Saying Goodbye To The Kojo Nnamdi Show
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The arts have a complicated relationship with gentrification in D.C. Artists and arts organizations can make neighborhoods more attractive to development — but are often displaced as rents rise and neighborhoods take on new identities. Is it possible to create sustainable space for the arts as neighborhoods change? And what is the role of arts organizations in telling the stories of communities facing gentrification?
As part of a series marking Kojo’s 20th year on air, we hosted a town hall event with artists, community leaders, city officials and developers to explore creative place-making and the role of artists and arts organizations within a rapidly changing region.
This conversation has been pre-recorded and edited for air.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIWe're coming to you from the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. We're here as part of a series of events marking my 20th Anniversary on air. So welcome.
KOJO NNAMDIThe arts as you know have a complicated relationship with the gentrification in the Washington region. The presence of artists and arts organizations often makes neighborhoods more attractive to residents and to developers. But those same artists are often displaced as rents rise and neighborhoods take on new identities. What conditions can make it possible for the arts to survive and even thrive? And how can they reflect and serve the communities that artists inhabit? That's what we're here to talk about.
KOJO NNAMDIWe have a full house. It's clear this is a hot topic. We have a number of local artists, community leaders, and policy makers in the room with us tonight to shed light on these issues. We'll begin tonight talking about making space for creative work. And then we'll look at the arts as pillars of communities in the D.C. region.
KOJO NNAMDISo let's jump right in and introduce our facilitators. Michael Abrams is the managing director at Foulger-Pratt, a real estate investment and development firm. Michael Abrams, thank you for joining us. Pat Thornton is the executive director at Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County, Maryland. Andrew Trueblood is the executive director at the D.C. Office of Planning. Andrew Trueblood, thank you for joining us.
ANDREW TRUEBLOODThank you.
NNAMDICaitlin Teal Price is an artist and co-founder of STABLE, a studio exhibition and community space for the arts opening this May in northeast Washington. Caitlin, thank you for joining us. And Philippa Hughes is a creative strategist and self-described social sculptor. Philippa, thank you for joining us.
PHILIPPA HUGHESThank you.
NNAMDIPat Thornton, I'm going to start with you. Giving what may be the hardest job of the night, in 30 seconds or less, what is creative place making?
PAT THORNTONCreative place making, well, you know, artists have an opportunity to create the space that will provide an opportunity for those, who want to express their creativeness to converge and do so. And so those who are shepherds of creative space making and shepherds of bringing people together are responsible for helping to create those spaces.
NNAMDITwenty-eight and a half seconds, not bad. Philippa Hughes, you've called yourself an accidental place marker, but in an op-ed last year you described why you began to rethink your role and the impact you were having on communities. Can you talk about that?
HUGHESWhen I moved to D.C. I thought that I was this artist type person or I liked to hang around with artists. And so I wanted to just create spaces where that could happen. And so I just did that without kind of thinking about what went before me. And so because I did that for a long time I started to see changes in my neighborhood. And for me I enjoyed it, but I realized there were some negative effects from that.
HUGHESAnd so that's when I sort of started questioning, you know, what was my role in how my own neighborhood was changing. However, with all due respect, Kojo, I have been thinking even more since I wrote that to say that it's not really my fault that my neighborhood gentrified. And it's not really artists' fault that my neighborhood gentrified. I mean, at the end of the day, it's really, you know, the Office of Planning's fault (laugh) that my neighborhood gentrified. So I'm so happy to see Andrew Trueblood tonight.
NNAMDIAnd so let the finger pointing begin.
HUGHESYou know, and it's their job to make sure that my neighborhood does not displace people unfairly. And if I want to have art in my neighborhood, I should be able to do that without displacing people.
NNAMDIWell, how then can creative place making happen without art washing, without causing the displacement of communities in your view?
THORNTONWe have to ask each other these very difficult questions and have all the players in the room and have the people in this audience be part of this discussion. The actual people who are affected by these policies and not just, you know, the people who are writing -- you know, and in fact, my real beef is --
NNAMDINot with Andrew at all.
THORNTONIs that, you know -- for example, I think that D.C. actually has really great policies in place that they could be enforcing a little stronger. And, you know, part of the problem is that we do -- we are beholden to the market at some level. The market is very powerful and it is hard to fight that power. And so, you know, I do think that if we had more political will, we could fight those powers, because we have those laws in place.
NNAMDII'd be interested in your thoughts on that Michael.
MICHAEL ABRAMSWell, I think Philippa's comment about the market is very true and that, you know, the market naturally creates gentrification. And it's the role of Planning and the policy makers to understand how the market place works. And to create policies that allow for the permanent creation of art spaces not just transitory art spaces that pass as the economy evolves. So I think -- I mean, for example, we were creating artists' affordable live work units as part of our affordable housing requirement.
