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We continue our ongoing series on arts and gentrification in the lead up to our next Kojo Roadshow by taking a look at the different ways artists and curators present art in nontraditional spaces, whether in a truck, on the side of a bus or on public sidewalks.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Cynthia Connolly Photographer, Artist, and Curator of the Arlington Arts Truck
- Michelle Isabelle-Stark Director, Arlington Cultural Affairs
- Tsedaye Makonnen Washington, D.C.-based multidisciplinary artist
- John Chambers Founder, BloomBars
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later this month we'll be having another Kojo 20 Road Show. This time on the complicated relationship between art and a region that's booming and getting increasingly expensive. In the lead up to that, we're having conversations about the role of arts in the region. And today we're taking a look at arts and space and how artists are getting out the galleries and into the streets. Where are artists creating and showing their work outside of traditional galleries and arts venues? How are they partnering with non-arts institutions like government and nonprofit agencies to engage with the public? And where do arts fit in to economic development and gentrification in the region?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Cynthia Connolly. She's a photographer, artist, and curator of the Arlington Arts Truck. Cynthia Connolly, thank you for joining us.
CYNTHIA CONNOLLYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou're a visual artist who's been active in the region for decades. Now you're curating an art truck in Arlington. What is the art truck and why did you start that project?
CONNOLLYThe Arlington Art Truck was started -- the idea started about four years ago. And I had been working in various exhibition spaces for Arlington County over the last 10 years and one of the things I noticed was that we spend a lot of time invested in gathering people to come to the exhibitions. And one day I had this idea, wouldn't it be great just to bring the exhibitions or the art activations is what I call them, to the public in open spaces that we have in Arlington. So in about -- four years ago we started working on the project and launched it last year with the National Endowment for the Arts grant.
NNAMDIYeah, you had to get a truck first, right?
CONNOLLYYes. That as part of the funding with the truck, yes.
NNAMDIThe Art Truck works in partnership with different groups every year. This year you're partnering with the Solid Waste Bureau and EcoAction Arlington. What kind of possibilities open up for both artists and government and nonprofit agencies when they can partner like this?
CONNOLLYSo programmatically what this is is -- this actually the idea came from -- I worked at the Farmer's Market in Arlington for 20 years. And what I saw working at the Market was people were really open to discussions and ideas even when you're selling vegetables. And I thought, couldn't we do this with art? We're not selling art. We're doing these projects with artists where they develop projects that include an Arlington office or nonprofit in the theme somehow. So this year all the art activations -- there's four artists and residents this year for the Arlington Art Truck from April to October.
CONNOLLYThematically there's something addressing consumption and our waste and recycling. So the Solid Waste Bureau and EcoAction Arlington are a partner and one of them will be with us at every activation. And the activations happen at Farmer's Markets or festivals where people convene. So rather than we spend time promoting where we are, we are just there where people are.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio, John Chambers. He's the founder of a space in Columbia Heights called BloomBars. John Chambers, thank you for joining us.
JOHN CHAMBERSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhat does BloomBars do and why did you establish it?
CHAMBERSBloomBars was started about 10 years ago with a very simple mission, inspiring communities through the arts and nurturing arts serving the community. I came from a background building community around advocacy campaigns, big campaigns dealing with Malaria or seat belt use.
CHAMBERSAnd really wanted to think about how artists played a role in those big campaigns. And it was a challenge so I made a leap of faith and started BloomBars as a way to engage artists and community and social justice causes, but also in important conversations. So we are music, art, dance, theater, film, big tent art, all ages all the time, alcohol free. That's what we do.
NNAMDIA man with Jimmy Caster Jr. would have called you the e-man, the everything man. BloomBars has been called a nonprofit incubator, a youth academy, and a center for health and wellness. What does BloomBars do beyond what traditional art spaces do?
CHAMBERSI think it's everything that you might want in a community. I think we're -- a big part of what we're doing is adapting to what the community asks and what they community needs, what artists are in the community and being responsive to them as I'm looking at Cynthia and Tsedaye who are good friends and have worked with in the past. So it's being relevant. I think and that's being open to experimentation and looking at different ways that aren't necessarily gimmicky, but really have intention behind them whether it's engaging in a cause or an issue or just looking at our human connections, which I think are kind of distorted through, you know, the digital age.
