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A hunger for arts east of the river

Dancers perform at a fundraiser for THEARC, Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, in Ward 8

A number of arts organizations—many of them less than a decade old—are slowly turning Wards 7 and 8 from “art deserts” to art destinations. But the change of pace is slower than many would like.
The President has visited four times. Music legend Quincy Jones taught a class there. 80,000 people visit each year. There’s a middle school and medical facility on site.

THEARC, or the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. In that decade it’s grown beyond its organizers’ wildest imaginings to a building that many consider their “home away from home.”

“I think this has gone far beyond anyone’s expectations,” says Edmund Fleet, the organization’s director. It is one of a handful of cultural organizations that have opened in Ward 8 in the last 10 years. Along with the Anacostia Arts Center, Honfleur Gallery, and the Anacostia Playhouse, THEARC is helping to bring the ward closer to being an art destination than an art desert. But Ward 8 is home to more than 70,000 people. Another 70,000 live in Ward 7.

There are some that would argue that all of D.C. is an art desert, not just the areas east-of-the-river, and perhaps that’s true when you put our city of just under 650,000 up against behemoths like Chicago or New York. But it’s also true that the arts that we do have in D.C., which are not insignificant, are disproportionately clustered west of the river.

With its 10 partner organizations, THEARC has brought arts into the lives of tens of thousands of people in every ward of the city, as well as patrons from Maryland and Virginia. The Washington Ballet’s outreach program is headquartered here, where it offers dance classes for adults and children as well as performances throughout the year. Levine Music offers classes and performances, including master classes—like the aforementioned one from Quincy Jones. Artreach (formerly Corcoran Artreach) lets kids express themselves through painting, printmaking, and more, and the theater, where schools put on plays and graduations, officials give big speeches, and high school and college students learn production and stage management, sees 300 events a year.

In the summer it shows movies, which sounds a little pedestrian compared to the other events the theater has held, but Fleet says it’s important. “There’s not a movie theater east of the Anacostia River,” he says. “Young people have to go over to Chinatown or Wisconsin Avenue to do something we took for granted as kids.”

Fleet admits, though, that there’s a bit of a disconnect. While 60 to 70 percent of THEARC’s visitors are from Wards 7 or 8, “I think that we have room for growth…doing more targeted marketing toward those individuals where there’s still a technological divide and may not have access to the Internet and go on our website and get our newsletter.” He hopes that with the recent hiring of a new marketing director (Nikki Peele, better known as the Ward 8 activist @TheAdvoc8te) THEARC can reach out to more potential patrons.

Space Needed
Over in Ward 7, the situation is more…evolving. “We need a gallery, we need space—period,” says Kimberly Gaines, a creative consultant who lives in Deanwood. She says that it’s a struggle to find good spaces to display art. That the arts organizations that do exist in Ward 7 often need help navigating the grantmaking process. And that some talented artists are being overlooked.

“We have artists that work with paper, artists that make dolls. We have crafters on this side, but they’re not high-tech artists. So a lot of times, because they’re not high-tech,” they kind of get left by the wayside.” Gaines and Seshat Walker, another Deanwood creative strategist, both say that the city’s grantmaking process is difficult to navigate for a non-tech-savvy individual outside the “art scene.” The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (which is partially sponsoring this report as part of the Curate Your Culture event series) offers workshops to help demystify the process, but Walker says some artists don’t even know to look online to find the workshop schedule.

“This has actually been a recurring issue for us with our grant programs in general, as Wards 7 and 8 do not have the same level of internet access as other parts of the city,” says Jeffrey Scott, the DCCAH’s communications director. “In the past we have tried to promote various programs through print and radio advertising, which we intend to do more of this year for our upcoming grants season, and hopefully engaging the local ANC’s to help spread the word about the grants and the workshops.”

That information may help. Out of the 330 grants the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities gave out for fiscal year 2015, 12 went to organizations or individuals in Ward 7 and 21 went to organizations or individuals in Ward 8. Out of $7.5 million distributed, Wards 7 and 8 got $616,057, less than 10 percent.

This is admittedly a rather crude way of measuring how arts dollars are distributed: some organizations may be based outside of Wards 7 or 8 but do plenty of work in the ward. Nowhere is the limitation of the count-the-raw-dollars method more obvious than the Commission's East of the River grant category, which distributed $455,727 dollars to 27 organizations. More than half of the grant-receiving organizations were based west of the river, though the money they received through the grant has to be spent on programming in Wards 7 or 8.

Basically, the numbers only tell part of the story.

But Gaines wonders whether there are qualified artists and organizations that should be getting higher levels of funding.

“Our numbers are still low on this side of town,” she says. “The grants we receive are kind of, like, we’re not even on the chart.”

A vibrant art community east of the river would bring residents closer, she says. “This side of town, we’re commuters. We commute downtown. It’s difficult not having art-related entertainment on this side of town. Now, fortunately, you can go over to Southeast, but even still, you’re leaving your community. I just want to see a show in my neighborhood.”

Walker sees potential. “As long as there are people coming into [Deanwood] who are advocating for the arts, support it and believe in it, I think it will be a premier arts center.”

Can't get enough of this topic? Sign up for our conversation/panel discussion on cultural equity, to be held in partnership with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities on Feb. 17.

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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