Speaking to the District’s arts organizations this morning, Mayor Vince Gray laid out something of a grand vision for the arts: “I want people in London, I want people in Paris, I want people in the world-class cities to say, ‘You know what? They’ve got it going on in Washington, D.C.’,” Gray said. One thing he didn’t lay out: How the city will pay for that vision.
He was addressing about 150 arts leaders, administrators, and supporters from 85 organizations at the annual meeting of the nonprofit coalition Cultural Tourism DC. Speaking at the National Museum of Natural History, Gray described the arts as an “economic engine” of the city, and said that the District should aspire to be a cultural center. He cited examples in which arts organizations have helped stabilize neighborhoods: Studio Theatre near Logan Circle, the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW, Shakespeare Theatre Company at Gallery Place. He said the arts in D.C. are more accessible than in most places (while also lamenting “the number of children who have not been exposed to the Smithsonian” and other institutions) and that the arts help showcase D.C.’s neighborhoods, offering the Deanwood walking tour as an example.
But the tone quickly took a sobering turn. “We have some very serious challenges facing us and that is the best euphemism I can find,” Gray said, characterizing the city’s budgetary woes—-a $500 million deficit projected for the next fiscal year, he said—-as “horrendous.” My take: Don’t expect the District to contribute $30 million to another Arena Stage any time soon.
Or perhaps to less costly projects, as well. “Not everything takes money,” he later said. Then he stressed the importance of working with the city’s agencies, calling on organizations to collaborate with him “to bring arts and culture to every neighborhood in this city.”
Much of his speech centered on education—-on hooking kids on the arts early, on emphasizing arts programs in public schools. He praised a “renaissance of our library system,” and called for arts organizations to work with it more.
Audience members submitted questions on note cards, which Cultural Tourism Executive Director Linda Harper read to the mayor. The first was simple: Who should organizations contact to work with libraries and schools? Gray said the D.C. Commission the Arts and Humanities, to which, he said, he’ll be adding staff. (The commission doles out several million dollars in arts grants every year. Its last executive director under Mayor Adrian Fenty, Gloria Nauden, wasn’t asked to stay on under Gray. The current interim director is Ayris T. Scales. DCCAH commissioner Judith Terra—-who was an arts chair of Gray’s transition team—-told me to expect a permanent appointment soon.) When asked about specific arts programs that have been successful, Gray asked the audience to share with him its ideas.
Toward the end, Harper thanked Gray for sharing his vision for the arts, as well as for his take on the state of the arts in D.C. My read of the crowd: They were more thrilled by the latter than the former.