CHAMBERSWe're not connecting in ways that we traditionally would. So I think people are looking for connection. I think they're looking for a voice in their art and they're looking up from all levels of the arts from people who are established artists to people who have never picked up a paint brush or a guitar. People want to look for ways to connect and they want to look for ways to express themselves.
CONNOLLYAnd I think what you mean by connect, because I use that in social media and I just want to clarify, because I know you, John. You're talking about connecting in a personal level.
CONNOLLYFace to face.
CHAMBERSYeah, that's right. Absolutely.
CONNOLLYWhich is what the Arlington Art Truck does as well with the artist, and it has been really just astounding to see how people's responses to being able to work and talk with the artist on site all the time with the Arlington Art Truck. So that's the same thing with you.
CHAMBERSI think it's brilliant. Yeah.
CHAMBERSBring the art to the people.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Tsedaye Makonnen. She's a Washington D.C. based multidisciplinary artist. Tsedaye, thank you for joining us.
TSEDAYE MAKONNENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou are a multidisciplinary artist, who has done a lot of performance art and installations both in this region and around the world. First, how would you describe the art you're creating?
MAKONNENIt's focused on three main themes typically, which is migration, black womanhood, and colorism. And in the last few years I've specifically been kind of researching and tackling how the overlaps between migration across like the African diaspora and gentrification here in D.C.
NNAMDIHow does the space that you're working in affect the art that you're creating?
MAKONNENWell, I like many other artists based in D.C. and around the area -- I have a studio in Mount Rainier in the Gateway Arts District, because D.C. is pretty unaffordable for most of us. So I have a studio space.
NNAMDIAnd you grew up in Shaw, right?
MAKONNENWell, I was born in Shaw. Grew up between D.C. and Silver Spring.
MAKONNENBut my studio is in Martha Jackson Jarvis's studio. And there's a bunch of other artists there like Alonzo Davis, Valerie Theberge, Otis Street Projects, and Red Dirt Studio. So there's a really nice amazing hub and community there. But I'm actually going to be moving into Stable Arts, which will be the first studio space for D.C. artists that is sustainable and affordable and that's been started by Tim Doud, Caitlin Teal Price, and Linn Meyers.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the, I guess, in your view unique spaces that you have performed in?
MAKONNENWell, on the street so especially in Shaw. For a couple of years now I've done a series of performance art that's participatory in working with the community and other artists specifically the abstract Ethiopian American version of a coffee ceremony that was in front of Compass Coffee and (word?) Restaurant, which is no longer there. They had to relocate to Adams Morgan. And I've also worked with children at Shaw Community Center, worked with Christina Belinick and Deidra Allen McWilliams on that who are curators. Yeah. And I've done a ton of performances and exhibiting in really weird nontraditional settings in New York, Ethiopia, Nigeria like in the market, you know.
NNAMDIHopefully we'll have time to hear some more about those. John Chambers, how does the space you're in factor into your artistic choices?
CHAMBERSI have to say I think it's more about the people in the space than the actual space. I think it's about holding space and the intention in that. But I think it does play a large role. The actual whether you're outside or you're creating your own space, to have it be welcoming and to have it be -- to not have barriers, you know, whether it's a door man or a cover charge. We're all donation based. And we never turn anybody away. And, you know, that's hard sometimes to run an organization like that in a space like that. But I think it's important when we talk about particularly the backdrop of gentrification and new waves of people changing demographics in the city that you have to hold true to that.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Michelle Isabelle-Clark.
NNAMDIStark -- Isabelle-Stark. She's the Director of Cultural Affairs for Arlington Economic Development. Michelle, you work on the strategic planning, marketing and program management side of arts. What are the some of the projects happening in Arlington that you are most excited about?
ISABELLE-STARKWell, of course. The Arlington Art Truck was my first major project when I came to Arlington from Long Island. And having the pleasure of working with Cynthia Connolly and other curators and programmers in Arlington has been a great experience for me. We also have a program called, Art on the Art Bus, which Cynthia also curates.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that some -- in a little while also.
ISABELLE-STARKOkay. Yeah. So that probably is my favorite project so far is the Arlington Art Truck. It's really gotten a lot of attention regionally and nationally. And I think it's a great model for replication. And I believe in experimentation in the arts using small amounts of money. Failure is important in the arts and in every field and I think you need to fail occasionally, but the small amounts of money for pilot projects are really interesting and I think is the way to program from a government perspective.
NNAMDIWhat do you think prioritizing the arts does for a community like Arlington?