MICHAEL ABRAMSThere's no reason why you couldn't continue that kind of policy and amp it up so that you create more spaces that are permanently affordable. So there are mechanisms that are available. You just have to be aware of them and they need to be built in to the policy process, because the gentrification is going to occur. It's a natural process.
NNAMDICaitlin, your view.
CAITLIN TEAL PRICEWell, I think it has to be a conversation. You know, it has to be a conversation between everybody, the artists, the people in the neighborhood, and the developers. It can't just be a one sided conversation. I think that's where the problem really happens.
NNAMDIAndrew, what say you?
TRUEBLOODWell, I think that clearly there is a role for policy for local government. That is we have land use policies. We have investments to make and I think that is something that we have been thinking about on all the different levels. And it gets complicated thought quickly when you start talking about gentrification, which we have tools for as well including investments in affordable housing. The District of Columbia invests more per capita than other city. Last night the mayor talked about additional affordable housing investments.
TRUEBLOODAnd so how do we bring our tools to bare as a city with these issues of cultural gentrification or of displacement are happening in cities across the country? Final think I will say is that we in the District of Columbia are shortly releasing our final cultural plan. Hopefully in the next few weeks and that is something that we have been working with the cultural community on over the last few years. And has a number of prescriptions about how we can address many of these very issues.
TRUEBLOODThe thing that we heard more than anything was that space and affordable space is really really one of the biggest challenges that our creators, our cultural makers are facing. And so those are the kinds of things we'll be looking for in the future.
NNAMDIMichael Abrams, creative place making is quite the trend in the development world right now. Why is that?
ABRAMSI think people are seeking cities and wanting to live in an urban lifestyle because of the sense of community and because of the, you know, the access to activities. And the artistic world is part of that.
THORNTONI was about to chime in the say way. I think that it's the artists and the creators that actually attract individuals and build up areas. The artists come into warehouse areas, because artists actually need to be in spaces where they may not have to pay that much, but also, they create an energy. I happen to come from a space, the Gateway Arts District is actually a space that's been incubating for over 22 years. So it's a space that has brought in the other assets and the other support mechanisms.
THORNTONSo I think -- and I had promised Andrew that everyone wasn't going to beat up on him. So I'm sorry about that. I wanted to chime in on that question. I think it's a joint responsibility for everyone. We have to make sure that the artists come to the table. We have to make sure that the other creatives come to the table. We have to make sure that we speak to the Planning Department and that we're on those commissions and on those boards and on those committees. And we talk to the developers.
THORNTONIt is a joint process and it's high time for us to air our thoughts and our feelings and to be comfortable having difficult conversations that are honest that get to the point. And that's what I think needs to happen.
NNAMDIPhilippa, is there a right way to incorporate art into development? And is that it, what Pat Thornton just said?
HUGHESWell, I don't know if there's a right way. I mean, I think arts should be incorporated into every development. And I also think that with that cultural plan in the draft, it says space is the most important thing to most arts and arts organizations. There's not enough. And then I notice that the top two things that the way we're going to solve that problem is one to have better way finding signs and two to refurbish our old buildings that we own.
HUGHESAnd so I thought, well, I think those are good ideas, but those aren't big bold ideas that I think is what we need. We need big bold ideas. We're not -- I don't think we should be dancing around the margins anymore. Like let's actually invest in actual giant space where people can rehearse and put on shows and do it affordably as well.
NNAMDISame question to you, Robin Mosley. Robin Mosley is the managing partner of Place, a development strategy firm. Is there a right way to do this to incorporate art into development?
ROBIN MOSLEYThere should be a thread of creative art in every single part of our lives. So everything from finding local artists to participate in any small way they can to having big master plans for big ideas. I think those are all very much at the -- available to us and I think that we have to be creative. I think it's incumbent on the development community, which is where I come from to find a way to make that happen. And it serves us, because it creates a better place for people and it makes people want to live in our buildings and rent office space and rent retail shops. I mean, it just makes the neighborhood a better place to live. That's what I think place making is.
NNAMDIThank you. There are now people who are lining up at the mics. I will start over here, sir. For those of you who do not know this individual, this is Ronald Moten, the founder of Peaceoholics in the District during the Fenti Administration in Washington D.C. What a lot of people don't know about Ronald Moten is that in addition to Peaceoholics trying to settle beefs among young men, he is himself involved in the music industry in significant ways. So Ron, what do you have to say?
RONALD MOTENIn historic Anacostia there were the Bus Boys and Poets open, which was a great thing. Somebody who supports the arts, supports local businesses like ours east of the river. Unfortunately a couple of days later, a business by the name of The Big Chair was shut down, because they would renew their lease, the landlord. We were in the situation where I took young gang members and we created art -- a creative space, checking enterprise and we turned the space (unintelligible) radio in the back to a creative space for artists to perform. And we've had a lot of great events at our facilities.
