The song remains the same: DC's continued failures in cultural planning as evidenced by failures with Bohemian Caverns, Howard Theatre, Union Arts, Takoma Theatre...
The Economic Function, Billboard text at the corner of Corporation Street & Alma Street, Sheffield S3. 6 April - 20 April 2004. The work 'The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property' sets out to question the function of art in the public realm within the economic regeneration of post industrial cities.This work is was part of a three-part commission for Public Art Forum by Hewitt & Jordan.
I was introduced to historic preservation, cultural heritage tourism, and cultural-based revitalization practice not quite 15 years ago, and these disciplines undergird my thinking about urban revitalization and approaches to planning more generally.
Compared to other communities, DC's "local cultural offer" is weak in terms of how it is organized, presented, and funded.
The Corcoran Gallery was the city's first museum. A formal relationship between the city and the gallery was never consummated. In the face of financial problems and a hyper-weak board, it was dissolved a couple years ago.
Federal/national cultural institutions stunt the development of a local system and network of cultural institutions. I have argued this occurs because the development of a local arts scene has been pre-empted by the presence of federal cultural assets--the Smithsonian Museums, National Gallery of Art, Kennedy Performing Arts Center, and the Library of Congress especially--and despite the existence of some independent galleries (Phillips, Corcoran--now defunct) a variety of smaller cultural organizations, and agencies tasked with dealing with the humanities (The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DC Humanities Council), and the fairly large amount the city spends on supporting cultural organizations (funded in a manner I consider haphazard) local cultural affairs as a discipline is seriously underdeveloped and immature.
Another problem is the preponderance of presenting institutions -- arts as consumption -- means a focus away from support of arts production, that is to say away from artists and contemporary production of art (the museums mostly show art created by dead people), artistic expression, the creative impulse, etc.
In the two-year run up to the then new Comprehensive Plan in 2006, I argued strongly for the creation of an Arts & Culture element, although I was so disappointed with the final effort, that I disavowed any involvement. (For a time the National Trust for Historic Preservation had a cultural heritage initiative, and I attended a bunch of sessions at conferences on the topic, which advanced my understanding of the field.)
I have a set of what I consider to be seminal pieces on the subject, including:
-- "Town-City branding or 'We are all destination managers now'," (2005) makes the point that commercial districts need to be managed as destinations, and if cultural resources are managed in this way, they will be of interest to and serve both residents and visitors
-- "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," (2007), sparked by the failure or threats to four cultural institutions (Lincoln Theatre, Source Theater, Heurich Mansion, City Museum) over a short period of time. This piece includes a memo from 2006 on how DC should organize cultural planning and presentation that I wrote for use in a board planning exercise by the then reorganizing Historical Society,
From that memo:
Proposals/Recommendations-- "Arts, culture districts and revitalization," (2009) discusses the difference between arts as production vs. arts as consumption and argues that in the face of a lack of comprehensive cultural planning, artistic disciplines need to step up and do their own plans, with a special focus on facilities and maintenance of the spaces that support artistic production as well as presentation. It references work by John Montgomery on the organization and function of culture districts and Canada's Creative Cities Network publication on the types of spaces/facilities that support artistic creation.
1. That DC develop a comprehensive cultural development, management, and funding plan, setting priorities for the development, harvesting, and funding of cultural resources assets;
2. And consider the development of an allied tourism management and development plan, either separately or within the same framework;
3. create a comprehensive Cultural Resources Management office, likely merging a variety of programs and assets currently spread around various agencies
4. Provide funding, both for capital improvements and operations, that that also considers providing significant ongoing funding to cultural resources deemed important.
5. Develop an open and transparent grant process.
Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," (2014), while focused on DC, this piece extends the "arts, culture districts" discussion, making the point that "next generation" arts districts are being refashioned as broader creative or knowledge quarters, discussing examples from Helsinki and Liverpool.
Brookings calls them "Innovation Districts," but the Europeans are far ahead of us in this kind of thinking, e.g., the regional development and economic geography research group at Erasmus University Rotterdam, organized as the European Institute of Comparative Urban Research. Their extensive research and publishing program includes Creating Knowledge Locations in Cities.
-- "The Central Library Planning Process" and "Civic assets and mixed use: Central Library edition," (2013) discuss local cultural planning in the context of the city's central library, but the piece provides a broader framework
-- "New Year's Post #1: More thoughts on creating a world class children's cultural facility in the city" (2015) and "A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)," (2014) discuss the opportunity to create a world-class cultural district alongside the forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Park
A new set of failures remind us that nothing has changed. I had been thinking about revisiting this topic in the face of a confluence of local cultural planning failures:
-- Washington City Paper article on the failure of the Bohemian Caverns jazz club, ("Legendary U Street jazz club Bohemian Caverns will close")
-- Washington City Paper articles on the imminent closure of the Union Arts studio arts facility ("Union Arts to Become a 'Boutique Hotel'," and "A More Perfect Union?")
