An Open Letter to Art All Night Attendees, the DC Arts Community and the DC Government

By Guest Author on September 21, 2016


You may have noticed that Art All Night, one of the city’s largest public arts events, made a change this year. New Subtitle, New Logo.

I think the backstory is worth sharing for the benefit of our entire community:

Art All Night 2011, Photo Credit: Artist + Organizer Rosina Teri Memolo

I. Art All Night is Awesome — We All Agree

Five years ago, in 2011, I set out on a journey to create DC’s first all-night arts festival. I was 27 and had just returned from a year living in Paris and pitched an idea inspired by their famed nighttime festival, Nuit Blanche. I envisioned an event that would unite the creative, cultural, and international capital of my hometown— my first two meetings were with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and the Embassy of France. Then, I linked up with what seemed like a terrific sponsoring organization, Shaw Main Streets. I needed a non-profit to partner with me — not to curate the festival — but to receive funds from a possible DCCAH grant. Then more people joined in: a volunteer staff of seven (including Alissa Maru who became our operations director), Art Soiree-our first cultural partner to sign on, and a host of young people who were all in attending after-work meetings at the Alliance Française and coming to my house for brunch. Then we attracted and collaborated with other partners and sponsors including a combination of embassies/foreign cultural institutes, local and independent curators, developers, and galleries. Almost no one that first year got paid or they were paid very little — we did it for love of concept and love of city. We all participated to build something we believed in.

15,000 people attended that first event and the response was fantastic. In a city that is often characterized as “divided”, Art All Night almost effortlessly got it right — with a mix of crowds: always diverse, often intergenerational and filled with curiosity, enthusiasm, and cool. In the five years we’ve held this event until 3 am (and in various parts of the city) there has never been a reported incident of crime. I have to say a special thank you to MPD who were always enormously supportive and encouraging.

Art All Night 2014 on North Capitol. Photo Credit: The Curators, Art Soiree

Now, here’s where it gets complicated: Art All Night was a terrific idea usurped by our sponsoring organization, not properly credited by DC Government Agencies, and a case study in competing business and arts interests in the city.

Let’s start with a premise and a timeline. As founder and creative director, I was happy to work with any entity that wanted to continue to build the concept. Shaw Main Streets never came up with or owned this idea, they were a sponsoring organization there to receive funds. I pitched this idea for 6 months before I ever interacted with this organization.

  • In 2012, Downtown BID was the sponsoring organization.
  • In 2013, Shaw Main Streets again was the sponsoring organization.
  • In 2014, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities moved on plans to expand the festival without consulting me including attempting to trademark “Art All Night: Nuit Blanche DC” (a request which was denied).

In 2014, I wrote to DCCAH and they responded right away with a kind of “Oops, was that you who started Art All Night? Sorry!” I was brought on to lead as creative director, Alissa Maru as operations director. For two years we were paid consultants on the project. The festival, now city-wide, was a huge hit with crowds surpassing 25,000 people. We were the subject of a winning film for Media Rise’s 48 hour film project and were able to secure an MSNBC Profile on the businesses that thrived during Art All Night.

  • This year (2016), the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) received a reduced amount of funds from DCCAH to produce the festival, changed the subtitle (from Nuit Blanche which I had a license to use to Made in DC), but kept the name “Art All Night” (too generic to be protected by law). Of course I sent a note to DSLBD, but they never responded.

So after five incredible years, facing a reduced budget and yet another tug of war with a DC government agency, Alissa and I decided it was time to move on professionally. Alissa is currently traveling with her husband around the world. I’ve spent the last two years in New York City, my consulting business is thriving, and I’m devoting myself to finishing my novel.

II. Art, Business, and the City

Now, for that last point, the case study: the deal that DCCAH struck with the five Main Streets organizations was to provide funds to produce their own “Art All Night events” — this totaled around $35-$45K per Main Street. I came to greatly admire the work that the Main Streets do in supporting small businesses and personally, came to like and enjoy working with each of them so I say this with the highest degree of sensitivity. The Main Streets profited from this event in ways that no one else did. So in 2011, when all of those people worked so hard to produce that magical first event, no one ever offered to invest in them directly  — instead those participating artists and curators were beholden to the Main Streets for funds. I wanted to believe that this could be a positive thing, but I have to be honest here: this is the arts playing ambience to business — and this tension is symptomatic of a broader effect where developers and business interests drive the urban cultural agenda, and the “creative class” is often forced to play diplomat (or silenced altogether) in order to keep working, continue in their spaces, and receive funding. The artists and curators were assigned money based on the desires and needs of small business organizations that had no artistic background or expertise. I am proud that small businesses were positively impacted by Art All Night, but I know that stellar arts programming is what brings the public out.

I wonder what would have happened if DCCAH or DSLBD had brought partners together and said, What can we — a group of artists, performers, builders, and entrepreneurs — create to celebrate our beautiful city and highlight our creative assets for one extraordinary night of culture? What if they had invested in the creative entities with the same fervor as they did the businesses — in the people who actually crafted what they were so desperate to bottle and sell — what could we have come up with then? It’s a testament to this extraordinary arts community that people stayed on board and were willing to make concessions to keep Art All Night alive.

I want to end with this: when I went to visit DCCAH this past spring, the office felt more different than I’ve ever experienced in the five years I’ve been interacting with the agency. Three men in suits sat across from me in a large conference room and the director advised me that I should “get to a place where I’m comfortable” with what happened. Respectfully, I’m hoping to be the kind of person who never gets too comfortable; not with city agencies that are not held accountable, not with a cultural agenda driven too much by profit, and not with the slightest abuse of power.

Here are three suggestions I have based on my experience:

  • For Art All Night, my request is simple: DSLBD, DCCAH, and Shaw Main Streets should immediately put the history of the event on the current website and honor the contributions and intellectual capital that they’ve borrowed.
  • DC Government agencies must do a better job of giving credit where it’s due, and responding to individual citizens with respect especially when they use their concepts.
  • The time is now for a general convening with artists, businesses, developers, and government agencies to discuss roles and responsibilities for collaboration and partnerships so we can all benefit from our shared interests in this beloved city.

I want to thank the attendees, each of you, for an incredible five years and for embracing this festival: for your openness and enthusiasm, for your photos and tweets, for showing up fashionable and beautiful. I will always support Art All Night / Art Night / Made in DC / Nuit Blanche–whatever iteration it takes-because I believe in the importance of a wonder-filled night of art in and for the city, free and open to all.

Photo Credits: Art All Night Instagram / Photo 2: Jeffrey Morris

Finally, I want to express my heartfelt thanks and support to the countless artists, performers, curators, gallery managers, cultural partners, and programmers who are the life-blood of this event, those from the past five years and those who gracefully remain involved. Special thanks to Art Soiree + Alissa Maru who have been on this journey from the beginning and whose belief in and love of this concept sustained the entire project. I’ll always be proud of the friendships created, the creatives nurtured and highlighted, the collaborations like this, the fabulous attendee photos, and finally this attendee-created video from 2011 that I think captures so well the cosmopolitan spirit of that first magical Art All Night.

With hope,

Ariana Austin

Founder of Art All Night: Nuit Blanche DC and Artistic Director from 2011 to 2015.