the Cultural Plan—what it got right, what they wish it addressed, the source of some of the statistics included within, and what they hope to see come from it. Here’s what they had to say.
Linn Meyers and Rebekah Pineda
STABLE, a forthcoming artist studio space in Eckington
A lot of the data Linn Meyers and Rebekah Pineda, two of the artists behind STABLE, saw in the Cultural Plan raised their eyebrows. “We ended up emailing people at the DC Commission who we know, to ask certain questions about statistics in it,” Pineda says. “They say the number of visual artists in D.C. is about 180,” she adds, which seemed quite small. “I was like ‘It doesn’t make sense.’”
The reality is that most artists in D.C. don’t make their living full-time as artists; they work in a number of other industries—education, service, hospitality, communications—to support their art. “I think that you can’t define who an artist is by how they make their own living,” Meyers says. “It’s a really simple-minded way to think about the cultural landscape, especially in a city like Washington that is so full of creative people, many of whom make their livings as lawyers, or advocates, or lobbyists, or whatever.”
But beyond the curious data that Meyers and Pineda call out, they see the Cultural Plan as a real opportunity to address important issues facing artists in D.C., like the issue of affordable housing. “I think that there’s a place for a conversation about affordable housing, and I think that there’s a place for a conversation about affordable and sustainable studio space,” Meyers says.
As D.C.’s population has grown, it’s no secret that the cost of housing has skyrocketed, and the availability of housing for low- and middle-income residents has dwindled. But studio spaces for artists have also become scarce. Meyers points to the example of Union Arts—the warehouse-like building at 411 New York Avenue NE that housed dozens of artists before its landlord sold the building in 2016 to a developer who promptly evicted the building’s tenants and is turning the property into a boutique hotel.
The demise of Union Arts inspired Meyers, Pineda, Tim Doud, and Caitlin Teal Price to form STABLE, which, when it’s complete, will provide studio space for more than two dozen artists. Both Meyers and Pineda say they wish the Cultural Plan proposed ways to either create or sustain artists spaces in D.C. “Ownership of studio space, of living space, is really one of the best ways to retain a creative community,” Meyers says. “But right now, most artists can’t afford to buy an apartment or a home here in Washington. It’s just not doable.”
Co-founder, Listen Local First DC and Funk Parade
For Chris Naoum, the Cultural Plan represents a lot of potential. “The most important thing right now is what happens afterwards,” he says.
As the co-founder of Listen Local First DC—a local music initiative that works to promote the D.C. music scene on a national level—Naoum was most interested in how the Plan would address issues that specifically affect musicians. But he was disappointed to find that the Plan doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the issues musicians in D.C. face and lumped them in the amalgamous “Cultural Creators” category.
After the working draft of the Cultural Plan was released to the public in January, Naoum put together a series of brainstorming sessions with different members of D.C.’s music community to develop a formal critique. Drafted and co-signed by more than two dozen musicians and music-related organizations, the comments sent in during the public review period focus on the specific needs of the music community that they feel aren’t adequately explored in the Cultural Plan.
Naoum’s most significant suggestion is the creation of a publicly funded D.C. Music Task Force, which he says is essential. “There are too many different agencies and too many different organizations that affect the lives in the music community,” he says. “And it’s very hard for them to sort of navigate that system without having someone that’s focused on music issues.”
Local musicians looking for government support—whether that be grants, permits, or venue issues—can turn to the OCTFME and DCCAH. The problem, as Naoum sees it, is that both of these agencies already have enough on their plates trying to serve artists in other disciplines and cannot effectively address the specific issues facing musicians.
Those issues could be something as minor as putting together legislation to get designated street parking outside of venues for musicians to be able to load in and out or as large as preserving storied venues like Bohemian Caverns, which closed in 2016.
But beyond the creation of a D.C. Music Task Force, Naoum says there are several smaller items the Cultural Plan should address in its next steps. Among them: encouraging efforts that are already in place, like help with funding for established practice spaces; implementing a Fair Trade Music Standard, which would establish best practice guidelines for venues hosting live music, including a minimum wage requirement; investing in musicians through grants, fellowships, and education programs; and promoting local music at national events like SXSW.
Naoum isn’t completely critical of the Plan, though. He praises the Plan’s idea for a Cultural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Revolving Loan Fund, which would provide small, short-term loans that can support artists’ smaller, but still burdensome, financial obstacles. For musicians, that could be a loan to help pay for merchandise before going on tour.
