Rhizome DC.
Rhizome DC. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s Jan. 14, 2021, and Rhizome DC is hosting a virtual event called “Mindful Listening in Isolated Times.” Molly Jones, a Chicago-based improviser and composer, has been practicing sound-based meditation for the past 11 months and wants to share the experience with others.

“Unlike a lot of Zoom meetings, I would invite you, if you’re comfortable, to turn on your microphone,” Jones says. “We’re trying to perceive the electronic space we’re in together as an extension of our physical space.” She leads a listening-focused meditation, and speaker view flicks to various screens as the clanking of dishes or a smattering of conversation cuts through the silence.

Jones’ workshop, from her effort to foster a sense of community online to her lack of previous experience as a mindful listening facilitator, encapsulates the work Rhizome DC, a nonprofit community arts space in Takoma, has been doing this past year. Before March 2020, Rhizome was largely a music venue that hosted several shows per week. But since the pandemic’s start, music venues around D.C., from Black Cat to The Anthem, have hosted few, if any, events because of social distancing mandates. Some, including U Street Music Hall, have closed permanently. Throughout this devastation, Rhizome has remained active by hosting regular virtual workshops, ranging from a “puppet lab” to a “dream cafe,” as well as some outdoor concerts and a few socially distanced visual exhibitions. Layne Garrett, Rhizome’s program director, attributes the organization’s success relative to traditional music venues, in part, to its diverse programming pre-pandemic.

“Workshops and other educational programs have happened all along, but they have made up a bigger share of our online programming,” he says. “It’s a more natural fit online than trying to re-create the experience of live music or other types of performance. … It seemed like the most fertile ground to focus on.”

Since opening in 2016, Rhizome has presented visual art exhibitions, music-making workshops, and pretty much any other arts-related activity imaginable in addition to live performances. The organization’s mission helps to explain its eclectic programming. According to its website, Rhizome is “exploring new approaches to grassroots community education which seek to blur the lines between amateur and professional, teacher and student, and which free learning from rigid models of instruction
and explication.”

Rhizome schedules and runs its events through volunteer-based leadership—the organization is run by seven board members, and Garrett is the only one receiving pay. The organization covers its rent, event costs, and Garrett’s salary with donations and occasional grants. Despite the limitations of a non-professional staff, not having a slew of employees on payroll has allowed Rhizome to remain active during the pandemic.

The organization’s focus on grassroots and non-hierarchical education shines through its current programming, perhaps even more so than it did when Rhizome focused on live music. In addition to online workshops, the space has offered modified visual art exhibitions. In October, art educator and curator Paula Martinez put on a show called Água Parada (Portuguese for stagnant water) on Rhizome’s top floor.

“I [originally] had an idea for a show … called Água Viva … about this feeling that I have, that usually comes in like January or February, [of missing] the feeling of being sweaty in the summer,” Martinez says. When the pandemic reached D.C., she “thought it needed to be tweaked a little bit. I couldn’t make a show as if this summer was just the same as all the other summers I’ve had.”

The pandemic’s impact on her interactions with gallery visitors resonated with Martinez: Rhizome allowed only one group into the building at a time, so she ended up giving each one a personal tour of the exhibition.

“I thought that was a really positive experience, where I built a show and then was able to learn more about the show as I talked to people about how they perceived it,” she says.“If I wasn’t doing this exhibition during COVID, I wouldn’t have been able to get that kind of experience.”

Despite its temporary shift away from music, Rhizome has managed to host more concerts than most local venues this past year: In the fall, it hosted a number of outdoor concerts on the building’s lawn. Luke Stewart, a board member since 2020 and a nationally renowned bassist, even performed at two concerts in September and October. 

“I think performing outdoors is always a fun experience, and I think we’re kind of normalized at this point to people wearing masks and being socially distanced,” he says. “If anything, it felt special because I could feel the need for it. People were really excited, on a level that hasn’t been experienced … to witness live music, so the connection with [the audience was] that much deeper, perhaps.”

Colin White, a Riggs Park resident, agreed. On Nov. 21, he went to a concert featuring local bands Rosie Cima & What She Dreamed and Lightmare, his first since the pandemic reached D.C.

“To be able to just appreciate and enjoy music in that kind of communal setting with other people, where you take it for granted for your entire life and then it’s gone, it was really, really impactful,” he says. He added that he was impressed by Rhizome’s social distancing measures. “It was just a really well put-on event,” he says. “You made the reservations ahead of time, everything was very much social-distanced, everybody was masked up, [and] it was outside, so I felt really safe.”

Though Rhizome stopped putting on outdoor shows as it got colder, the board plans to begin offering them once more as the weather warms up.

“I’m looking forward to picking [it] back up again in the spring, assuming that COVID numbers drop again,” Garrett says. “They have to drop sometime, right?”

And though the pandemic did not deal as harsh a blow to Rhizome as it did other arts spaces, Rhizome continues to worry about its future—the board learned in August of a proposal to develop affordable housing that may displace it.

“We definitely have months to be there, but exactly how many months is up in the air,” Garrett says. The board is actively looking for a new space and hopes to find one that will allow them to stay in Takoma and continue putting on outdoor events.

If Rhizome’s ability to adapt during the pandemic is any indication, a move is unlikely to prevent the organization from continuing to find a home for nontraditional arts programming in D.C.

“We have a couple hundred monthly supporters who have stuck with us. Artists haven’t disappeared. People’s need for community and for connection and for higher-level interactions with ideas and experiences outside the realm of the mundane day to day—it’s all still there,” Garrett says. “We’re just doing our small bit to make things happen, to provide those opportunities.”