RONALD MOTENNow we have a clothing store and about to start an ice cream parlor with the help of Bus Boys and Poets are making ice cream along with Creative. But now the owner is selling the property. We've gone to the city. We've gone to developers. We've gone to everybody and we have a plan that will work. But it seems like doing the right thing is not interesting to the people, who are taking over our city. Right?
RONALD MOTENSo my question to the Planning, like I never heard about the Planning until maybe about four or six months ago at the Anacostia Art Center. We never knew about the Planning that was going on in our city with the arts. So we never were engaged with it. So how do we take the people, who have been here like myself for 50 years and the people who are artists and kept this city thriving, when nobody wanted to be here, right? And keep us a part of the great change that's coming like at Anacostia where we had the level street bridge, where we have a hotel coming, where we have all these great things coming. And we've been the fabric of the community and now we're about to be pushed out if nobody steps up and fill in the gaps.
NNAMDIAndrew Trueblood, obviously the city has competing priorities when it comes to balancing development and growth, with the needs of different communities like Ron Moten just expressed. What are the tools available at your disposal for striking that balance?
TRUEBLOODThank you, Kojo and thanks, Ron. I think in terms of the specific situation with the cultural plan I can't speak specifically to why you weren't reached out to. But I do think that that would be an oversight. Part of what we're trying to do now is have these conversations be -- reach out to as many residents as we can regarding any of our planning efforts. And do a better job of meeting residents where they are, because that is something that I think is incumbent upon the city to do when we think about planning.
TRUEBLOODAnd to the question of tools there are a few different ones. I mentioned kind of one of the main tools that the Office of Planning uses is our community planning efforts, our small area plans. This is where we look at an area such as Brookland or even southwest where we are. And we look at what the land uses are, how it might change, what are the opportunities, what are the things we should be taken advantage of.
TRUEBLOODBoth the Brookland small area plan and the southwest, both did a scan for cultural resources and assets and made recommendations about how we can preserve those and actually grow them. So that is a tool that we use. We also have the comprehensive plan, which some people may be familiar with, which is a very long document about 750 pages. But there's actually an entire chapter dedicated to culture and creative arts. And so that is another tool that we use that actually is passed by Council to put in a lot of our -- what we're trying to achieve broadly as a city.
MOTENI just want to say our city can do whatever they want to do. When we want developers to do these big projects and I think some of them should get help, right? Some of them shouldn't. But anything our city sets out to do, they do it. If we want to keep people here, who have been here and have a diverse community, which made D.C. great. Most of you in this audience came here because of the city that was here when you came. You didn't come here for a city to be one way. And that's the direction we're going in.
MOTENSo my point is if we're going to make the city great, I don't want to hear a bunch of chatter. The D.C. government can do what needs to be done to make sure people like us stay in this city. The second thing is, we don't have a lot of time, Kojo. We talking about some people have months and some people has less than a year in Ward 7 and 8 and we're gone. So we don't have time for plans, because plans have never worked for us.
NNAMDIAll right. Thank you very much, Ron Moten. You, sir, are next.
GEORGE KOCHGood evening, Kojo. George Koch, founder of Artomatic. We keep talking about permanent space, but there's also temporary space. And that's something that Artomatic pioneered over the last 20 years. And there needs to be some structure within the Office of Planning that facilitates that and creates an advantage for the developer, because basically we're providing marketing for the developer when we do what we're doing.
GEORGE KOCHThe other thing I'd like to do is to remind people that are old enough to remember the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. PADC as it was known required in any development in the RFP that there be an arts activity that would be a part of the proposal. Don't do that anymore and there's no reason that the D.C. government couldn't require every RFP that comes out that there be an element in that RFP that relates to the utilization of the arts. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you. Caitlin Teal Price, how does the unavailability of actual physical space affect cohesion in D.C.'s artistic community?
PRICEWell, the artists are all spread around here. There's no -- there seems to be no one place for everyone to go. People find space to work in a basement of a friend's house or in their kitchen or wherever it may be that's affordable, but it's rarely efficient. And so that's -- it's really hard for people to come together. So what we're doing with STABLE is we're creating affordable sustainable studio space with an atmosphere of energy and rigor.
PRICEAnd we hope with that that we will be able to bring the arts community together in a way that it hasn't -- we haven't seen in a really long time. And so I just want to say we've been working on this project for four years. And we have been doing -- it's a passion project. We work on it every single day, my partners and I. And, you know, it's been really challenging raising the money to get this thing off the ground and we haven't had any support of the government. It's been generosity from art supporters and artists.
