Art Table “State of Art/DC: A Conversation” Part Two: More Dynamic, Diverse, and Inclusive

Image by Rachelle Williams for East City Art.

Image by Rachelle Williams for East City Art.

On February 22, ArtTable hosted its second “State of Art/DC: A Conversation” at Long View Gallery. This conversation proved to be more dynamic than the one held November 16, 2015, in part, because there was a greater focus on artists themselves, how they see their work, and what they envision could be true for the future of visual arts in Washington, DC. This group of panelists was also more diverse and included the voices of more people of color. Most importantly, the panelists were more representative of the visual arts in Washington, DC proper. This lent itself to a better perspective on what is happening in and with the District’s visual arts scene, as did the inclusion of an Open Mike allowing audience members to participate.

Presenting in Pecha Kucha style, the panelists addressed a number of interesting and important issues, including arts activism and advocacy, artist workspace, the DC arts economy, and artist collaboration.

Holly Bass, artist and director of Holly Bass 360, got the conversation off to a great start by talking about the ways in which DC shaped her artistic experience. When she moved here in 1994, she said she originally thought DC had no arts scene and considered moving to New York. Bass, however, decided to stay in DC and soon realized there was more of an art scene here that she initially thought. Unfortunately, it seems, this is a common belief and so, her story helped to disrupt the misconception that DC’s art scene is emerging versus already firmly established. Bass continued by describing the vibrancy of the DC arts scene during her early days and recalling the various artists she met and had the opportunity to work with. Based on her experiences, one of the things Bass envisioned for the future of visual arts in DC includes the creation of a city museum that features local artists’ works.

Brandon Morse, a DC based artist and art professor at University of Maryland, works with generative systems to examine physical phenomena such as entropy and emergence. These phenomena–entropy and emergence–were used as “the perfect metaphors” for understanding and discussing the visual arts in DC. Morse explained that while gentrification and the economy act as entropic forces that have implications for art practices, art production, and viability as an artist in DC, out of this emerges organizations and programs, for example, which intervene and help to foster the visual arts and artists. For Morse, out of chaos, uncertainty, and disorder, there is always the hope that something complex and compelling will materialize.

There is no better example of this than the soon to be open National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This museum, slated to open in September of this year, has been in the making for about thirteen years. It will be momentous not just for the city of Washington, but also for the United States. Rhea Combs, curator of Film and Photography at NMAAHC, talked about the importance of this museum in “creating memories” and using film and photography, in particular, to tell “untold stories.” By creating strategic partnerships with other museums, there is an opportunity for NMAAHC to help others better integrate African American history and culture in American history narratives. The DC Public Library will also be instrumental in helping the NMAAHC recover and discover stories untold. Even if you don’t know what could be true of the visual arts in DC in the future, Combs said, you can always consider the past and the ways in which art can be transformative.

If you were ready to start, or be part of, a revolution, then Phillipa Hughes, was your leader. A writer, speaker, flâneur, provocateur, and creator of the Pink Line Project, Hughes’ mission is to change the way people see DC. Quoting Eli Broad, philanthropist and art collector, Hughes reminded everyone that, “civilizations are not remembered by their business people, their bankers or lawyers. They’re remembered by the arts.” In order for DC to be remembered more for its visual arts scene, Hughes advocated for creating a greater pipeline that targets art lovers, collectors, and anyone else who can be influential in putting the visual arts in DC at the forefront. The target audience is not in the room, Hughes observed. “How do we reach out to those who need to be convinced that the arts are worth supporting,” Hughes, asked? She also encouraged DC residents to demand that the Mayor and the City Council be more accountable for making visual art in DC a priority. Most importantly, Hughes said, artists need to be part of the conversation from the very beginning of the process, not at the end to create something “pretty.” Artists should be living and working among us, not just existing as an entity “somewhere out there.”

Arthur Espinoza, Jr., Executive Director for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), envisions a future where art and culture touch every DC resident. He believes that it is the arts that are a catalyst for growth in DC. With roughly a thousand new residents each month, he said, there is a growing audience for art in general and for new art in particular. The DCCAH is trying to find ways to map a future for artists in the city by embracing new technologies and engaging in various social media platforms. While Espinoza was optimistic and enthusiastic about the current and future state of art in DC, for some audience members, the “possibilities” he proposed were not concrete enough. For example, what specifically is the city doing, several people wanted to know, to ensure that artists in the city stay and invest in their art practices here? Espinoza, relatively new to his position, may have been unfairly challenged in this respect, but it seemed that several audience members, in general, simply wanted to know how DCCAH used the money it had to invest in the arts.

Not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of discussion about artist workspace in DC. In light of protests against redeveloping the Union Arts building, and displacing the artists who occupy that space, several panelists addressed various ways to think about this issue. Tim Doud and Caitlin Teal Price, from the Studio Art department at American University, proposed ideas for making artist spaces more affordable by creating partnerships, collaborations, and residency programs that would allow for sharing costs. Kristina Bilonick, Development Associate at Menkiti Group and Founder of Pleasant Plains Workshoptalked about “the race for space” and provided a humorous, but very real, look at the preconceived notions developers and artists have of one another. From Bilonick’s perspective, developers and artists see one another as “alien.” While Bilonick argued that something needs to be done to bridge the gap between developers and artists and create better relationships between the two, her presentation seemed to focus more on what artists needed to do to make themselves “more desirable” to developers. What might developers do to help establish better relationships with artists? Espinoza also added to this discussion by dispelling the idea that DC has “all of this available space.” It is the developers, he explained, they have the majority of the space and creative solutions are needed to find opportunities to use those spaces for artistic expression.

One of the strongest voices and comments on this matter came from audience member Sheldon Scott. Scott, a performance artist, reacted to presenters and other advocates’ call for more artists’ spaces. Having a space in which to create work is only part of the problem, he said, but it doesn’t address the problem completely. “What good is having a space to create work if there is no support for the work, if there is no one to buy the work, or if there is no gallery willing to show the work?” Scott asked.

Several of these conversations are likely to continue when ArtTable has its third installment of “State of Art/DC: A Conversation.” This time, panelists will be selected from the DC arts community at large. This presents an even greater opportunity for members of the DC arts community to have their voices heard.

If you are interested in lending your voice to the conversation, submit your ideas for a Pecha Kucha that addresses the question, ‘What could be true for the visual arts in the DC region in five years?’ to [email protected]

Rachelle L. Williams
Authored by: Rachelle L. Williams

Rachelle L. Williams is an African American and Women’s studies scholar whose work focuses on women’s art and culture. She has a BA in history from Talladega College and a MA in women’s studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Rachelle is also an educator who teaches arts and humanities courses to adult learners and college students. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Rachelle has been living in the Washington, DC area for almost 20 years, 8 of which have been as a resident in the Trinidad neighborhood.