ISABELLE-STARKWell, being in economic development everything that economic development is about is around job creation. And I think artists are a huge part of the type of jobs and work that we want to see including innovation whether it be software, whether it be products that are trademark copyrighted or patented. Artists have a real input into design, into new product design, into problem solving, and seeing ways of working, ways of designing that engineers might not necessarily think about. So I think artists really are the bedrock of an innovation economy.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Robert in Dupont Circle. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHi, Kojo. It's a pleasure. Two years ago I organized the (word?) Exhibition in Washington D.C. and I had no money. I had no organization. I had no venue. And I was brought into this fantastic space called the Dupont Underground, which was basically, you know, it was possible to work with them to bring this exhibition to D.C.
ROBERTOne of the things that you were talking about was the need to integrate different communities and we started working with think tanks and embassies, international organizations to try to get people to think a little bit about what's going on in the world by using the medium of press photography. I think that interplay building on some of the things that are happening in D.C. is extremely vital.
ROBERTAnd yeah, effectively a month ago the Board of Dupont Underground called me and asked me if I wanted to take over as CEO this year. And so we are not working to highlight Dupont Underground as a space that hosts a great broad range of programming that makes these things possible in that same way.
NNAMDIYeah, we've talked with Robert before about this. Thank you very much for calling, Robert.
NNAMDIOn now to Gerald in northwest Washington. Gerald, your turn.
GERALDHi. Good afternoon. This is great. I was just talking about this yesterday. Working with a group of people we do our work -- when I say we, Common Good, One Voice One Sound in northwest D.C. Columbia Heights Adams Morgan area. We work with dancers, rappers, singers, and we just finished a program this Saturday. We work out of a place called The Festival Center right here on the corner 1640 Columbia Road. We've also done quite a bit of work at the Potter's House. Both of these are nonprofits. The Potter's House is a coffee house, been there -- legendary performance space from back in the 60s. I've performed at BloomBars and I'm trying to get in touch with BloomBars.
NNAMDIWell, you just did.
GERALDYeah. And so we get support from nonprofits. We'll do an event. We'll plan an event. When I say we, the producers and I'll get other nonprofits to pay for the space. And they're, you know, very willing to do that. They'll pay for food, things that we're doing a reception to. And things have worked out very well over the last really 20 years actually. Especially, these last 10 years when I've been working a lot more with youths. That's been quite an experience. (laugh)
GERALDSo I'm very excited about this whole arts community here in D.C. There's another program coming up on April 13th over at the Art in southeast D.C, working with some artists and doing an event over there. And so this community of young people -- and also we have signed up with D.C. TV. We have young people, who are interested in producing television so we done memberships and paying for classes to the producer class. And so they can begin to just get some experience with television.
GERALDAnd so we're, you know, quite busy. And it's based community.
GERALDIs very supportive of what we've been doing for the last 10 to 15 years. And that area -- Columbia Heights the Adams Morgan area like I said, BloomBars, I performed there a few years ago. Some of the young people --
NNAMDIYes. We'll discuss that area in a second when we discuss this whole concept called vibrancy. But, Gerald, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation Out of Galleries into the Streets: Art in Surprising Places. 800-433-8850, what are some of the more interesting places you have experienced the arts locally? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about creative ways of finding space for arts and artists with Michelle Isabelle-Stark, Director of Arlington Cultural Affairs. Tsedaye Makonnen is a Washington D.C. based multidisciplinary artist. Cynthia Connolly is photographer, artist, and curator of the Arlington Arts Truck. And John Chambers is the founder of Bloombars. John, artists moving in and doing work is seen as an early step of gentrification these days. Why is that?
CHAMBERSArtists moving in, I would say it's the opposite. It's the development moving in where the artists have already established themselves and seeing that art as a marketing vehicle for development.
NNAMDIYeah, because people in Columbia Heights, developers in Columbia Heights advertise the fact that Bloombars is there.
CHAMBERSOh, yeah. Absolutely. I think it's an economic driver. And it's something particularly since we have children's programs for families moving into the neighborhood that's traditionally how it's done. Some people might call that pimping out artists for the development. I think there could be a better relationship between the artist community and the people, who are making decisions around development. And I think a lot of it has to do with holding them accountable. I think it involves from attending ANC meetings. I think it's public policy from the federal state and local level.