PRICEWe've got a couple of family foundation grants. But, you know, it's been a real challenge and it's because we're passionate about the arts in D.C. that we've been able to make this happen. But I would also like to see support from the government for this to be sustainable.
NNAMDIPat Thornton, about a quarter of a century ago you and I produced a play and you have now gone on to be the head of the Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County and I'm a lowly talk show host. So tell is what is it that it took to make the Gateway Art District in Prince George's County successful?
THORNTONYeah, I'm actually the executive director of Gateway Community Development Corporation that centers and focuses on revitalizing the area in a manner that centers on the arts. So one of the things that we've done is we actually lease out 30, 35 studios. We leased them out at rates that are 25 to 50 percent of the market rate. So we actually set up our books such that we have a certain percentage over what the cost is so that we can keep reinvesting.
THORNTONWe invite artists to come in and to take advantage of that. But I think the answer is making sure that every development that comes to the area reserves a certain portion for artists. I was on the redevelopment authority before and what I would do every time a development project came to Prince George's County is I would make sure that 5 to 10 percent of whatever they did was reserved for people, who were impacted in the community at a lower rate.
THORNTONAnd then we have the advent of co-ups. And so that's my answer, Kojo. That's pretty much what we've done.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Michelle Isabelle Clark is director of cultural affairs for Arlington County. So if Gateway is doing it right, let's about a creative place making project in the region that did not quite get it right, Artisphere in Arlington. What were the challenges with that city built art venue and what lessons are to be learned?
MICHELLE ISABELLE CLARKSo I actually came to work in Arlington the year that Artisphere was closed. Many things contributed to its failure. But I would say that it also created an enormous opportunity to really examine Arlington as a community and what the needs for the arts were in Arlington. The largest resource I have are human resources and we were very fortunate to keep the artists, the curators, and the programmers from Artisphere.
MICHELLE ISABELLE CLARKAnd what we did is we put them work to go out into the community to share the quality of work they were doing in a building and to bring it out to people who never would have stepped into that building by the way, people that worked two or three jobs, people who are, you know, not disposed to go to a museum or a gallery or a theater. And I think what we have found in Arlington is a receptive audience.
MICHELLE ISABELLE CLARKWe've expanded civic engagement with communities that have been ignored. And we have artists working with all kinds of different people and expanding their own practices. So I'm really happy with the turnout and the way we're going on, in the direction we're going in.
NNAMDIThank you. Your turn next.
PEARLHello, everyone. My name is Pearl and my question is explicitly about the role of race as we talk about gentrification. I haven't heard anyone say the big "R" word. So I wanted to do that. So I would like to hear people's thoughts on the role of race as we define art and as communities change how the definition of art changes with those changing demographics. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnyone of the panelists care to talk about the issue of race and arts.
TRUEBLOODI'll take a first shot, Kojo. I think race is something that has to be centered to at least all the work, you know, that we do in the Office of Planning is we think about the future of the city. We have to recognize where we've come from as a city not only artistically, but just as the roots of the city and the history that we've been through. And I think the challenge that we have not only in the Office of Planning, but as a city is how do we anchor that with the realities of a growing city and a city that has people moving into it.
TRUEBLOODAnd, Ron, to your point earlier is we have to be very clear that the vision of the future of the city includes those people, who have been here, those residents here today, and also their children and their grandchildren. And I think we have to be very explicit about that. And we have to talk about race, whether it's chocolate city, whether it's the LatinX parts of the city, whether it's immigrants. That's all an incredibly important part of this.
TRUEBLOODAnd I think having those dialogues and having those discussions, which can be hard and which in this room, I feel the heat, the love and the heat. So I think that's critical. And I think that being explicit about it is important.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left. But, Douglas, you are the artistic and executive director of Atlas Performing Arts Center, which is an anchor institution in H Street, a neighborhood that's seeing prices rise. But Atlas has a unique agreement on its mortgage that helps you out financially. Tell us about that.
DOUGLASWell, yes as far as sort of creative prioritization in ways to make it work, the Atlas and founding working with individuals, city and developers, we have a unique relationship with the city through the Department of Housing and Community Development. The DHCD holds the mortgage on the property. We pay back that mortgage by providing free and reduced cost services and programming to the community.
DOUGLASSo every year we value and quantify all of the free programming that the Atlas through its own initiatives and its arts partners provide to the community. That report is provided to DHCD. Last year it totaled close to $2.2 million. And then every year we submit that report and through magical formulation we reduce our mortgage by $262,000 every year. After the term of 25 years, the building will be bought and paid for through free and reduced cost programming for the community.