-- Washington Business Journal article on the difficulties of creating new museums and cultural facilities in the city because of the high cost of the space ("The space race for museums in D.C. is brutal — and there's no relief in sight: Real estate prices — and lack of city help — have museums lamenting the market")
-- on listservs, the touted success at "saving" the Takoma Theatre--the building is being saved but the interior of what had been the city's most intact neighborhood theater has been gutted and the building will no longer function as a cultural facility. (Contrast this to the maintenance of the neighborhood-located Lido Theater in Newport Beach, California, "Newport's Lido will reopen later this month as a movie theater," Orange County Register.)
The Lido Theater's interior is more grand than the old Takoma Theatre, but they were comparable. OCR photo.
And then yesterday's big article ("Money problems and no-name acts: The Howard Theatre is struggbling: Again") in the Post about the financial problems experienced by the Howard Theatre.
And a proposal by some developers to create a arts studios in a poorly located crap building on Montana Avenue NE ("Landlord pitches new studio spaces near soon-to-shutter artists' warehouse," WBJ) in response to the Union Arts building's closure.
Twisted Teenage Plot," at American University's Katzen Arts Center on the artist-driven art rock movement in the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how it was facilitated by the availability of cheap studio space in post-riot Washington and supported by various arts institutions (the Phillips, the Corcoran, galleries, arts organizations) that at the time were open and available to new ideas, programs, and ways of doing things, and a tight spatial footprint centered around 7th Street NW, Downtown.
Actually, the exhibit on the art produced by the artist-musicians isn't that exciting, but the collection catalog is excellent, featuring the artists, their stories, and their stories of the scene at the time.
This period is an element of the city's recent music history that has been overshadowed by the city's punk movement, which developed a little later in the mid-1980s. Had bands like the Urban Verbs made it (albeit in my opinion the music isn't quite at the level of Television, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, etc.), the story would be more prominently remembered.
While the latest news is mostly bad, one positive is the opening of a privately-run comedy facility in DC, with a multifaceted business model, led by the owner of a comedy club in Arlington ("The Drafthouse Comedy Theater Opens In DC On April Fool's Day," Post).
Howard Theatre: Note that wrt the Howard, in "The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model," I suggested a way to operate it that likely would have been far more successful.
Hell, I just came across an article from the Reading Eagle about the expansion of a local theater in a small community, inspired by the spatial organization of Playhouse Square, "Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre to begin $8 million expansion effort." Why does a township of 17,000 people get it and DC does not?
From my 2012 blog entry:
The City Paper had this article, "How Not to Screw up the Howard Theatre," about the Howard Theatre, which has just re-opened, and recently ran these pieces, "Should the District Sell Lincoln Theatre?" and "What’s Next for Lincoln Theatre?," about the Lincoln Theatre, which had received an unsolicited proposal for private management.High cost of space stunts the development of new facilities and cultural consumption comprises a significant element of DC's economy. Inspired by the Charleston tourism plan--then focused on transportation, now more rounded, note that during the run up to the Comp. Plan of 2006, I also suggested that the city also create a Tourism Planning and Management Element.
Combine the management and operations of the two facilities. In short, run the two facilities together, as part of one management entity. Upgrade the Lincoln. Market the hell out of both of the facilities. And one set of administrators and marketers can, for the most part, run both facilities, saving money, heartache, time, etc.
From the WBJ article:
Real estate prices — and lack of city help — have museums lamenting the market. Where in D.C. could you go to see, say, the original spaceship models used in the filming of the 1970’s TV series “Battlestar Galactica”? Or absorb the story of the first female nuclear physicists to join the Manhattan Project? Or pit your pint-sized endurance athletes in training against one another on a 0.5-kilometer mini obstacle course?Other recent planning or institutional failures. Other events over the past couple years that are relevant include
The answer: Nowhere, right now.
But that’s not for lack of trying by organizers of, respectively, the Museum of Science Fiction, the National Women’s History Museum and the National Children’s Museum — just a few of the more than half-dozen private museums that want to locate in the culturally rich District at the moment, but can’t seem to find the right space or partners.
In a capital of museums and monuments, they’re unlikely victims of a D.C. economic development and building boom that’s made market-rate rents unaffordable to museum tenants, even well beyond the National Mall. That’s come as the well of city financial support — which was a key element in the initial establishment of venues such as the International Spy Museum and Newseum — has largely dried up.