CHAMBERSThat's where I think we're missing the boat, because once development happens, once -- I think there's two steps of gentrification. There's a gentrifying neighborhood and then there's a gentrified neighborhood. And once those two steps are in process then it's pretty much too late for artists to have those opportunities whether it's space or creating space.
CHAMBERSAnd I think there's a perception that then the artist can kind of become the window dressing in the early stages of those projects. So whether it's throwing up a mural and, yes, an artist might get a nice commission for that mural or performance or, you know, a concert. But it's not really sustainable and it's not long term. I think that like you were saying with the integration of the artist and development and feedback and then looking at long term ways to sustain the artists whether it's setting aside affordable housing, whether it's setting aside creative space.
CHAMBERSAnd these aren't giveaways. I mean, this is an investment that has returns. The research, the science has proved that our spirit selves, our souls, know that this is the truth. And I think especially now in this day and age where we are so missing that. That this is the time to have those conversations. So I think it's great that we're just having this now and that the fact that this is an entire series looking at art and gentrification in the city is crucial.
NNAMDITsedaye Makonnen, are there ways that arts programming can exist in a place without contributing to an increase in real estate values without contributing to gentrification?
MAKONNENI would hope so. Yeah, well, so I live in the Artists' Lofts that are in Brookland. There's only one in D.C., which is I think ridiculous given how many artists there are. And thinking of like how, you know, I, myself and a bunch of other artists I know have been commissioned by developers to, like you said, put up a mural, do a performance. Do something that ties this new building that's coming to artists and make it look good. Yet they don't want the actual artist or the people in that neighborhood to live there.
MAKONNENAnd, you know, it would be ideal if these developers created spaces, subsidized housing, or studios as they are thinking of making these huge condos that are set aside for us. Yeah, because I know -- as I was saying during the break, I had considered for a while to leave D.C. It's not -- it's pretty much in the last like few months where I'm like, You know, what? I'll give it a shot. And that's because, you know, a lot of the work that I've put in is starting to pay off. But it meant that I had to leave D.C. a lot to even get exhibited or any kind of attention.
MAKONNENYou know, I made the decision years ago like I'm not waiting for this city to catch up to me. I'm going to go find my own opportunities. And now I think I've gotten the, you know, the fellowship grant through the D.C. Commission. For D.C. Public Library, I'm there Maker in Residence, which is an excellent program. The library itself is trying to do so much for the arts community. Through them I've been able to travel. I have been able to kind of have a sustainable life for about a year now with their support, and, yeah.
CHAMBERSI mean, it's interesting. I think this city in particular, the journey of validation and success often leads to having to go outside the city.
CHAMBERSAnd receive that acclaim and then come back and people to say, Oh yeah. You know, you were right. I've known you all these years. You were right in front of my face and look at you. You're famous. All right. Now we can give you the grant. Now we can give you the housing.
MAKONNENRight. Right. That's true.
CHAMBERSIt shouldn't be. We have so much talent in this city and resources that we should not -- you should not have to leave the city.
NNAMDIWell, Michelle Isabelle-Stark, we got a tweet from Glen who says, "Whey do artists focus so much on urban cities. If suburbs are considered so subpar regarding art and gentrification sends people to the suburbs, isn't it right for the people?”
ISABELLE-STARKHmm, interesting. I think that well, in this area, Arlington to me is rather urban. And so I don't even look at it as a suburb. I lived in a suburb of New York, which Suffolk County Long Island, which was very different from here. Arlington is actually a really interesting mix of both the urban and suburban. And it's a density of 26 square miles that gives it this really unique flavor. And we do find that artists are living in Arlington. Cynthia has been there for many many years. But I think Fairfax County and Loudoun County and other counties in Virginia are welcoming artists more and more. And I know Cynthia actually travels a lot in the state and there's a lot of artistic activity in the suburbs.
CONNOLLYWell, yes there is. There's --
ISABELLE-STARKWell, think of the World Studio in Alabama, for instance.
CONNOLLYThat's true. Well, in rural settings or suburban settings, I actually think artists find wherever the opportunity is, and that's where they go. So, when we were talking earlier, I went, as an artist, in the '80s and '90s, I couldn't get exhibition space here, so I left. I did shows all over the United States and Europe. And then, just like you said, you come back and people, say, oh, I see you did something. And it's almost like that's what you have to do here. There's no sort of sense of validation from the surrounding area. I think it's changed a lot, but I think that artists basically go where there's opportunity.
