The art of Amber Robles-Gordon is the art of Anacostia, quite literally.
Robles-Gordon cobbles together sculptures and canvas collages from scraps of paper and fabric she finds in the neighborhood’s trash cans and storefront windows. She’s shown her work at the Honfleur Gallery. Right now, she has a striking wire and fabric mesh artwork on view near the Deanwood Metro stop.
But as ARCH Development Corporation continues to expand its constellation of arts destinations in Anacostia—the latest is the Anacostia Arts Center on Good Hope Road SE—Robles-Gordon wonders if her neighborhood will still have room for her.
There’s a tendency to see Anacostia, long on talent and struggle but short on just about everything else, as a blank canvas. With the right kinds of art and advertising, the thinking goes, Anacostia can become a hub for the creative class. But who gets left out?
“The artists here need gallery space, they need exposure,” Robles-Gordon says. “I don’t want [Anacostia] to become a shipping factory, where you’re just shipping people in, giving them something, and shipping them back out. That’s not how you build a community.”
Whether—and how—a community’s art infrastructure should aim to draw new people to the neighborhood or serve the people who already live here (or do a little of both) has animated the debate over Anacostia’s cultural scene for 50 years. As District officials and neighborhood fixtures like ARCH try to use arts institutions to spark economic growth, that same question is popping up again: Whom should these organizations try to reach?
In the 1960s, the Smithsonian struggled to attract Washington’s African American residents to the Mall. So it decided to bring the arts to them instead. The Smithsonian’s outpost in Anacostia first opened in 1967, and it was run out of a storefront (the abandoned Carver Theater, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE). A neighborhood-based advisory committee selected which works would show.
The museum hired a photographer to document the neighborhood’s changes; the Carnegie Corporation funded a research center with the express purpose of taking oral histories from residents. The result was something of an anomaly in Washington, at the time and even now—a museum dedicated to promoting east-of-the-river artists and issues. (One 1969 exhibit documented the rodent problem in the streets.) But over time the museum’s mission evolved from chronicling the neighborhood to examining the African-American experience.
The new ARCH projects, too, are designed to attract cultural consumers more than a neighborhood-specific space might. But to make that work, ARCH CEO Duane Gautier thinks he needs art that looks beyond Anacostia’s borders. “I want something that’s cutting-edge,” he says. That means recruiting shows on graffiti, tattoos, or whatever else from across the city, country, or world. (Already, ARCH runs an international exchange program, bringing artists-in-residence to stay in Anacostia for a year at a time.) “I don’t only want to show only African-American art,” says Gautier, who believes all kinds of people want to see all kinds of work. “Why do you think African American people only want to see African American art?”
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Near Fort Stanton Park, Juanita Britton also wields art as a community-development weapon. But though she works directly with ARCH (and supports their mission), her own gallery is focused on creating a beautiful space within the neighborhood that will appeal to Anacostia residents.
Britton’s Anacostia Gallery is a colorful mish-mash of African masks, full-bodied fertility-goddess statues, beaded drums, and east-of-the-river history books—anything that falls under the auspices of the African diaspora. In her backyard, there is the Kwame Nkrumah Garden, named for the 1960s-era Ghanian president who founded the Organization of African Unity. The gallery, nestled on a quiet residential street, is Britton’s former home.
A Detroit native, Britton has lived in Washington since the 1980s; she bought the space in 2003. For the next few years, she painted the house a neon lemon with purple and blue swirls, filled the front porch with paintings, covered the columns in rainbow geometric patterns, and refused to put up curtains. Britton wanted the neighborhood to feel welcome at her monthly dinner parties, she says. It worked. Though D.C. police stats show there have been 38 violent crime incidents within 1,000 feet of her gallery in the past year, no one has tried to steal her art or break in. “People left me alone because they thought I did voodoo magic,” she jokes.
Instead, kids come by after school to twirl one of the 30 hula hoops she keeps in the back yard. About 150 people stop by each month, many to browse, some to buy a piece of art.
Britton moved to a nearby place in 2010 and converted her house into an art space. Today, an Anacostia Gallery sign covers the second-floor windows. Two signs flash “OPEN” in bright red. She sees herself as the dean of the neighborhood’s art scene—or this part of it, at least.
In the two hours I’m with her, several locals drop in to chat, buy Mother’s Day cards, or request help promoting an event. (Britton runs a Facebook page and an email list, and has been known to put out robocalls to solicit attendees to her events.) “I am of here and from here,” she says. “I love Anacostia, I want to pull people up here.”
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Eighteen years ago, the Smithsonian Museum was renamed the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, reflecting its broader focus. As plans for the Mall’s National Museum of African American History and Culture came together, Anacostia’s museum again got a new name: the Anacostia Community Museum. Now, an outpost that had once served only Anacostia would be dedicated to urban life and what it means to be a community.
Today, alongside some D.C.-focused programming, there is an exhibit called “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement.” The website champions the event as the “inaugural exhibit of the museum’s reinvention,” celebrating its ability to examine the conservation efforts in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Los Angeles, and Beijing.
That’s fine with Bruce McNeil, a photographer who’s shot in the communities around the Anacostia River for two decades. He grew up in Anacostia and moved back a decade ago to help his ailing mother. He describes his work as “abstract expressionism,” often blending several images together, tweaking colors, and hiding jokes among the trees and trash. McNeil has shown his work at the Anacostia Community Museum; last year he had a pop-up in ARCH’s LUMEN8 festival. His photos have also been featured at Parish Gallery in Georgetown. His work is about the way the neighborhood and the river interact, but he likes finding an audience outside of Anacostia: “I appreciate the opportunity to have my work seen around.”
The key, explains Jason Anderson, an actor and music manager who goes by Jay Sun, is balance. When arts organizations come into a neighborhood, he explains, they’re often pulled by the creative culture that’s already there. So arts companies have to offer local people a place at the table, even if other seats are filled by nonlocals.
As a model, he points to the soon-to-open Anacostia Playhouse, where he, among others, will perform this summer: “They’re getting our artistic voice in, while still bringing in other companies and doing more traditional things.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery