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In November, Arturo Espinoza took the reins of D.C.’s Commission on the Arts & Humanities. The former managing director for the Washington Ballet hails from Colorado, where he was in administrative directorships of dance and performing arts organizations for 15 years. What can D.C. residents and artists expect to see happen during his tenure? It’s still too early to tell. Recently, Washington City Paper visited Espinoza at his headquarters in Navy Yard, where the lobby has been transformed into a chic gallery by the grace of the DCCAH Art Bank to talk about his plans for boosting the local arts community.
Washington City Paper: I’ve been looking at the strategic plan for the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities that’s online, and one of the goals clearly states that “the District has access to a number of vacant and underutilized buildings, including schools that are no longer needed, and the District has funding to make capital improvements” for what the plan calls “place-making endeavors.” Specifically, the plan also states a goal of creating 1,000 live/work spaces for artists and other creative professionals within the next five years, and I was quite surprised. That seems like a lofty goal. Can you talk a little about your plans in terms of this place-making endeavor and live work/spaces for artists?
Arturo Espinoza: One of the things we hear so frequently, particularly from the artists and arts organizations, are the demands on space to be able to both live and work. So many progressive movements in modern communities are progressing toward these live/work spaces. The District, which is evolving in many ways, is taking on restructuring and development in various areas. We’re trying to find a way to ensure that while we’re working toward building a city, we’re working toward building a city where the artists are always welcome, where the art makers will always have a place. This means that we have to have conversations with developers and the city to figure out where we can incubate and build these spaces that will serve our present and future culture.
We drive around D.C. a lot, and we have activities all over the city in all eight wards, and that’s great. But I look at these places and I think how can we activate them with art, art making, humanities experiences? So, we have a broad and bold goal in our strategic plan and the trick of course is implementing that, and that means we have to be active in the conversation with developers, with other city agencies, and with the administration. That’s part of who we are, and we have to be at the table in those discussions. We also have to be proving ourselves along the way, that what we are supporting and what we are contributing through our grant making, our projects, and events, are also feeding into that. We’re trying to respond to the needs of our artist residents: they need a place to live, they need a place to work.
Having this evolution of neighborhoods that goes on constantly means that, for us, there’s an ability to say “Where can we get in there and ensure that there’s a spot?” We have to advocate. We have to work hard on behalf of the artists and the arts organizations, so that they have a space. Sometimes just the advocacy piece is a big part of it. When that can translate into real venues, real live/work spaces, real studio environments, is where we’ll see some benefit.
WCP: Following on work with developers and the cache of spaces and funding the city has toward such spaces: Can you lend some insight into why the Bowser administration canceled the Franklin School project?
AE: I can’t. I don’t have enough information. That’s not a project I was briefed on. But I’m happy to follow up on that. (Editor’s note: Espinoza declined to comment on the project)
WCP: What kind of experience do you bring from the Washington Ballet that may help you with the challenges you face here, especially given the breadth of over 200 humanities-based organizations throughout the city?
AE: At the Washington Ballet, we had a conversation with all those we served in our constituency, whether they were dancer students, burgeoning artists, or our donors and audience members. That conversation alone, even without words and dance, was rich. And I’m able to take that conversation, outside of what I learned there, into the work I have before me at the agency and it’s not any different. It’s still about engaging in a dialogue with the constituency we serve, with the artists and arts organizations, with the D.C. residents. We need to understand what is it that we’re aiming toward, whether that’s something that comes out of our cultural plan, or our strategic plan, the dialogue in finding out what’s important to us and how we identify as a community is exactly what I’m after. That comes from my experience at the ballet. We didn’t work in isolation; we listened to what our audience was demanding of us, we also tried to push the envelope to take some artistic risks. So it’s the same thinking, the same conversation but in multiple levels with arts and humanities across the District.
WCP: You reiterate the importance of community conversation as the agency moves forward with its projects. Can you give us an idea, pragmatically speaking, how you envision those conversations actually taking place?
AE: We are working to organize a mix of forums to engage with the community on an ongoing basis including neighborhood gatherings in a town hall format, surveys with stakeholders, calls to grantees, and staff visits to studios, galleries, arts centers.
WCP: What do you say to people in the visual arts community who are concerned that you’ll sway toward the performing arts due to your background?
AE: They don’t know me. And they don’t know that what I have appreciated my entire life is my art and humanities background. Art has been part of that experience from day one, it just happens that as a child, my touchstone for that came through an arts education moment in the theater. But it continued as I went forward and understood that “this has value and this has meaning for me, so how much deeper can I go?” And that’s when I started to explore a lot of other areas. The visual arts, performance, movement, philosophy, the humanities… so certainly I have the business experience in running a performing arts organization. But that translates readily into the work that every artist produces. All artists have the same pressures, just to different degrees. Just as one would translate from one language to another, I have to be empathetic and understanding to visualize the world through another person’s scope.