CONNOLLYSo, if it's the suburbs or if it's the city or if it's out in the middle of nowhere, which was where I've always wanted to go myself, where there's wide open space, I just think -- and, you know, even the Arlington Art Truck, that format, you know, some of the ideas I have, have to do with working in open space. So, I think that's what -- you know, that's the great thing about an artist, is the creativity and the flexibility to move where they need to move.
NNAMDIA lot of people who'd like to join this conversation. Let me start with Rose, in Washington, DC. Rose, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROSEGreat, thank you. Thank you so much for taking my call. So, I just wanted to quickly say I rented a space for one year last year, and it was a former H & R Block. And the rent was so low and I didn't need the whole space, so I decided to convert the whole front area into a community art space. And I hosted over 35 events for the year. We had workshops and performances and classes and film screenings. And I was honestly just blown away at the feedback. People were grateful to have space, grateful to have kind of a safe creative space to make art.
ROSEAnd I think that one of the most interesting things was that because my overhead was so low, I could offer the space for very low rent and/or free. So, I donated the space a ton, and I think that that added something that was unique in DC, because it's so hard to find affordable space to rent for artists or to have a space that kind of took the money piece out of the equation. It almost -- it sort of created a lot more space for creativity and experimentation. And we did some really interesting, beautiful things there, and I think one of the reasons was that it wasn't expensive. And so it became accessible, and that was a really beautiful thing. And I learned a ton, and I'm looking for another space, now to kind of have this...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Find another H & R Block space. Rent it as an H & R Block Space, and make it an artistic space. I can see people coming in to file their tax returns and being able to enjoy art at the same time.
MAKONNENRight. It's a brilliant idea. Yeah, yeah.
ISABELLE-STARKUm, I'd like to know where Rose is -- where the H & R Block's -- where is it, exactly?
ROSESo, it was in the Rhode Island Avenue Center, right next to the Metro, and it's being torn down, actually, as we speak. This week, it's being demolished. And there's going to be a huge, huge development there. And I had had a conversation with the -- multiple conversations with the developer to try to get some part of the 50,000 square feet of retail space to be a community art space, but it didn't go the way that I wanted.
ISABELLE-STARKWell, Rose, you sound very entrepreneurial to me, and I think that's one of the points I wanted to make about artists, as well. All of the artists that I'm sitting with, they're all entrepreneurs, and you have shown that by being able to run a business, basically, opening that place for other artists to come in. So, congratulations, and I think you will be able to replicate that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here now is John in Brentwood, Maryland. John, your turn.
JOHNHi. I wanted to say I opened a new gallery a couple months ago called Porteco Gallery and Studios. And I'm working with a developer out in the Gateway Arts District. And they built a new apartment building and cut out 3,000 square feet to create five studios and a gallery that they fully fund. I mean, we pay rent on our studios, but it's a really reasonable amount. And there's other -- I also was their art consultant, and purchased about $100,000 of original art to go in the building from artists in the community.
JOHN(clears throat) And I think it's a good model for other developers to be taking note on. They're also building a building across the street, and in the art component in that building, and the building I'm in, which is called Studio 3807, it's visual art. But in the building across the street they're creating two soundproof rehearsal rooms for musicians, because we live in an arts district, but visual art isn't the only art form. And a lot of times, musicians have a hard time, because they need soundproofing and things of that nature. And so this is going into the in-build. Also, that building is going to have original art.
JOHNAnd I also have other opportunities in the building I'm in, where I hang work throughout the residence for, like, three months and given honorarium to artists who are interested in doing that. And I do artist talks within the residence, which also gets an honorarium. And the gallery, a really nice gallery, I only take 15 percent of the commission on any sales. Our goal is to be resources for artists.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much or sharing that with us.
MAKONNENHey, John. I have to quickly say, that's John Paradeso. He gave me my first studio for free for four months, and it changed my life. Like, he -- yeah, he's the real deal (laugh) .
NNAMDIOkay. Well, thanks a lot, John. Kate emails: I am an artist and have lived in many parts of the country. It is not enough to give artists spaces to work. They also need spaces to live. There are many cities, and I believe DC does this at one time -- or at one time did this, that allow artists to buy condos in new buildings at a reduced rate. I also make very political, sometimes controversial work, and I will say that, ironically, there are very few places in the area to exhibit this work. I think Washington, being a political center, there should be venues specifically for exhibiting work about the issues of our time, to which, John Chambers, you say?