NNAMDICool. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have for this part of the discussion. Thank you, Michael, Pat, Caitlin, Philippa, and Andrew. We're here at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. We're talking about gentrification in the region and how it affects the art scene. So now we're going to take a look at how artists and arts organizations help reflect their communities many of which are undergoing huge changes. Joining us to facilitate this conversation is Phil Hutinet. He is the publisher of East City Art, which covers the D.C. visual arts scene beyond the large institutions on the National Mall and in Northwest. Phil, thank you for joining us.
PHIL HUTINETThank you.
NNAMDIChris Naoum is the founder of Listen Local First, an organization that connects local musicians with businesses to develop additional avenues for music exploration. Chris, thank you for joining us.
CHRIS NAOUMThank you.
NNAMDIRebecca Medrano is the cofounder and chief finance and administration officer at the GALA Theatre, which presents performances of classical and contemporary Spanish and Latin American work. Rebecca, thank you for joining us.
REBECCA MEDRANOThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIC. Brian Williams is the founder and director of Step Afrika, the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. C. Brian, thank you for joining us.
BRIAN WILLIAMSThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Marc Bamuthi Joseph is vice president of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center. Marc, thank you for joining us.
MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPHPeace.
NNAMDIMarc, your role at the Kennedy Center is the first of its kind for this institution. What exactly do you do and why -- why was this (laugh) --
NNAMDI--how do you earn a living? Why was this position created?
JOSEPHWhy was this position created? First of all, I'm a first generation American. My parents are Haitian. I am Haitian. I'm a dad and a husband. I have to mention my personal biography, because the Kennedy Center is magnificent brick and mortar that's undergoing an expansion right now. But the Kennedy Center's individuals, we are humans up here on this panel. And I think that the kind of situation of a citadel on a hill that serves as a kind of cultural vault is an antiquated model for thinking about how arts engage with the community.
JOSEPHIn fact, I would say that the idea of community engagement itself, the nomenclature is antiquated. I think we want to consider community empowerment. We want to consider art spaces as places to negotiate power, and in order to do that we have to be more outcome driven. And so my title is vice president and artistic director of social impact. And it's important that we include the artistic director aspect of my title, because I am also a working artist.
JOSEPHSocial Impact requires creative vision and the Kennedy Center has made a space for me, and through the expansion, three interconnected pavilions that are opening up in September called The Reach. It also has created a kind of physical emissary to community, an avenue to invest in dialogue across sector that lands first in creative understanding.
NNAMDIPhil Hutinet, does D.C.'s art scene, both in terms of programming and in terms of the actual creative product, reflect the communities that live here?
HUTINETThat's an interesting question. Just to step back a little bit, I'm sort of an outlier over here, because I represent the visual arts. And one of the things with the visual arts is it's very different from performing arts. So performing arts you can sell tickets, you can have theaters like this, there's a balance sheet. Everything looks very sort of black and white. It's very easy for governments and for other institutions to understand how a theater functions, how a dance company functions.
HUTINETWhat a lot of visual artists are doing is they are trying to find places where they can actually work right now. And to come back to your question a little bit in terms of, do they reflect the communities that they're in, absolutely. There are so many artists that are involved in projects that are public art for example, so they're working with murals. A lot of them are teaching. A lot of them are in the community, whether they're in their studios and bringing in children or adults, they are very much a part of the communities that they're in. And they usually are the ones who also make a lot more of an effort than other people who come into a community, for instance, to do just regular business functions.
NNAMDIRebecca Medrano, do you find the art scene in this region to be inclusive in your view?
MEDRANOThat's a good question, Kojo. That's a big word now, EDI, equity and diversity and inclusion. And I think it's gone to the point where a lot of culturally specific organizations are feeling threatened. I can go back to the day, and you can too, of D.C. Black Rep and why they're not around and why that is now more of a bar than a theater. And lots or reasons, but I think we have a double struggle as a culturally specific theater and a double obligation.
MEDRANOIn our case, a group of Latin American artists, we came out of political exile. And so at the core of our mission has always been theaters a vehicle for social justice, theaters will be able to reflect the community. I think we've struggled to continue that vision and we're up against other main stream whiter, shall I say, theaters who now feel obligated to be inclusive, but they're not sure how to do it because it's not at the core of their mission. I'm delighted the Kennedy Center's turning around with you there. Congratulations.
MEDRANOBecause we were excluded and I can say that for a fact, and we were asked to translate things when they didn't have people, etcetera, etcetera. I think there's a turning -- I think people are more conscious of it now and we're glad that we're still around and still alive 42 years later. But we're certainly the victims of gentrification. You know, we've been uptown and downtown seven times. We owned a building in Adams Morgan and tore down the walls and made a little theater and that became too expensive.