“I thought that was really interesting they had that,” Naoum says. “That seemed way too specific for the Plan overall, too. It was just sort of shoved in there.”
Artistic Director and Founder, Pinky Swear Productions
Karen Lange got involved in the theater world by way of improv comedy, and moved on to performing in musicals and other productions. Ten years ago, after attending a show at the Capital Fringe Festival with appalling roles for women, she and a friend decided to start their own company to address the problem, and “pinky swore” to ensure they followed through with their plan.
Pinky Swear Productions doesn’t have a fixed location and instead stages its shows at rented locations around town. Not all theater venues are created equal. Some are extremely flexible and have everything a company might need, but others lack the appropriate equipment. Lange describes putting on shows with outside noise filtering in due to poor soundproofing and using public restrooms as dressing rooms.
She has occasionally used unconventional performance spaces, such as a tiny house and Dupont Underground (where Pinky Swear’s current show is running), when the script calls for it, and though those have been useful for attracting crowds looking for a novel theatergoing experience, they come with their own challenges. “Those spaces are really, really hard to do a show in. They’re not built for theater,” Lange says.
Despite facing these space dilemmas, Lange is hopeful about the ability of certain parts of the Plan to impact smaller theater companies. She attended one of the INTERMISSIONDC sessions and found it to be an encouraging experience. “You got face time with people about what mattered to your industry. I got to bend a lot of people’s ears and I feel like in the Plan they heard that.”
Lange sees some practical considerations in the Cultural Plan that would directly benefit theaters like hers. For one, there’s a recommendation that cultural spaces under the city’s purview—libraries, recreation centers, or public school facilities utilized for classes or practice space—be open later to better serve the population. “We’re a non-union theater, and everybody does this as a side hustle and so we’re not rehearsing during the day,” she explains.
Though Lange is optimistic about the potential of a proposed outward-facing PR push to promote D.C. arts regionally, nationally, and possibly even internationally, she wonders if smaller groups like Pinky Swear will be left out. “It’s rare that people come in from out of town and come see one of my shows; they don’t know we exist,” she explains. “So how far does that PR plan go? Are they going to do things like the mid-level theaters like Forum or Constellation? Or are they going to stick to the Studios, the Arenas, the Woollys and things like that?”
Washington Project for the Arts
Peter Nesbett, Director; Nathalie von Veh, Development and Outreach; Jordan Martin, Program Assistant
Washington Project for the Arts is a nonprofit arts organization founded in 1975 as a place for artists to perform and display contemporary art, participate in workshops, and connect with other visual artists. WPA’s programming and exhibits are driven by artists, allowing them more agency over their work.
As the Plan currently stands, “One of the things really missing is investment in artist’s practices,” according to Nesbett. “It could be through greater direct support of artists in the form [of] fellowships and grants, it could be through cultural exchanges, it could be practice-related work opportunities.”
WPA believes the Plan muddies the definition of what it means to be an “artist,” both by grouping together all artistic disciplines and by conflating artists with “cultural creators.” As Nesbett explains, “It’s really easy to lump everything sort of under the creative economy, which skews in one direction and also flattens all those distinctions.”
They also object to the Plan’s thesis that says “every resident is a performer.” “Even though the idea that everyone is creative is an important concept for people to embrace, it doesn’t help support people who are making art as a full-time profession,” von Veh argues.
Another point of contention is the focus on the monetization of art instead of the less concrete benefits art can provide, or the creation of art for its own sake. “One of the biggest rubs with the Cultural Plan is the absence of even acknowledging that value, except outside of that commercialized arena,” Martin says. Nesbett adds, “It’s not really addressing the intangibles of artistic creation in a way that just improves overall quality of life and the health of the community by fostering critical dialogue, enhancing imagination and identity.”
DCCAH plays an integral role in D.C.’s arts communities and the WPA team is dismayed by how infrequently it is mentioned in the Plan. DCCAH awards roughly $10 million in grants each year, and funds both organizations and individuals, including WPA. Particularly important is the Arts and Humanities Fellowship program, which awards grants of up to $10,000 to individuals. The grants aren’t project based, meaning artists can use it to pay for anything they need. (DCCAH Executive Director Arthur Espinoza says he’s “heard of people who’ve had to use it to help with their medical expenses.”)
WPA doesn’t mind the Plan’s effort to promote local arts through advertising initiatives, but wishes it would reach beyond the region. Nesbett proposes “an embassy approach. The Swiss embassy is promoting Swiss artists in the U.S. to promote the image of Switzerland. We can do the same thing, perhaps by investing in artists by sending them abroad,” he says.
