The entrance to Dupont Underground
One of the entrances to Dupont Underground. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

At the beginning of the month, Dupont Underground leader Robert Meins turned the organization over to new CEO Oliver Clemmons, who was previously the subterranean arts nonprofit’s CFO. 

Clemmons, 29, has been working with Dupont Underground in an official capacity since 2018, and had provided bookkeeping services for the organization from 2016 onward. He’ll be working closely with the new COO, Nora van Trotsenburg, who oversees programming. 

After less than two years as CEO, Meins feels the organization is in a stable enough position for him to return to his consulting job. “I had originally taken this job as a two-day-a-week side gig that I could help the organization with, and I was going to continue consulting on the side, and that’s not exactly what happened over the last year and a half,” he says, laughing. “It’s just time to get back to that.” Meins says he needs to take some time off, but he’ll remain with Dupont Underground as CEO emeritus and retain his seat on Dupont Circle Main Streets’ board of directors. (Main Streets’ executive director, Bill McLeod, is now a member of Dupont Underground’s board as well.) “I’ll give them as much help as they need, and I’ll stay out of their way for the rest,” he explains.

Meins, a trained development economist, took over the organization from former CEO Susan Corrigan in March 2019. At the beginning of that year, the group had a balance of about $5,000 and between $10,000 and $15,000 in arrears, according to a two-page overview they later submitted to the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. By November of 2019, both the finances and the space’s future looked dire, and Meins told DCist that an imminent closure was possible without a firm lease extension. In early 2020, the space, which is usually closed in the winter, was used for multiple artists’ markets that brought thousands of people into the tunnel. Still, the lack of a lease made it difficult to secure funding and investment. Then COVID-19 hit, immediately canceling three events scheduled for March 13, 14, and 15, and closing the venue indefinitely. While Dupont Underground was closed this spring, its 2014 lease expired, and the group still hasn’t secured an extension. 

But Dupont Underground is hanging in there, according to its leadership. “We have plenty of money in the bank to continue operations; we are starting to develop key strategies to keep the Underground in place going forward. We’re working right now with the city to finish up lease negotiations,” Clemmons says. The organization received money from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan initiative, plus a small business recovery microgrant from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and money from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Meins says, which helped the organization handle the impact of the pandemic. 

On Oct. 2, it opened its second exhibition since March, rise up., featuring submitted photographs from the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The show is open to visitors on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November, and has a virtual component for those who don’t visit in person. “We’re following the legal requirements set for Phase 2; we require all the guests to wear masks and [practice] social distancing. We have hand sanitation stations set up, and we have markers and stuff on the ground for people to follow while they’re in the space,” Clemmons says. (He says he was shopping for contactless thermometers when City Paper called.) “We have a temporary ventilation system set up which basically circulates air through the space—brings air from the outside in and then pushes that air out” using five fans, positioned at the entrances and through the space, that run 24 hours a day. Visitors can reserve tickets in advance and only 50 people are allowed in the Underground at once. 

Earlier this year, Meins acknowledged criticisms of the organization’s Whiteness, calling them “absolutely right, and it’s something that we’ve discussed with the board.” When asked about diversifying leadership as the new CEO, Clemmons says “when I first started with the organization, there wasn’t a lot of diversity with the board or the staff. We obviously have a good mix of female and male … we have more females than men, both on the board and in the staff. But we’re starting to bring in a lot more representation from the African American community, the Latino community—we’re trying to get a good mix so there’s a lot of ideas and people of all different backgrounds.” Three new people have joined the DU board this year: McLeod, Dupont Underground co-founder Lucrecia Laudi, who is Argentine, and the group’s jazz ambassador Changamiré, who is Black.

Clemmons says he wants to encourage more diverse programming. “We are going to start offering a lot more exhibits that bring in the community at large. It’s always been the case, but there’s a plethora of artists in D.C. who could use the space. We’re working on partnerships with some minority-run organizations in the city to basically use the space for their events—and that can mean anything from theater to comedy to artwork to photography, anything you can think of,” he says. “I’m also gay myself, having taken a leadership role; I’m going to try to bring in more gay events into the space, since Dupont Circle is an area that reflects a lot of the gay community in D.C.”

Meins feels confident about the transition. “Oliver is one of the four or five people who literally helped save the organization over the last year and a half. He brought in the money from the EIDL, and that was a huge contribution to making sure we survived COVID,” he says. The CEO’s current duties will be divided between Clemmons and van Trotsenberg after Meins and the board realized they needed “to split that CEO position up into three—one person who is responsible for finances and admin, one person who does programming, and one person who deals with all the stuff that came into play this year, which is the politics, the board,” Meins says. “Now, the challenge will be to find either another CFO or someone who can play that role on the board. The most important things, the CEO and the programming, have been taken care of. I would be terrified to leave if it weren’t for the fact that together, there are two people who are much more competent than I could ever be.”

Clemmons will mostly focus on negotiations with DMPED and capital improvements that will ensure the space’s function in the coming years. “The main priority right now is, number one, securing the lease,” Clemmons explains. “After that, it’s going to be developing the space, making it so that we can showcase more events there and bring in more people. The first major component that will go into the space will be a dry pipe system, which will ensure we have complete safety. After that, it’s going to be providing ADA accessibility, it’s going to be putting in toilets and stuff like that into the space, and then it will be doing the HVAC system.”

As a member of the newly formed National Independent Venue Association, Dupont Underground knows that pulling venues through the pandemic is a tall order. NIVA said in June that without more government relief, 90 percent of its surveyed members could close in the coming months due to lost revenues. Meins remains hopeful. “We really managed to turn around Dupont Underground,” he says. “I think in the past, people saw it more as a venue and not as a community, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to build this year, and that’s what I’m super proud of. It’s only with a community that you’re able to weather storms like COVID.”