MEDRANOWe went down to the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, created a theater there. That didn't work, failed, uptown again, All Souls Church, downtown to where Miss Molly Rupert had warehouse. Back up to partner with the Hornings and now we have a 50-year lease, but it's a mixed-use building. And we have no storage and we have no, you know, real backstage area. So there are a lot of challenges, but anyway, I diverse.
NNAMDI(laugh) Chris Naoum, you do a great deal of advocacy work on behalf of local musicians. What are the unique challenges faced by those local musicians here?
NAOUMThe challenges to the music community are getting greater and greater. You're talking about housing, you're talking about space to perform, you're talking about venues to perform in that provide access to all different genres. You're talking about access to funding for the arts, ability to perform outdoors and perform in public. And industry infrastructure and also access to music education so that we can have a new generation of local musicians learning the history of D.C. jazz, D.C. go-go, all the genres that are important to make D.C. the special place that it is.
NNAMDIBefore I go to our people lined up in front of the mics, Brian Williams, Step Afrika is the largest African American arts organization in the city. You're celebrating your 25th anniversary this summer. You have said you feel a responsibility to preserve the history of the city while embracing change. What do you mean by that?
WILLIAMSYou know, I've been here for 25 years at least. I came here to go to Howard University from Texas. And I remember, you know, D.C. is a very different place even then maybe 30 years ago. Underdeveloped areas, it was before the MCI Center, became the Verizon, became Capitol One. So I've seen tremendous change and I've seen this thing called gentrification and I've seen, you know, neighborhoods displaced. So for me I started Step Afrika really -- before I started the actual company of Step Afrika I was doing workshops with young people on the corners of 7th and P teaching the tradition of stepping, which at that time was pretty exclusively belonged to the frats and the sororities and used as a tool of exchange and of community building.
WILLIAMSAnd then when I went on to South Africa to do the same work there, just maybe six months after the end of apartheid or the election of Nelson Mandela, I just recognized the arts as a way of bringing cultures and people together. So that really has been our mandate. I think we were a community activist first before we became a performing arts company and we kind of slid into this whole act of performing on stages.
WILLIAMSAnd of course now we do it all over the world, but I feel steeping as an art form before Step Afrika began. And D.C.'s been so good to the development of Step Afrika. Because before we started there was no professional company that took this form into the theater. And D.C. provided us a home and the funding sources provided us a home.
WILLIAMSAnd I will say in terms of this issue of preserving the arts in D.C., one thing has been critical for us in terms of not being displaced. You know, as an artist you never really expect to be in the center of the city, you know, like I've never had an office on K Street, right?
WILLIAMSI barely even have a eat on K Street. (laugh) You know, we're perpetually on the fringe but we have great organizations like Culture Development Corporation that created the shared space for artists. That was my first office out of my home. Then I moved to the Atlas, which was a shared space for artists. So there are some solutions we can look at. You know, we don't all have to have our own building. I used to always tell people, I don't need my own printer. I can share a printer, you know. I can share a copier. And that really has been the key to Step Afrika's success with great partnerships.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. Now, ma'am, your turn.
LOISGood evening. My name is Lois and I'm a native Washingtonian. I'm a mother, I'm a daughter and I'm a sister. And in 2015 the Center for Disease Control noted that artists were a major cause of gentrification in cities. I'm an artist myself somewhat. I love art and I think it provides healing to the community. But there are a lot of high-level conversations using buzz words such as inclusion, diversity and affordable housing. And really we need to redefine what those terms really mean.
LOISAffordable housing, I have two daughters with Masters degrees with good jobs that may have to move away from their mother. I told them I won't be doing much commuting, because I'm closer to retirement than I am to anything else. So just to use those terms very hollow and not have them mean anything, you know. So there were two ways of gentrification. The first way was the displacement of African Americans in the community. And now you find the gentrifiers being gentrified, but they have become resources available to support them, something that we didn't have.
NNAMDIRebecca Medrano, as many times as the GALA has moved, you might be the appropriate one to respond to this, because there's a major discussion over whether what we discuss as affordable is really affordable for low income people in general and for artists in particular.
MEDRANONo, no, it is not. And the idea even in the mixed space buildings in Columbia Heights, in the whole development of (word?) was there was low income housing. That low income housing's 500,000 and above and next door the million dollar condominiums. And of course the problem is that there's no space. Artists can't live nearby so then the cost of the artists operating the place like our theater is higher, because they have to live out of town. They have to come in. If there's a snow day they can't. There's transportation issues. It just complicates the whole thing, not being able to have your community near you.
MEDRANOAnd it also means that you have to reinvent your audience if they don't follow you because your audience is gentrified now and they want to go to a sports bar and they don't want to come invest money. They've got money, but they sure ain't buying tickets to theater, and especially theater that's socially provocative or in another language or reflecting another ethnic heritage. And so that whole -- it snowballs that effect and that's what we're feeling.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Your turn, ma'am.