Funding more opportunities to send artists to art fairs or residencies outside of the District could concretely help artists’ careers, while simultaneously promoting them to a wider audience and generating buzz for the local arts scene.
One of WPA’s biggest priorities is keeping artists in the area, and they don’t think the draft includes enough incentives to make that happen. “The Plan does a pretty good job articulating the fact that the city is losing a lot of artists, but they don’t address real solutions,” von Veh says. “This is the affordable housing issue, this is an issue with the city losing its cultural identity. And we don’t see any commitment to retaining what makes D.C., D.C.”
“WPA can’t exist if there’s no artists here,” Martin says. “If the Cultural Plan doesn’t work and it doesn’t actually keep artists here, then that’s it for WPA.”
Art historian, curator, and arts writer
Andy Johnson works at The George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design as the program administrator of the Art History program and as the gallery director of Gallery 102. On top of that, he curates independent shows at various galleries, serves as a contributing editor for the online arts outlet DIRT, and works on sales and curation for the Art on the Vine art fair for the Agora Culture, a platform that connects artists and collectors. His work in many different areas of the arts gives him a broad view of D.C.’s art scene and the challenges it faces.
He reports that he wasn’t particularly aware of the Cultural Plan as it was being developed but has spent a considerable amount of time reading and studying the draft Plan since its release—and even did a word search to count how many times certain terms appeared in the 131-page document.
“They used ‘cultural’ 1,500 times, but by the end of it I’m not really understanding what they mean by ‘cultural,’” Johnson says. He points out that crucial issues are acknowledged in the Plan, but no possible solutions are included. He references a call-out box containing “a page and a half of black culture. That’s great, you did your homework and looked up how important it is, but I don’t see how that is incorporated into this larger Cultural Plan.”
He also notes that the Plan contains summaries of community input gathered at the INTERMISSIONDC events but “there’s a huge disparity between what the community said they needed to pay attention to versus what ultimately ended up in the Plan.”
In Johnson’s opinion, a major concern is this lack of focus on artists’ needs and suggestions, instead centering on partnering with developers and monetizing artists’ work. Under the heading of “Big Moves,” the Plan calls out the overarching goal to “form stronger linkages between real estate development and cultural space production.” “I think as long as there’s an appeasement of developers, it will never serve the artists,” Johnson says. In situations where artists are forced to work with developers in exchange for space, funding, or the ability to complete a project, he argues, “It’s a singular artist against a company with millions or billions of dollars. Who really has the power in that meeting room?”
Being embedded in the university system, Johnson notes that one thing the Cultural Plan does successfully is propose partnerships with local colleges. “Universities have tons of money. They’re occupying space, so they should be creating infrastructure and programs that serve the community.” But, he continues, “It’s unclear what they’re going to do, and I’m not sure that’s even feasible because relationships with each university would be so different. Each university serves very different communities.”
JR “Nexus” Russ
Burner, Creative, D.C. Native
JR Russ has been following the Cultural Plan since it was first announced. The former dancer who has worked in arts policy and edication used to work at DCCAH and is currently a Pinky Swear Productions company member. Since the draft of the Plan was released, he’s been curious about what next steps OP and DCCAH will take.
“One of my main takeaways has been cautious concern and optimism,” he says. “It didn’t help that the Commission has had a Strategic Plan that’s been kinda on the shelf for a couple years, and so one of the biggest questions has been how is this going to be different.” DCCAH’s 2015 Strategic Plan outlines a lot of the same issues the Cultural Plan does.
Russ’ biggest criticism of the Plan is how it addresses arts education. “Even though it was talked about throughout the Plan in various places, if you go to the appendix … there’s only one or two arts education [recommendations],” he says. “And in that, it seemed to conflate pre-professional artist training from arts education that all children receive.”
He’s referring to the Arts Education Program Grant, a program designed to support both in-school and out-of-school humanities projects for children, as well as DC Public Schools’ arts curriculum, which is more of a summary of students’ arts course requirements. “A concern was making sure that even in the arts education space, those two different goals for teaching art and technique have very different ends and very different means,” he says.
One of the biggest items the Cultural Plan tackles is the lack of spaces for artists in the District—both in terms of studio space and affordable housing. Russ wishes the Cultural Plan addressed the space needs of individual artists communities instead of “artists in general.”