CHAMBERS(laugh) That is absolutely right. I think there has been a number of interesting controversies, as in the past few years with the museums and work that has been controversial and, you know, tied to sponsorship and funding in those museums. And that's unfortunate in a city where decisions are made that affect all of us, all over the world. I think it's important that artists that are speaking to that have a voice.
CHAMBERSI can say this now. I think we're putting out a call to artists in the next few days for an exhibit in the fall that's looking at atrocities that the US has committed, known atrocities across the world, and looking for forgiveness. So, it's called Forgive Us. So, we're looking for works that speak to those issues and things that are happening across the world, so that we hopefully don't repeat them, especially now.
NNAMDIMichelle Isabelle Stark, one of the words that's used in a lot of conversation around the arts and urban planning is vibrancy. What exactly is vibrancy?
ISABELLE-STARKWhat is vibrancy? I know. It's one of those words, as you said, that are supposed to encapsulate a feeling of community, I think. As John said, community's very important, but vibrancy, energy, certain energy, life, excitement, fun, so all of those things.
NNAMDIAnother buzzword in urban planning is creative placemaking.
ISABELLE-STARKOh, we love that.
NNAMDIWhat is that, (laugh) and how does it factor into the work you're doing in Arlington?
ISABELLE-STARKOh, boy. That's a lightning rod. Yes. So, creative placemaking can mean different things to different stakeholders. And more and more, especially in the arts funding world, we're looking at issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. And so, in that context, creative placemaking has this very bad connotation of gentrification and assuming that a place needs to be mobilized, or culture needs to come from outside to create something.
ISABELLE-STARKSo, we prefer to use the phrase or the term creative -- what's the word?
ISABELLE-STARKPlace keeping. Thank you, Cynthia. I had a senior moment. Yes, place keeping. And I think one of the unique things that Cynthia has done, having lived in Arlington for a long time, is she brings an authenticity to the work that she is doing in Arlington. And it is about keeping the history alive, keeping the authentic voices heard. Because wherever you are in Arlington, even though it looks like there's a lot of beige brick buildings, there are very creative people there in every block, every avenue.
ISABELLE-STARKAnd I think Cynthia has done a tremendous job, and I just want to speak to the importance of the territorial field as it's changing. I think we need to rely more on curators that live in neighborhoods, that come from those neighborhoods, that are able to galvanize the resources and give context to exhibits that might not otherwise happen. And, as John was talking about Forgive Us, the same thing. It's providing that eye and that context in an authentic space and in an authentic way.
NNAMDIWhich brings us, Cynthia, to the Art Bus. What is it?
CONNOLLYWell, the art on the Art Bus -- I tried 20 years ago when I first saw the bus, which said art on the side, which is the Arlington Transit bus, I literally thought leave it to Arlington to actually put art on a bus. And then I was disappointed to find out that there wasn't art. And five or ten years later, I actually was employed by Arlington County as a curator and manager of a gallery called the Ellipse Art Center. And I sat there one day, and I was, like, wait a minute. I think I could put art on those buses, because I work for Arlington County. So, it took quite a long time to sort of make it all happen.
CONNOLLYAnd, finally, in 2010, we launched the first art on the Art Bus. And it's been going ever since. So, basically, there the advertisements are on a bus, on the inside panels, there's original artwork. And it's actually original artwork. So, you know, the agreement with the artist is they understand that it could be vandalized, it could be stolen, that we're not protecting it. Because I knew if we devised a way to protect it, then I just knew it would never happen, because we could never figure out a way to protect the artwork. And I like the idea of it being actually original, as opposed to replicated. So, that started, and it keeps on going, and we do about two or three buses a year and they...
NNAMDI(overlapping) How does art on a bus transform the space?
CONNOLLYOh, you know, it's really amazing. We're actually installing a bus on Thursday this week. Gail Rebhan, it's called “Immigration Assimilation.” It's stories of people from Arlington, how they ended up -- their story of how they ended up in Arlington, the long and short of it. But it really does transform that bus into a whole other space, and it's really awesome when you do it, and you install it. You take the old art out, and then you put the new installation in, and you just look, and you go, this is a bus. And it has these stories.
CONNOLLYAnd, you know, it's the entire bus. So, it's not just one in each bus, one -- you know, I don't know if everybody's familiar. They're 11 inches by 28 inches, these sort of -- I call them placards. And it's the entire bus, with the exception of some specific ones designating special seats, or whatever. But it really does transform the space and make it into a whole other ride, so to speak.