These venues represent more than just a broadening of Washington’s cultural scene. Their failed searches mean that the District, which is investing a combined $200 million in two sports arenas in the coming years, is losing out on millions in tourism revenue and economic development that museums help lure to their neighborhoods. In 2014 alone, the most recent year these figures are available, visitors to D.C. spent $6.8 billion, a nearly 2 percent boost from the prior year. Travelers who participate in cultural or heritage activities, such as museums, spend 63 percent more on average than other vacationers, according to the Arlington-based American Alliance of Museums.
City officials say they’re doing all they can, pointing to $103 million in revenue bonds the District issued for the National Law Enforcement Officers Museum, to be built next to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square. Yet the wildly popular International Spy Museum’s request for $15 million in city investment has thus far gone unanswered in its planned move to L’Enfant Plaza. And the National Children’s Museum hasn’t even been granted enough time with city leaders to talk about funding specifics, let alone any actual dollars, for a new home to replace its shuttered one in National Harbor, according to those affiliated with the project.
(1) the failure of the Corcoran Gallery -- while I wrote about it in 2014, I realized last November that I blew it, and I should have suggested that the city take it over and refashion it as the city's premier locally-focused fine arts facility;
(2) the failure to consider creating a massive arts facility comparable to the Cable Factory in Helsinki or La Friche in Marseille or even GoggleWorks in Reading, Pennsylvania as part of the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Hospital campus;
(3) the scotching by the Bowser Administration of an agreement to create an "Institute of Contemporary Arts" in the long vacant Franklin School on Franklin Square (by contrast, the suburban-located Crystal Bridges Museum is opening a similar facility in Downtown Bentonville, see "Crystal Bridges Museum to Open New Space for Contemporary Art," New York Times);
(4) even the DC Public Schools off-again, on-again desire to continue to support the Fillmore Arts Center school education program in Georgetown;
(5) the unsuccessful and misguided effort to move the National Museum of Crime and Punishment to the Carnegie Building.
Virginia has problems too. These kinds of failures aren't unique to DC. Despite Arlington's great cultural facilities planning program, Artisphere failed--although in large part because it was expected to operate at a profit ("Artisphere: 'Doomed from the start'," Post, and Signature Theater had to be given a break on its loans, because its revenues were under what is necessary to pay for the debt service on the creation of the linked theater and public library in Shirlington.
Similarly, there is angst in Alexandria over proposed changes to the management and operation of the Torpedo Factory-an arts studio and gallery facility ("This torpedo factory has thrived as an artists colony for 42 years. Now everything might change."). And an arts facility in Lorton, Fairfax County has big financial issues too ("Red ink at Fairfax County's arts center in Lorton forces change" Post).
Maryland. While the Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center is being displaced from Silver Spring to Hyattsville--mostly it's their own fault--interestingly, their new facility in the heart of the Gateway Arts District will also house the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area and the Neighborhood Design Center, a community urban design studio assisting neighborhood planning projects . It's a nice example of co-location and shared facilities.
Repeated failure as an indicator of structural issues. As I wrote in 2007:
When the same kind of thing keeps happening over and over, it's an indicator that there is a problem with the system of supporting (or not) cultural resources more generally within the City of Washington.What to do/Recommendations
General media, even alternative papers like the City Paper are great for calling attention to issues, but suboptimal for making recommendations about what to do. Well, they can be a good source for shedding light on options, it's just not what DC-area media do.
By contrast, a couple years ago the Boston Globe published a special section, "Growing Boston’s arts scene," on Boston's cultural community and arts policy. An earlier piece, in response to the Mayor's campaign plank on creating a city arts commissioner calls attention to best practice examples from Chicago, "Chicago can teach Boston lessons about arts and culture".
1. Have a capital acquisition and improvements fund to buy and maintain the !@#$%^&*()_ buildings. Without ownership of the buildings, in a market economy, cultural uses will be outbid, especially in high-value sub-markets.
But there is no such fund.
Besides the Pittsburgh and Cleveland examples, or the BAM district in Brooklyn, there are examples of arts-focused community development corporations as models operating at smaller scales.
Such a fund needs to be able to be proactive, innovative, and fast.
(2) Of course, such a fund presupposes the existence of a comprehensive cultural plan with sub-plans for neighborhoods/districts. There is no such plan. Create one. (Allegedly that's going to happen, but it's not like they're going to contact me.) This would put into place a process for dealing with preserving potential assets at both the city-wide and neighborhood scale.
As examples of discipline-specific plans, cities like Austin, Chicago, and Seattle have master plans for the music industry. While New York City and Chicago do not have master plans for their theater industries, some planning documents have been produced.