SONYA GEORGEHi. My name is Sonya George and I'm the owner of a baby clothing line. I'm a local artist based in D.C., made in D.C. (laugh) So my question is about the empty school buildings that are just sitting there. That's a setting or infrastructure that the city could use and turn into artist studios. The classrooms already could be studios. The cafeteria could be turned into commercial kitchens. So is Mr. Trueblood here?
NNAMDIMr. Trueblood is still here.
GEORGESo, yeah, so I mean, (laugh) yeah, what can the city do with these school buildings that are sitting empty? I understand there are regulations for that but--
NNAMDIHow can they be a part of the planning process for arts and a variety of other uses that people seem to feel they can be used for?
TRUEBLOODThat's a great question and I think I'll answer more broadly, because there are lots of open land or assets that the city has. Schools are a little complicated, because there are rules around what they can be used for and they have to be offered to charter schools. And as a growing city we have to think about how we will ensure that we have classrooms for children in the future.
TRUEBLOODBut I will say that there have been examples where the District has used its land to support artists or cultural organizations. Even just down the street, Waterfront Two, which is what we call it just in Southwest there's a black box that they're developing. So I think there is the idea that we can use District assets for the support of these types of organizations.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Chris Naoum, you wanted to say?
NAOUMYeah, so furthering on the conversation of the community and how we're thinking about sort of re-envisioning the arts, I think when we're talking about displacement of the arts it's not just Andrew's fault or Andrew's issue to deal with. It's all of our issues to deal with, and when we think about how we involve the community, we envision it's everyone's job. It's the residents. And I'm talking specifically from a music standpoint. It's the residents. It's supporting the artists. It's supporting the bands. It's supporting the venues you like. It's supporting the culture.
NAOUMFor new D.C. it's learning about the culture. It's understanding what happened before, for the new people here, really understanding what these places are. When you go to a venue, is this venue paying musicians well? When you go to a jazz jam, are those artists being paid? Really getting to know the community, whether it's art, whether it's music, for venues it's doing the right thing. It's are you hiring musicians from all genres? Are you giving everyone an opportunity to perform?
NAOUMFor artists it's being professional, it's doing your best, it's working your hardest. You know, getting out there and getting your music made. You know, for the developers it's, you know, music makes cities better. You know, yes, there is -- and, you know, people moved here, because they want what the city has to offer. So that needs to be kept in mind. We can't be building buildings in places that are entertainment districts and not doing enough job to soundproof buildings.
NAOUMThere's this thing called the agent of change that says, if you are a -- let's say you're a music venue opening up in a residential area, you're responsible for the costs of making sure the sound does not bleed from that venue to create the change in the neighborhood. The same thing if you're a developer moving into an entertainment district. You bear the cost of making sure that your building is soundproofed so you're not messing with the venues and the entertainment and the cultural fabric of the community you're in.
NAOUMAnd the city's job is to follow that through, to make sure the developers are held accountable. Also make sure you meet the artists where they are. The big plan of the cultural plan, we think it's great and the music community thinks it's great too. But it's really like there are people doing amazing things in this community. They just need a little more money for rent and they can do stuff even better.
NNAMDIKristi Maiselman, you're the executive director of Cultural D.C. Cultural D.C. is a unique organization. Can you describe your mission?
KRISTI MAISELMANSure. For 20 years Cultural D.C. has been making space for art in Washington, D.C. and we do that in a number of ways. We do that through the work that we do with developers to try to create permanent affordable space for artists within these development projects that we're talking about today. But we also present art and we give opportunities for artists in our spaces. We have the Source Theater on 14th Street where we have three resident organizations that use that space both as a shared workspace, but also as their primary performance space.
KRISTI MAISELMANAnd we also have a mobile art gallery that we take into communities. And I think that's a really exciting thing for us. And just quickly I'll tell you, you know, we talk about community. And a couple years ago I had a funder tell me, Kristi, I don't want to pay for butts in seats anymore. I want to fund programs that have a big impact in the community. And it really got us thinking. And Cultural D.C. and our board came together. We made some hard decisions about how do we change what we're doing and how do we take our programs into the community? And we've done that.
KRISTI MAISELMANWe've built a mobile art gallery and we're taking art directly to people's doorsteps. We're making it affordable. It's free. It's accessible. And we're really excited about the audience that we're reaching. In our first year we've had 45,000 people through our mobile art gallery, which in 12 years of having a gallery on G Street in downtown Chinatown, we didn't come close. So I think we're having an impact and I think that we're interacting with artists and engaging residents in a really unique way.
NNAMDIMarc Bamuthi Joseph, what do you think makes for effective community engagement? You have said, "It needs to go beyond free access," I'm quoting here, "performing for as engagement." What do you mean by that?