NNAMDIGot to take -- go ahead.
ISABELLE-STARKOh, I just have to say that we actually got a lovely note from a young man who had just moved to Arlington and experienced one of these buses, and just wrote a really wonderful note about how it felt so welcoming and it was so different. And when we talk about equity, people that ride public transit are having this amazing original art experience. And we reach about 160,000 people a year.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation, out of the galleries into the streets, art in surprising places. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about arts and art spaces. I'd like to go directly to the phones. Here now is Tom in Alexandria, Virginia. Tom, your turn.
TOMGood afternoon, Kojo. I love your show.
TOMI was calling about the Delray Artisans Group in Alexandria, Virginia. They have -- there's members, there's nonmembers, there's exhibits every month, there are juried shows. Everyone volunteers. They have classes, workshops and they're always looking for curators, so if you have ideas that you want to do a show, you can be complete...
NNAMDIThere you go, (laugh) Tsedaye Makonnen. Thank you very much for your call, Tom. Much of the art programming in Arlington, like the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, is done outdoors. Why?
ISABELLE-STARKOh well, we have a lot of parks in Arlington, and actually, the Rosslyn Jazz Fest is a project of the Rosslyn business improvement district. And it's a really good example of how cultural affairs works with our partners in Arlington, our business partners. We work with libraries. We work with our parks department and other organizations. So, the jazz fest is in Gateway Park, which is a lovely park in Rosslyn, right by Key Bridge.
ISABELLE-STARKAnd our responsibility for that is we do the programming. So, we have a programmer that programs it, and the Rosslyn bid produces it. But I think there's a lot of outdoor activities, because we have a lot of great outdoor spaces.
NNAMDII was about to say, one thing Arlington does have, also, is lots of empty commercial real estate. That will, of course, change with the arrival of Amazon, which we'll get to in a moment. But how has the empty commercial space been used to address the shortage of space for art?
ISABELLE-STARKSo, one of the best examples I can think of right now -- it's similar to the H & R Block situation, I think -- where, we in Clarendon, which is a very expensive retail area in Arlington, the Arlington Artist Alliance was able to create a two-story gallery in a very expensive retail space, because there is no tenant right now. So, they were able to work with the developer, the owner, and create that space. I think it's really incumbent on artists and these types of alliances, where they can work with developers to create situations, if there is empty space where they can, you know, set up shop.
ISABELLE-STARKThe Crystal City Underground is another good example, which is property owned by JBG. And we have a number of studios there, gallery space, again, with the Arlington Artist Alliance. So, there are ways of working with developers, but I think it's really incumbent on artists to act entrepreneurial, to know about real estate and to make those spaces happen.
NNAMDIWhich leads me to my next question. Amazon, of course, will change the calculus, making real estate more expensive. What will that mean for artists in Arlington?
ISABELLE-STARKWell, it's interesting, the timing of Amazon coming in, because we've been working with Art Space which is the largest nonprofit developer of artist live and live work space. And one of the areas they're looking at is Crystal City, 23rd Street in particular. So, we are looking at a way to create a space for artists so that when Amazon does come in, it becomes an amenity for the residents of Arlington and, of course, for the new workers that come to Amazon.
ISABELLE-STARKAnd JBG is a real estate investment trust, but they're very invested in Crystal City. They've been very generous to artists with the Underground. They've extended a lease for Synetic Theater, working with them to make sure that they're not moved for a number of years as they ramp up a capital campaign. So, there are ways of working, again, with the developers and with planning to ensure that we do have a place for artists to live that's affordable.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Topaz: what about DC Art Studios? They're celebrating 40 years this year, but getting kicked out by developers in 2021. What do you know about this, John Chambers?
CHAMBERSUnfortunately, I don't know anything about that, but...
NNAMDINor do I.
CHAMBERS...these things are happening. I think the most important thing is, when they do, that folks speak up. Yeah.
NNAMDITsedaye Makonnen, the last time you spoke on this show, it was after you performed an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in Shaw. Remind us, what was that performance about, and what were you trying to say about Shaw in that piece?
MAKONNENWell, at the time, I was teaching at Shaw Community Center and I believe I still was working as a doula, too, at the time, with Mamatoto Village. And as someone who was born in that area, I basically developed a piece just to kind of reflect all the changes that were happening. And specifically not even thinking about it from the perspective of an artist, but thinking about it as perspective of a Washingtonian, somebody who's a part of the black community and watching a lot of native Washingtonians, as well as immigrants who arrived in, like, the '90s, which included the Ethiopian population being pushed out.
