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The juxtaposition is strange: In the middle of a strip of dingy carry-outs, boarded-up storefronts, and a methadone clinic sits an art gallery with a French name and an elegant atmosphere to match. Honfleur Gallery on Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia, with its clean white design and diverse exhibitions, “looks like it belongs in New York, Paris, or anywhere else in the world,” says Duane Gautier, president of the ARCH Development Corporation, which owns the gallery.

That contrast is by design. Gautier is in the midst of a campaign to transform economically stagnant Anacostia into a bustling neighborhood, using galleries and other arts spaces that might, for the time being, appear out of place as catalysts.

“For the 30 years that I’ve been working in Anacostia, the D.C. government and think tanks have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for how to regenerate Anacostia, and they’ve basically never been implemented,” Gautier says. “It’s simple. What you need to do is make Anacostia a destination for the arts.”

Gautier’s idea is this: Galleries and theaters bring foot traffic. Foot traffic brings dollars. Dollars bring businesses. And so if Anacostia can become an arts destination for five to six nights a week, retailers that have up to now shunned the neighborhood will start to see a business opportunity there.

“There’s not enough disposable income in the neighborhood to actually have the type of commercial and retail activity that the residents want,” Gautier says. “So therefore you need to bring in outside income that will bolster the income that’s in the community, so you can have the restaurants, you can have the retail, and so forth.”

For the first two and a half decades of its existence, ARCH focused on job training, but Gautier was increasingly bothered by Anacostia’s deterioration and vacant storefronts and wanted to add an element of economic development. He lacked the expertise to orchestrate large-scale development projects, but he’d helped form artist cooperatives in Russia following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and thought he’d apply that experience to Anacostia. So in 2004 and 2005, ARCH drafted a strategic plan for the arts. Since then, Gautier and ARCH have opened two galleries and now the Anacostia Arts Center, with small gallery spaces and a theater, on Good Hope Road; provided an interest-free loan to help bring the Anacostia Playhouse to Shannon Place SE; and organized the annual LUMEN8Anacostia arts festival. Gautier aims to bring an additional two to three galleries to the neighborhood.

ARCH has already succeeded in changing Anacostia’s streetscapes and attracting people who had never before visited the neighborhood for arts events. That’s led some people to worry about the creep of gentrification, though others—Gautier included—insist that Anacostia desperately needs neighborhood amenities and that filling empty storefronts doesn’t necessarily lead to displacement. So far, restaurants and retail have been slow to follow.

So is investing in the arts the right way to bring about economic revitalization in a struggling neighborhood? It’s too early to reach a definitive verdict for Anacostia, but the experiences of other cities can be instructive.

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Gautier cites a few models for arts-spurred development: Minneapolis; the south side of Chicago; SoHo and Chelsea in New York. But the example he points to most is Providence, R.I., which did what he says he’s attempting in Anacostia: ensuring that galleries in economically depressed areas look like they’re straight out of Paris.

“If you take a look at where they developed in the beginning, their galleries, the government put a lot of money into making sure those galleries were quality places,” Gautier says of Providence.

Providence’s past was rougher than Anacostia’s present. “In the ’70s and ’80s it was really a ghost town, and the downtown was a wasteland,” says Lynne McCormack, Providence’s director of art, culture, and tourism. “The only reason people went downtown was to go to the theater, or for porn or prostitution.”

In the 1990s, McCormack says, the city provided a loan to create an arts building on a prostitution-ridden street, with retail on the ground floor and artist spaces upstairs. Others soon followed, and in 1998, a downtown arts district was formed. The arts never quite caught on downtown, she says, but “it sent the message that we were an arts city.” So when the city started a second arts district in the “more funky” west side, where artists were already living, the arts scene started booming.

But Providence did a couple of things that Anacostia is not doing at the moment. First, the ground-floor retail associated with arts spaces helped bring vitality to the streets, whereas ARCH is hoping that retail will follow arts into Anacostia. (Charles Gray, a professor of business economics at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who’s researched the effects of arts on economic development, says arts districts tend to be more successful when a city “coordinate[s] development so arts and restaurants and shops come at the same time.”)

More important, Providence’s arts development was backed up with city money. Not only did the city provide the loans to get the arts buildings off the ground, which helped persuade banks that they could safely lend additional funds, it also offered substantial tax incentives: There’s no sales tax on art sold in the arts district galleries and no income tax for the artists on those sales. Providence also benefited from state historic tax credits for repurposing old mill buildings, which have since expired.