JOSEPHI want to go back to what the sister said earlier, because essentially I think she was talking about value and how arts are valued in the sense of enumeration. And folks talked about it. Underneath everything we're talking about the realities of capitalism. And I'm not really here to have that debate today. But I'd like to know from everyone how many great artists make a great city. I think that we undervalue the role of art and the role of active creativity in terms of the actual net worth or the actual value of a city or civic entity.
JOSEPHSo specific to your question, I think that there's been a conventional response among organizations and institutions to perform, in the case of the performing arts, to locate our services in under resource communities or historically marginalized communities, which I think historically has been a great way to engage community. But I personally am more interested in community agency. So what that means is what are we investing or how are arts organizations turning around and investing in the active creative agency of what I'll call everyday people or, you know, the moguls among us, for those of you all who are not practicing artists.
JOSEPHAnd, you know, it's honestly why I took the role at the Kennedy Center when I did. What I found is that the Kennedy Center offers a fulcrum to be not only a local leader, but a national leader in this discourse about how to reevaluate the actual value of creative practice. And it doesn't just belong to people at the Kennedy Center or people at Carnegie Hall. I believe that inspiration is a civil right protected under the Constitution under the 14th Amendment. And I think because of that we have the capacity to do more than just show people what we do. We have the capacity to invest in others so that they may do -- realize their creative potential.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
NNAMDIYour turn, sir.
GGMy name is GG. I'm part of the Gateway Arts District. I'm opening the newest and the largest D.C. art space in that area called Blank Space. My question is, when are we going to make developers develop for the community and what kind of power can the art community build together and unify? So that's my question to the panel and to everybody here. We can all involve ourselves in that question.
MEDRANOWell, one way might be -- there are a lot of developers, who have empty spaces, a lot of retail space especially in our area in Columbia Heights. It boomed and then all of a sudden now it is empty. I don't know why there is not a tax on those developers, who leave the space vacant too long and have to pay the tax. And that tax be redirected into dedicated funds for the arts. And then they would certainly begin to look at lowering the price of that space.
MEDRANOI know a group that just moved to Woodley Park, because it's cheaper now than Columbia Heights. And what, you know, ten years ago people didn't want to walk in Columbia Heights. You took your life in your hands. So the bottom line here, right, is the money. And we know we can't stop the gentrification immediately, but we can be a buffer zone. And I think again it's, you know, the artists. As Marc was saying, it's the value, that we've done all these studies with cultural alliance year after year. Oh, the arts generate $2 billion of income for the city and nothing happens so it's like fake news to the developers, right.
MEDRANOFake news, the arts generate this money so what they're missing is the value of it in everybody's lives and in transforming people's lives, especially young people's lives which is so critical right now. And there are things that could be done. There are laws that could be legislated.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERSure. So I have one of the studios in the Brookland Arts Walk so actually quite a few of the people who've been on the panel have come in my studio and we've chatted about this. And I think that I wanted to express that I believe that there's a problem with taking the arts and moving them into an amenity to a high-rent neighborhood. There's a problem there.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERThere's also a problem when you take a private developer and you say, all right, you're going to set these spaces for arts, because the private developers are, of course, going to protect their best interests. And their best interests are who is a good credit risk, who has got a viable business plan. And sometimes the most interesting arts and the artists, who live in the communities do not necessarily have a viable business plan. And they do not necessarily have a good credit risk. And I think that it's important to acknowledge that and also to work to correct that.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Phil, Chris, Rebecca, Brian, Marc Bamuthi, thank you all for joining us.
NAOUMThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe've heard a lot tonight. Thank you all for showing up and for participating. We hope you'll continue to engage with us on this topic. This conversation is part of a series of events marking my 20th year on air at WAMU. Next up I'll be popping up in a Lyft on April Fool's Day as part of a transportation project we're working on.
NNAMDISo look out.
NNAMDICheck back for more information at KojoShow.org/20. Before we go this evening, we'd like to say thank you to the Arena Stage for hosting tonight's program.
NNAMDIAnd we're so grateful to our incredible performers this evening, Step Afrika.
NNAMDIAnd Batala Washington.
NNAMDIThanks also to the photography students from Critical Exposure, who exhibited their work in the lobby this evening. Thank you to our wonderful engineers, our superstar volunteers, the Kojo Show team, marketing and events and to the rest of our colleagues at WAMU for taking this show on the road. We're especially grateful to WAMU's general manager JJ Yore as well as Andi McDaniel who you heard from earlier and Diane Hockenberry for their support. Kojo 20 is presented by Chase. We appreciate its support. And thanks to everyone for coming out tonight. Please give yourselves a warm round of applause.
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