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Southwest redevelopments bring new life and more space for the visual arts

A former church has been converted to BLIND WHINO, an arts space decorated with an enormous mural. This month it has been host to the G40 Arts Summit, a month-long festival of visual and performing art


The Joe Herrera Afro-Funk Quartet performing at the G40 Arts Summit

Brothers Ellis (left) and Emmett Early draw with markers on a mural that is part of the G40 Art Summit



In D.C.'s smallest quadrant, an arts revolution is quietly taking place.
Southwest has been the guinea pig for well-meaning planners and changemakers since the 1950s, when city planners flattened most of it in the name of "urban renewal." But now, among imposing Brutalist buildings and vacant lots, Southwest is making a comeback with the help of the arts.
 
“There's a community in Southwest that stands for and has always been residential and personal,” says Mera Rubell, art collector and co-owner of the Capitol Skyline Hotel.
 
And for many of those residents, the developments in Southwest are about bringing artists into the community in order to create a positive experience.
 
“Any time you can draw an artists into an community, you're enhancing the community,” Rubell says. Any time artists are a part of the envisioning process, you get outside the box, she says. 
 
“The arts have always been here,” but there's definitely been a re-invigoration due to all of the new developments, Kael Anderson, president of the SW ArtsFest, says.
 
Art is also drawn to what's affordable, and there's a lot of affordable space in Southwest, she says.
 
On September 6th, the Blind Whino Southwest Arts Club opened its doors. The club's headquarters is an abandoned church transformed into an art lovers' dream. Colorful, larger-than-life murals brighten both the interior and exterior walls, making the building itself a piece of public art.
 
But the main purpose of the club is to facilitate anything and everything arts related.
 
Blind Whino, the non-profit arm of art gallery Art Whino, will provide art classes, exhibits and concerts to the community, says Ian Callendar, co-founder of the club. Blind Whino kicked off its opening with the G40 Art Summit, a month-long arts exhibit that will run until October 6th.
 
Regarding the rise in arts-related business and buildings in Southwest, Callendar maintains that it's all a matter of space. It's just easier to mold undeveloped land, he says.
 
A woman, a plan, a museum
“The underdevelopment of Southwest was actually picked up some time ago by ... Mera [Rubell],” Callendar says.
 
Indeed the founders of Blind Whino seem to be taking notes from the Rubells, the Capitol Skyline Hotel owners and the force behind bringing Art Basel to Miami.
 
The hotel boasts an art lounge and is also home to the (e)merge art fair, which is in its third year. (e)merge occurs in early October and connects artists to curators and collectors.
 
“(e)merge really energizes the arts community,” says Lisa Gold, director of the Washington Project for the Arts.
 
This past February, the Rubells invited WPA to move its offices into the hotel.
 
The Rubells believed that the WPA's presence, much like (e)merge, would also reinvigorate the space, Gold says.
 
ďAny time you can draw an artists into an community, you're enhancing the community."
Furthermore, in 2010, the Rubells purchased the abandoned Randall School, across the street from the Capitol Skyline, and have plans to turn it into an art museum and residences.
 
“Art needs space,” says Philippa Hughes, founder and "chief creative contrarian" of the D.C.-based Pink Line Project, a website that promotes and aggregates arts-related events in the District. “If space is available, artists will go into it.”
 
Southwest community draws positivity from art
There's an underlying sense of community and connectivity that permeates Southwest.
 
The annual  SW ArtsFest is an example. It began three years ago, and was born when residents came together with the unified goal of bringing positive attention to the quadrant through the arts, says Donna Ledbetter, outreach director of the fest.
 
The festival, which will be held on September 28 this year, features family-friendly art activities and will also feature several local artists displaying and selling their creations.
 
The most unique feature of the festival is how space in Southwest is used. Instead of one station, the festival will be held at multiple locations, including the historic duck pond, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church and Arena Stage. The fest will end at Blind Whino, where guests can view pieces from the G40 art summit and meet some of the artists.
 
“The nature of the festival is decentralized,” Anderson says.
 
There were so many things going on in the neighborhood that a decision was made to turn it into one, big festival, he says.
 
The fest will continue to grow in the coming years, a reaction to the growth in Southwest as a whole.
 
A few years ago, outsiders never thought to come to Southwest for visual arts. Because of all of these new developments, says WPA's Gold, that mindset is changing.

Read more articles by Danielle Cralle.

Danielle Cralle is a journalist hailing from Chicago. She loves to write about any and everything, but she has extensive experience writing about health care. She can be reached at [email protected].
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