“Having lived in art space lofts, even looking at artist live-work spaces … the needs are very different,” he says. “Even though I think the technical needs might be different, at the end of the day we’re all agreeing that we need more space than people typically use in their everyday work.”
Development Director, Dance Place and Arts Action DC steering committee member
Based on her work with Dance Place and Arts Action DC, Judy Estey has two perspectives on the Cultural Plan “that aren’t mutually exclusive,” she says.
Arts Action DC is a collective of more than 200 arts and culture-focused organizations that work together as “a unified voice for funding, support, and growth for arts, humanities and the commercial arts sectors of the creative economy.” It seems like an organization the architects of the Cultural Plan would have met with to gain input.
But Estey says that she requested a meeting with the Cultural Plan steering committee, on behalf of Arts Action DC and Dance Place, several times but never got a response. For Arts Advocacy Day 2018 on March 12, Arts Action DC compiled and submitted comments during the review period, which highlighted specific aspects of the Cultural Plan it would like to see implemented.
Among them: the creation of the cultural facilities fund to support existing arts spaces and the creation of new ones; the implementation of the cultural space innovation grant program, which would encourage developers and property owners to rent to cultural spaces; affordable housing programs for artists; an increase in youth arts programming; support for local cultural identity and traditions—like the city’s robust go-go and jazz scenes; and a marketing campaign to signal boost the work of the District’s creators on a national level.
Estey feels that the Plan does not effectively address the issues Dance Place and other mid-size arts nonprofits like it face. “It seemed to me like a lot of the Plan was really focused on emerging institutions, pre-established large institutions like the Kennedy Center, and entrepreneurial artist types,” she says. “There seems to be very little mention of what is needed for the sustainability of small to mid-size arts organizations … The government doesn’t find it sexy to say, ‘We continue to support organizations so they don’t fold.’ That is rarely a talking point.”
Dance Place already owns its building, but she says fundraising—for things like building maintenance and educational programs—is still a big issue for them. “Because we’ve got our building, we’re set for life? I don’t think so. Maybe there were parts of it that needed a deeper read. I felt like that input that Dance Place would’ve given, or me on behalf of Dance Place, was not looked at at all.”
Curator, director, and founder of Latela Art Consultants & Gallery
Latela is a consulting service for buyers and local artists at various stages of their careers, as well as a gallery and community space. When she opened the space on the Brookland Arts Walk in late 2015, founder Marta Staudinger had to decide between a few different types of gallery models. She could become a nonprofit, but, she says, “I felt like this city didn’t need another gallery like that. There are a lot of really great nonprofits that are doing a great job.” She could take on the risk of a large business loan to get a sizable space and subsidize the gallery’s profits by charging showcased artists a membership fee, or make the space double as an event venue. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says, “but the events come first, the art comes second. I also didn’t want to charge artists.”
“I think about a city where there could be 10 to 12 small galleries like Latela all across town that don’t need to charge for artists’ rent, don’t need to apply to grants, and don’t need to cloud their vision with event planning, who can just be commercial art galleries representing the local arts. But our city is not allowing that,” she says.
A lack of focus on the arts as their own standalone industry is one of Staudinger’s frustrations with the Cultural Plan. “In the Plan, the language does not separate creative economy from the arts. They should be treated somewhat differently,” she says. “Creative economy” is a fairly nebulous term that’s used throughout the Cultural Plan, and it can encompass anything from fine arts to cooking to commercial architects to social media, depending on who’s defining it.
If it’s true that the arts are inextricable from the larger economic view, Staudinger would at least like to see fine artists like the ones she represents benefit from some of the economic windfall. “If there’s an initiative from the Mayor’s office to help the art community and the art economy—not creative economy as a whole—why are they not doing something that’s connecting, for example, all the lobbyists they work with every day to the arts?” she asks. “I want to see them having a work of one of these local artists in their home or in their office.”
“When I think about a Cultural Plan, I want something that’s itemized,” Staudinger says. She desires concrete actions that could be quickly implemented, like creating one live-in artist studio in every new residential development.
She also suggests that when important cultural spaces are lost, the city should provide a plan “that is going to give us two times the amount of space throughout the city in the next five years,” a variation on the idea of planting two trees for each cut down.
Her vision for how the city can better support the arts comes down to a simple overarching idea: “When I think of cultural planning, I think of looking at a grid of the city. Where does stuff already exist? Where’s stuff being built, and how can we infiltrate those areas with more arts to make a nice ratio? I don’t think it could be that hard. Just give me a map.”