WCP: Do you have a unique vision for the D.C. art scene that you want to add?
AE: Yes. The vision I have for the agency is to be connected to the artists that doesn’t just serve them at the basic level, but to build relationships with them so that we can enhance the relationship to the arts and humanities in D.C. The government and the agency serves a lot of people, and our constituents are reaching into areas that are unique to their fields or disciplines. If we can find a way to deepen the conversation and provide for reflection on what we see as our community, we’re going to be a richer and more vibrant city.
As I look at D.C.—and this is one of the things I went into when I was considering this position—I often saw the city, as an outsider, as one with politics and federal government written all over it. And I didn’t think about it being a cultural city as rich and diverse as it is. I came here a bit apprehensively, thinking “Do I really want to live in a city of government?” I want to live in a city with rich and beautiful experiences. As soon as I dove in a little further and became better acquainted with all that was happening throughout the city, I realized that this is exactly where I want to be. For me now, it’s my life ambition to be an advocate for the arts in D.C.
I want to change the perception of what’s going on and help people see something different when they think of the nation’s capitol. I think we’re poised to be leaders in the arts and humanities in a lot of ways. We have incredible talent, creativity, and history here. The more we can showcase that through a united effort—it’s not just the agency working in a vacuum on behalf of these organizations and individuals—in the collaborative nature that the arts are, we can push the envelope and make D.C. a destination for arts and culture.
WCP: The 5×5 project has been successful for attracting attention to progressive approaches to public art. Are there plans to push that further, and what plans are in place to commission permanent public art, other than murals, in our community?
AE: There are a number of plans we have in public art now. These projects are ongoing, and are often instigated by the agency, but many of them are collaborative. So whether we’re working with other agencies, public/private partnerships, we’re ensuring that public art has a place in D.C. One of the projects that we have is to map existing public art works, so that we can promote that. The District residents and the visitors, sometimes they don’t even know where they are; that’s part of our marketing role and advocacy piece. We need to identify and promote what we have.
One of the things from my background is that I understood marketing. Marketing is a big part of the agency that may not be evident. But it’s important that we are a point of reference, and to be able to show our constituency and our residents exactly what we are working to produce. These public art pieces are important to us; they help us to identify. They are iconic and long lasting in most cases, and we want to make sure that they’re impactful. We’re trying to find a path for us to ensure that we have the most impactful public art pieces.
I don’t intend to boldly go forward because we think it’s right, or because a few of us inside the agency think it’s right. Absolutely not. We serve the people, we’re with the people, and therefore we need to include the people. And that goes back to conversations. That means having an understanding of what the reaction is. So when we look at these new public art projects, some of them are commissions that are commemorative. And that’s one type of public art, but many of them are about putting public art in a place where we can engage the constituency and residents and identify with who we are as a city in relation to the public work that’s on display.
WCP: Since the Franklin School is no longer going to happen, are there plans for some sort of contemporary art center that engages global art? It seems like the DCCAH looks at the resources we have for supporting and promoting local artists, but that global dialogue of bringing in artists who are often looked over in some of the bigger museums, a contemporary art center is important to that. Are there any plans you’re considering, especially with the recent closings of the Corcoran Gallery and Artisphere, to build a space like that?
AE: We’re looking at trying to be able to promote our local artists in any way possible. Back to space and venue, having a place to showcase them is vitally important. We don’t have any present plans that the agency is undertaking; we support plans that might be in existence. So as we hear about things we are evaluating how the agency can play a role. Again, going back to “I’m new,” and having to learn everything from how our government operates to how our agency operates and the kinds of projects we’ve supported in the past and what we intend to seek out in the future, our strategic plan includes where we’re headed. But I have to get my feet wet about where the issues and concerns are, and where the opportunities are, and be able to work with our commissioners and city government to implement that plan.
I know there has to be more space out there, and more showcasing of work out there. One of the ideas I have is to create a Plein Air festival in D.C. that would be a space where the casual resident may walk by and have a new engagement with art making. Also, to be able to support a neighborhood to build a festival around this, and the ancillary activities that would go around this will create a rich, community experience. I like the idea of bringing communities together. As we look at different opportunities, permanent spaces, temporary spaces, festivals, showcases are all on the table for us to look at in order to maximize this.
Photo courtesy Washington Ballet