MAKONNENSo, the piece was initially performed in front of Compass Coffee. That is on 8th Street. And then about a week later, I performed in front of Zenebech Restaurant, that has been there since the '90s, but was closing within two weeks and relocated to Adams Morgan. And I incorporated or involved the children of Shaw Community Center, who used to live in that neighborhood, but a lot of them and their families have had to relocate. And just kind of shedding light on how the changes that have happened in Shaw and these developers who, again, are welcoming the art -- and the artist, to a degree -- are definitely not welcoming people of color and immigrant populations, and, in my opinion, have actively worked towards pushing them out.
MAKONNENAnd these children were involved because that specific block, they felt -- we would have discussions about how they felt that there was an actual invisible barrier where they knew that they were not allowed to walk around there. They weren't welcomed. And this was kind of -- I mean, in a nice way, of starting a conversation between these newly arrived individuals in DC and kind of starting a discussion with those who have lived there for many generations. And kind of like what you said earlier, it's like once the gentrification begins, it's almost too late. And that's kind of what I feel like has happened in Shaw and U Street. I'm not sure how we -- it feels to me that the culture of that part of the city is pretty much gone and -- yeah.
NNAMDIWell, we got a Tweet from J. Carlos, who says: art partnerships are critical. What innovative partnerships have led to found spaces for theater productions in Arlington County?
ISABELLE-STARKSo, certainly the Underground -- what's really interesting about the Underground in Crystal City was there was a theater set up for -- it was a swing space for Arena Stage, while they were building their new facility. And when they left, Synetic was able to come in and use that space. We also have a building called 3700, which is on South Four Mile Run. And that was a former Pepsi bottling plant that became a WETA studio. And then it became a swing space for the Gunston School, which was a middle school that was outfit as a cultural center.
ISABELLE-STARKAnd now that swing space is being used very heavily by arts organizations and theaters, and will be an anchor for a future arts district, which we're now looking into an planning for. And, luckily, that space is owned by the county, so it's a county-owned building. It's not owned by a developer. So, we're hoping that that will turn into a permanent space for community arts.
NNAMDIRunning out of time, very quickly, John Chambers, you've been making art in the District for years. How would you describe how things have changed for artists during that time?
CHAMBERSWow. I think this is really -- Cynthia's been here much longer than me and creating much longer than me. It's a great question for you. I hope you have time to address it, too. But I will say that I think, just backing up, I think the conversation is a little too heavily weighted on developers, and then also on public use and space. I think it's also up to people, entrepreneurs, creative people and businesses to think about their space differently.
CHAMBERSThere was a punk concert in Best World Grocery Market on Mount Pleasant Ave. a few months ago, I heard. I've heard about puppets on public transportation in London. Yes. So, I think we really have to look at -- everybody has to look at their space and say, what else can I do with this?
CONNOLLYBut one of the interesting things that we've all talked about, though, is also partnerships and trusting. So, Michelle was describing how the first project that she started...
NNAMDIYou've got about 30 seconds left.
CONNOLLY...was Arlington Art Truck, and how she trusted in that and trusted in the risk-taking aspect. And that's a really important part that anybody who works with an artist should understand, but also, by giving that to the artist, they can now push further and develop astounding great ideas. And so I think all artists -- I think that we all have to look at -- there's an ebb and flow in our culture, and artists will always find that opportunity wherever it is, whether it's in the city or out in the suburbs.
NNAMDICynthia Connolly is a photographer, artist and curator of the Arlington Arts Truck. John Chambers is the founder of BloomBars. Tsedaye Makonnen is a Washington, DC-based multidisciplinary artist. And Michelle Isabelle Stark is the director of Arlington Cultural Affairs. Thank you all for joining us. Today's conversation about Atypical Art Spaces was produced by Mark Gunnery. We'll be discussing the relationship between DC's art scene and gentrification next week with on-air discussions and a Road Show at Arena Stage. That event is sold out, but you can add your name to the waitlist at KojoShow.org/20. We'll air an excerpt of the show next week.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, how did conversations about neighborhood change get flattened into a debate between so-called NIMBYs and YIMBYs, people who have a not-in-my-backyard or yes-in-my-backyard approach to development? We'll explore those views and more tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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