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Inside a light-filled studio with a wide-open garage door on a recent afternoon in September, an emotional and inspiring panel is unfolding. Malissa Wilkins, a multi-disciplinary artist who often works under the moniker Afrovelvet, has recently completed the first artist-in-residence program for A Creative DC, and is holding a panel to close out her exhibit CATALYST.
She’s joined by four other women she’s collaborated with on various projects. As the group discusses their artistic practices and other endeavors, the conversation turns emotional, and attendees laugh and murmur in agreement. “We should have recorded this, it’s so good,” Morgan Hungerford West laments. A true “you really had to have been there” moment.
Since 2014, the phrase—or rather, the hashtag—#aCreativeDC has been a ubiquitous coda on the social media feeds (mostly Instagram) of nearly every D.C.-based millennial with any shred of creative ambition in their bones.
What started as a year-long social media and blogging flight of fancy for West to “see D.C. through a bunch of different lenses” has blossomed into a full-fledged brand: A Creative DC has over 76,000 followers on Instagram and 9,000 on Twitter. Between the two feeds, the hashtag has been used close to a million times.
Check out posts tagged with #aCreativeDC and you’ll find all manner of the District’s creative pursuits, from guitar strumming to glitter bombing to gourmet cooking. Tag your own post, and it may be blasted out on A Creative DC’s social media accounts where it’ll be seen by thousands of users.
It’s not hard to define A Creative DC’s influence (you can even call it an “influencer,” if you’re into marketing buzzwords), but what is harder to define is what, exactly, A Creative DC is.
The four-person A Creative DC team sees their project as a touchpoint that lifts up the work of different artists and creative entrepreneurs. After making an undeniable splash in the digital sphere, A Creative DC is applying those strategies to IRL events.
They’re hoping that people will use their physical space, which is available to be booked, for their own programming and creative pursuits. It’s located along Brookland’s Monroe Street Arts Walk, allowing the group to reach different audiences and support creative communities in new ways.
West herself keenly understands the critical need for arts spaces. She even gave up her own for the cause. She first rented what is now A Creative DC’s studio five years ago, at the time sharing it with a friend. Last year, she took the lease on herself, realizing she could use it as a homebase for A Creative DC activities as well as a resource for other artists. “The space allowed me to grow,” West says. “I would not have the career I have now unless I had space.”
The first use of the communal studio room was the launch of the aforementioned artist-in-residence program. Wilkins was a natural fit to kick off A Creative DC’s artist-in-residency program. She’s a D.C. native and works across just about every discipline imaginable, including fashion design, photography, styling, music, and graphic design.
Prior to her residency, Wilkins was working on her projects out of any space she could find. “My living room, other people’s living rooms, the Portrait Gallery, the MLK library,” Wilkins recalls. “Just around the city, wherever I could find [somewhere].”
In 2013, she coordinated a photoshoot to highlight the vast range of black female identity, selecting 18 models and styling all the looks herself. The resulting photo series, CATALYST, shows women filling roles from soccer players to rock musicians to scholars.
“There’s always an image around black individuals in entertainment, but I am a strong believer that we have a whole image that people don’t know about and that we want to show to the world,” Wilkins says.
After a failed attempt to mount the series as an exhibition, Wilkins was feeling defeated. “I didn’t have the money myself to print them. I didn’t really know how to print them,” she recalls. “It’s really hard to get visibility in D.C., especially when you don’t really have resources or you don’t know how to get space.”
CATALYST isn’t the only event that Wilkins has produced with the help of A Creative DC. She put on a fashion show in the studio, which featured live music from fellow musicians. “It’s been a priority of hers to share the space with people, bringing in other creatives,” says Damon King, A Creative DC’s community engagement manager. “So we’re supporting her, and she’s immediately supporting other people. Not everybody thinks like that.”
Wilkins’ impulse to use her residency to support other artists fits in line with another one of A Creative DC’s primary goals: community engagement. One of the first bookings in the studio was a pop-up for the mobile bookstore Duende District, which is currently testing out options for a permanent spot.
Duende District curates selections of books written by diverse authors, and wants to engage with local people wherever it pops up. Their pop-up at A Creative DC ran for five days, with walls decked out with work by local artists and events like an open mic poetry night.
Photo exhibitions and pop-up bookstores aren’t A Creative DC’s first forays into in-person events. Within a few months of launching their social media accounts, they started doing meetups for the creative community at Maketto.
Ayana Zaire, who was an intern for A Creative DC before becoming its events manager, facilitated discussions on issues that Distrcit artists face. The crowd was comprised of “young folks to folks that had been here a long time, native D.C. people and people who had just moved here and were trying to tap into a community that they knew existed,” Zaire recalls.
A Creative DC also partnered with the DC Public Library Foundation in 2015 to put on coworking days in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Anyone working in any creative industry could apply to attend the coworking days. “I would craft these lists of people who I thought would be cool to get in the same room together,” Zaire says.
In a city where the creative scene can sometimes feel scattershot or hidden, West says that “people were excited about opportunities to connect in real life.”
Even within the social media feeds, A Creative DC’s goal has always been to spur the audience to get out and have tangible experiences. “Digital is just one side of the story,” West says.
Ultimately, she wants people to support the work of the creatives in the feed, whether that be eating at a local chef’s restaurant or attending a local comedian’s show. A Creative DC has plans to expand their footprint even more: They’re slated to have a podcast on the forthcoming Full Service Radio network, which A Creative DC will use “to invite people in and spend time with them,” according to West. All of Full Service Radio’s programming will be recorded live in the lobby of the soon-to-open LINE hotel in Adams Morgan, where guests can drop by and watch interviews with local figures in real time.
Though A Creative DC’s primary concern is showcasing the District’s creative community to the city, it doesn’t hurt if it drives some hordes of tourists off the National Mall in the process.
“We have a 7.1 billion dollar tourism industry,” West explains. “If we can post about a local artist that’s having a show at Anacostia Arts Center, let’s get people over there. Let’s have them getting a Dolcezza gelato or something.”