By Eric Hope
Transiting the Route One/Rhode Island Ave, NE corridor has long been about getting in or out of the District, with little regard given to the small hamlets just past Eastern Avenue. If Neena Narayanan has her way, your daily commute will soon be more engaging, with artistic “happenings” aimed to pull you out of your car and interact with the area’s artists and businesses. Narayanan is the Art Lives Here coordinator at Joe’s Movement Emporium and is on a mission to enliven the Route using the arts to encapsulate the area’s identity. While I had heard of the initiative, I confess I knew little of its mission, so I recently sat down with Narayanan to talk about the ways in which artists are transforming the corridor. Joining us were Carole Bernard, the Executive Director of the Gateway Community Development Corporation (G-CDC) and her Communications and Marketing Assistant Monica Buitrago.
Art Lives Here is to my mind somewhat of a paradigm shift in viewing how arts enrich neighborhoods. It is not an organization unto itself, nor is it hierarchically based. Narayanan even notes it is defined in different ways by different neighborhood stakeholders. For individual artists, the initiative creates new avenues for self-expression. For local businesses, it is a method for invigorating and expanding their clientele. For arts organizations, it is an encouragement to get out into the community. At its core, the initiative provides grants to artists and businesses to collaborate in what has come to be called “creative placemaking”. If that all sounds a little amorphous, perhaps a bit of history will enlighten.
Longtime readers know the Route One corridor is a haven for the arts; literally hundreds of artists are currently making visual works or honing their performance pieces in an area encompassing Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville (collectively known as the Gateway Arts District). That potential, both creative and economic, is not often evident on the busy avenue; several commercial stretches of the road are frankly underutilized.
In 2010, four community leaders (Brooke Kidd, Anne L’Ecuyer, Michelle Darden Lee and Imani Drayton-Hill) developed a campaign designed to showcase the local arts community and further the strategy of using the arts as an economic development tool. With Joe’s Movement Emporium as the fiscal sponsor, the four applied for a grant from National Endowment for the Arts and in 2012 received $50,000. They named the project Art Lives Here. [See Errata Notice Below]** It would seem government statisticians finally have the data to back up what artists have known for decades – artists are the harbingers of neighborhood growth.
Art Lives Here became the motto — the trade-name if you will — of this endeavor. Joe’s Movement Emporium, a local organization promoting all forms of movement and dance, was chosen to be the fiscal agent for the grant, ensuring funds were dispersed properly. An RFP (request for proposals) was released to the community, inviting artists to submit plans for art actions in three broad areas: education, community engagement and small business partnerships. This first phase of the Art Lives Here focused solely on Mount Rainier as a test run before expanding to neighboring towns. Approximately twenty arts-related events recently occurred throughout the city, engaging over 2,000 residents and visitors. This successful outcome spurred Art Lives Here to apply for a larger grant to expand their reach outside of Mount Rainier. They recently received a $240,000 grant from Art Place America to increase the size and scope of the project to incorporate all four towns (“Four Towns – One Arts District” is the theme). An RFP for phase two just closed, and a selection committee is now reviewing a new round of artist proposals for an even larger round of art events.
Narayanan easily rattles off the facts and figures, and while they are certainly impressive, they don’t capture the nuance of change. How does an “art action” impact viewers and participants? Collectively, how does a series of events affect the character of the neighborhood? These are questions worth asking in both assessing the effectiveness of the campaign and reflecting on levels of community engagement and indeed, they led to a spirited discussion. Bernard notes that these types of events, “stimulate the imagination of what could happen,” conjuring up the image of the Route as a series of blank canvases upon which artists can work their magic. Buitrago highlighted how this campaign represents both a challenge and opportunity to engage residents of different cultures, including residents whose first language is not English; “Language doesn’t have to be a barrier,” she wisely notes. Bringing community members together and highlighting a shared sense of neighborhood space is indeed an important step to reinvigorating the local business districts.
But perhaps the most impacted are the artists themselves. I asked Narayanan what marker makes this initiative a success, and her answer surprised me: artists feeling empowered. It’s a simple statement that underscores the uniqueness of the District. And here Narayanan has scores of interesting anecdotes to highlight her premise. Take for instance Bus Stop Bangladesh, the brainchild of performance artist Monica Jahn Bose and her Storytelling with Saris collective. For Bus Stop Bangladesh Jahn Bose covered a bus stop plaza in flowing saris – fabrics printed with the stories of women from her ancestral home of Bangladesh. The saris served as a unique touchpoint to engage with the local community about the lives of women thousands of miles away. Another success was Launchpad, musician Will McKindley-Ward’s pop-up music studio housed in a vacant storefront, which invited local youth to record their work and engage local audiences with live performances.
Events such as these certainly give Mount Rainier (and soon the rest of the Arts District) a unique sense of place and it is exciting to see artists stepping up to the plate and taking charge of their neighborhood. It is heartening, but also crucial if artists want to influence the economic development that is undoubtedly in the pipeline. I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with Margaret Boozer, artist and founder of the Red Dirt Studio (and an Art Lives Here sponsor) who shared with me how important it was for artists to direct this conversation: “If you’re not involved, someone else is going to make decisions for you,” she tells me. The Gateway Arts District might not have the name recognition of, say, Georgetown or Capitol Hill but it does have something enviable: artists determined to take leadership of their communities. With artists in charge, expect the unexpected!
Art Lives Here will begin phase two of its programming later this spring. For a calendar of events and more information, visit their website here.
**EDITOR’S NOTE (ERRATA):
In the original version of this article, Eric Hope had written the following based on his interview with Art Lives Here principals:
In 2010 an artist had the brainstorm to paint the phrase “art lives here” on the side of a local funeral home as a way of highlighting the presence of the arts. This small act of artistic verve was a catalyst several months later at a gathering of stakeholders representing local and county officials, arts-nonprofits and artists themselves. This ad hoc group successfully applied for a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program, designed to help communities revitalize their commercial districts through arts-related activities.
Subsequent to publishing, the editor received the following information:
- The artist brainstorm could not be corroborated by more than one source. As such, that sentence has been removed.
- More specific details about the organizers and grant funding. As such, we have replaced the second and third sentences seen above with the updated information.