“The galleries probably wouldn’t have gone there without tax incentives,” says McCormack.

The Anacostia arts scene has likewise required a substantial investment. According to Gautier, ARCH has put close to $700,000, raised from the private sector, into the various arts facilities and $155,000 from the city into LUMEN8Anacostia last year and this year. (The 2012 LUMEN8 funds included some money granted to the Office of Planning by the nonprofit ArtPlace.) ARCH has received “less than $100,000” over five years from the Commission on the Arts and Humanities to operate its arts programs, as well as funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development to publicize Anacostia’s arts scene.

But branding and facilities only get you so far; persuading artists that Anacostia is a great place to work is another matter. The neighborhood doesn’t offer special tax incentives—Gautier says he’s lobbied the administrations of Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray, unsuccessfully, for a more direct subsidy of the arts but is skeptical of tax breaks that would make artists a “special class”—or spacious old warehouses or, for now, a critical mass of potential customers. Nor does it have an existing community of artists big enough to make the scene explode. In this sense, it’s more like Providence’s downtown than its west side.

The nearest example of arts-driven development is just outside D.C.’s borders, stretching from Mount Rainier to Hyattsville in Prince George’s County. It’s not exactly the model Anacostia should be hoping to emulate, since it spans a long stretch of Route 1 and isn’t remotely walkable. But it’s helped spur strong development, attracting retail like Busboys and Poets, which Anacostia has been trying to bring to the neighborhood for years. And it had two advantages Anacostia doesn’t. The first was simultaneous development of arts, retail, and residential spaces. And the second was an existing population of artists.

“There was a sense that this was already part of the community, and we could amplify it as a development strategy,” says Mount Rainier City Council member Brent Bolin. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s been successful. They didn’t just throw a dart at a map and say, ‘This is gonna be an arts district.’”

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Charles Gray says that arts-driven development tends to follow one of two patterns. The first is organic: “When a neighborhood is downtrodden, rents become affordable, and if it has reasonable access and amenities, then artists find it a good place to set up shop,” he says. “They provide a stabilizing influence for the neighborhood and lots of street traffic, and then what tends to happen is, this signals to the rental and retail markets that this is a viable community. And it starts to redevelop.” The downside, he says, is that it then becomes more expensive, and artists and other former residents are driven out.

The other model involves “well thought-out and intentional subsidies” from the city to bring the arts to a neighborhood. While this requires a greater investment, Gray says it can sometimes allow artists to stick around as long as the subsidies remain.

Anacostia doesn’t quite follow either model. So can it succeed as an arts district—and as a thriving neighborhood? Gautier says we’re already seeing evidence that the answer is yes. At LUMEN8Anacostia last year, a number of pop-up “temporiums” set up shop in vacant buildings. “Is it a coincidence that now five of those vacant buildings have tenants in them?” Gautier asks. “We believe that Lumen8 did not cause them directly to relocate to Anacostia, but what it did do was show the potential.” Those tenants include two used-clothing stores and a dental lab, but no art uses.

Likewise, Gautier says, since the April 26 opening of a jazz series that featured a pop-up restaurant in the Anacostia Arts Center, he’s heard from five people who want to open pop-up restaurants in the neighborhood. And while he anticipated that the hardest space in the Arts Center to rent out would be the cafe, he says the first letter of intent signed there was actually for the cafe space. (Gautier declines to name the operator, saying it will be announced at a May 30 community meeting, but reveals that it won’t be a chain, that the operator runs a restaurant in Petworth, and that much of the food will be locally sourced.)

The response from neighbors to ARCH’s approach has been mixed. Gautier says he’s worked closely with the community and won its support. But when asked about neighbors’ thoughts on the arrival of the new galleries, Historic Anacostia Block Association President Charles Wilson pauses and considers his words carefully.

“I’m trying to find a way to phrase my answer without offending the work that ARCH is doing,” Wilson says, promising to call back when he’s gathered his thoughts. He adds later, “I don’t think my neighbors are against the idea of becoming an arts district, but I don’t think the message or the vision has been properly communicated to the community.” Wilson thinks the arts are “one way” to bring about development in Anacostia, but that other avenues, like historic preservation to attract more tourism, should be explored.

But Gautier says the results of ARCH’s arts push speak for themselves. “Anacostia has seen storefronts being filled up,” he says. “We’ve seen new types of businesses move in. Is that the result of the great publicity we’ve received from our arts and culture? I believe it is.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery