With the Smithsonian here and a host of other well-established galleries hosting exhibits — sometimes of national renown — it’s easy to get overlooked in the Washington art scene. But there’s a flourishing art community east of the Anacostia River, a handful of galleries and, come April, a bounty of opportunities for everyone to see them both in the established art houses there and in a bevy of abandoned buildings and warehouses.
Anacostia, just one of the Ward 8 D.C. Southeast neighborhoods east of the River, is changing. On April 14, residents there will launch Lumen8Anacostia, a three-month arts initiative that’s using a $250,000 grant the D.C. Office of Planning received from ArtPlace (a collaboration of nine of the country’s top foundations, eight federal agencies and six large banks that supports “creative placemaking” with grants and more) to be administered to four D.C. neighborhoods (the others are Brookland, Deanwood and the central 14th Street area N.W.) to create temporary art and culture spaces in “emerging” neighborhoods where vacant and/or underutilized storefronts and empty lots will be transformed into art knolls. Arch Development Corporation, which has been working since 1991 to revitalize historic Anacostia with several initiatives and economic development plans, is implementing Lumen8.
Though not an LGBT-specific initiative, one of the organizers, Jeffrey Herrell, is gay and his partner, Tommie Adams, is hoping to have his photography exhibited in one of the spaces. They moved to Anacostia in 2005, delighted at the amount of house and yard they could get for a fraction of the price they would have paid in Washington’s glitzier neighborhoods. Herrell says they love the neighborhood and are delighted to see its cultural side being tapped.
“I’m a big ambassador for Anacostia,” Herrell says. “I’m always trying to get my friends to move here and I’ve succeeded a few times. I have great neighbors here. Yes, there have been some ups and downs … but I think [the neighborhood] has been stigmatized. … The neighbors are extremely close, really tight in terms of friendships and the neighborhood kind of brings you together. I really like living here.”
Herrell says he knows two artists who live on his street and has another neighbor who’s an actor/performance artist. His next-door neighbor is also gay, there’s a lesbian couple on his block and another he knows of a couple blocks over. He and Adams say gays in Dupont and Logan would be surprised to discover how easygoing most straight Anacostia residents are with their LGBT neighbors.
“People here really don’t care,” Adams says. “Sometimes the kids will say something at first, but people here don’t really care if there are differences. I guess they have worse issues to deal with.”
Anacostia does, of course, have its problems. About 94 percent black (Ward 7 is 96 percent), Ward 8 residents are plagued with the city’s highest unemployment rate — 35 percent according to the latest figures available from NeighborhoodInfo D.C., a partnership between the Urban Institute and the Washington D.C. Local Initiatives Support Corporation — and 20 violent crimes per 1,000 residents in 2010. Both, sadly, are the highest rates of D.C.’s eight wards (Ward 7’s unemployment rate is 19 percent for those 16 and older; Ward 3 has the lowest with just 3.4 percent of its 16-and-older residents out of work).
But those figures are part of the reason Lumen8 organizers say Anacostia needs some light, quite literally. In addition to the various exhibits planned, organizers plan to illuminate several Anacostia buildings for the festival. A portion of the grant money will go to Intelligent Lighting Company, which will project lights and images on several buildings there.
“We’re lighting it up literally as well as trying to shine an overall spotlight on the neighborhood,” Herrell says.
“So few people really know the location, they think Anacostia is everything east of the river,” says Nikki Peele, an Arch employee who lives in Congress Heights, another Ward 8 neighborhood. “Even lifelong D.C. residents sometimes think that. They’re not sure of the history here, what’s here to do. For too many people, the information they have is that this is a somewhat scary place, so for a project like this, especially on this scale, it has the opportunity to be a transformational moment and not just for the community but for the outside perception of it … it’s very much a family community with an almost village-like feel. … the name was chosen for a reason — to bring both light and understanding.”
Organizers are selecting artists to have their work shown now from a pool of about 20 applicants who heard about the event through neighborhood listserves and word of mouth. After the April 14 kickoff, exhibitors will have to agree to have their gallery spaces open each Saturday and then six hours on another day during the week for the rest of April, May and June. Aside from the neighborhood’s existing three galleries, space such as a former police warehouse and several vacant storefronts on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road will be converted into temporary exhibition space. Portions of the funds from the grant will be used to convert the various spaces and to give to the artists to realize their visions for their exhibits.
Herrell says it’s a good opportunity for both D.C. residents in general and also for the Anacostia artists, most amateurs, who’ve never had their work exhibited before.
“They may not be able to afford to open their own store, but this will give them a taste of what it’s like,” he says.
“It’s a very large-scale project,” says Phil Hutinet, Arch’s chief operating officer. “It’s going to be a huge benefit to the artistic community and to the neighborhood.”