-- Montgomery, John. "Cultural quarters as mechanisms for urban regeneration part 1
-- Montgomery, John. "Cultural quarters as mechanisms for urban regeneration part 2
-- Cultural Infrastructure: An Integral Component of Canadian Communities” Creative City Network of Canada
And damn, such a comprehensive plan should include an element on marketing and promotion. Now that I think about it, that is a major omission in the culture master plans I've read.
(3) Neighborhood/sector culture plans. Besides the need for elements addressing city-wide arts institutions and specific artistic disciplines, city/county culture master plans need to include planning guidance at the sub-city level.
Examples of failure at the neighborhood level include the Takoma Theatre, and the need for better guidance for dealing with projects as they come up, such as the "Brookland Arts Walk" project that is part of the Monroe Street Market. It's a cool project, but the spaces are all designed to support arts consumption, with little room for arts production besides prints and objects and crafts.
Note that as part of zoning agreements, private properties may provide free or discounted space for arts facilities. While this is more an activation device for the developers, it is especially important to the groups that benefit. Not having neighborhood cultural guidance makes it harder to best reap such benefits.
Examples include the location of Washington Project for the Arts in the Atlantic Plumbing upscale multiunit residential development, or the Brookland Arts Walk (pictured above) of small retail spaces rented to crafts artists mostly, in the Monroe Street Market development in Brookland.
(4) City/county cultural plans need to reference other governmentally controlled or nonprofit owned assets and provide planning guidance. Over the past few years I have argued that certain types of "local" plans, in particular parks, transportation, and culture plans of various sorts need to acknowledge the presence of assets controlled by county, state, and federal entities, and other public interest stakeholders (universities, etc.) so that citizen interest in those facilities are represented adequately and systematically, and the local community is poised to act in the case of exigent circumstances such a federal shutdown or state budget cuts ("Federal shutdown as another example of why local jurisdictions should have more robust contingency and master planning processes," "Local parks planning, the USDA's National Arboretum, and the Friends of the National Arboretum).
One prominent example is the Corcoran ("Corcoran dissolution: cy pres petition." While the city attorney general did get involved in the matter as I had suggested earlier, they weren't particularly motivated, and instead I should have suggested that the city take over the Corcoran Gallery and reposition it as a local fine arts museum.
Instead, GWU got the buildings and National Gallery of Art and other museums, the art collection. The art school could have become part of UDC and the center of a new Downtown campus for UDC.
Other matters include transportation around the National Mall ("New DC Circulator route serving National Mall reminds us that we are neglecting connections from west to east and fail to adequately connect Georgetown to the National Mall"), open hours of federal museums and libraries, management and public hours of the National Arboretum, control of many of the city's parks assets by the National Park Service, better access to parks facilities ("A gap in planning across agencies: Prioritizing park access"), visitor services, the way Arlington co-locates facilities, etc.
(5) City/county culture master plans need to reference relevant privately owned assets and provide planning guidance as needed. Concerning privately-owned assets, while commercial district revitalization plans have always addressed private business and private property, typically other master planning processes do not do so to any great extent.
Besides recognizing the presence of the assets controlled by other government entities, I have come to recognize that recreation, cultural, and parking and curbspace management plans need to recognize privately-owned and operated assets also, to provide a complete and thorough framework and platform for comprehensive planning of the matter at hand, and again to represent citizen interests and to be prepared to act in exigent circumstances, with the potential for stepping in on an as-needed basis (n terms of transportation matters, this came up recently in Reston, Virginia, see "What to do about public input when seemingly public facilities are privately owned?: Parking at Reston Town Center, Fairfax County, Virginia").
As discussed in the next section, the Union Arts, Takoma Theatre, and Bohemian Caverns matters each involve private entities.
Other examples could include letting private entities use public recreation facilities for fee-based classes, or private fitness programs, even private schools and daycare facilities, using public parks and playgrounds.
(6) On occasion, the local government needs to be able to step in and deal with assets controlled by other entities, including the private sector. In DC, there is no plan, no standing fund, no open and transparent process for a city cultural affairs office to step in and mediate when necessary, between interests and stakeholders, to facilitate a positive outcome in what can be trying circumstances. (A sort of private bill process does exist, where monies can be provided to groups in emergency situations. Because of legislation initiated by Councilmember Evans, the Heurich Mansion got a big grant from the city, when it faced a financial crisis. But it was no sure thing.)
With Takoma Theatre, it was privately-owned and the owner was intransigent. He wouldn't negotiate with a community group interested in reopening the theater. And the community group wouldn't come up with what they considered the exorbitant amount of money he was asking for the building. (Sometimes, if you want the building, you have to pay the asking price, otherwise you won't get it.) And the Councilmember and the the city wouldn't really get involved in a substantive way because the intransigent owner was African-American.
The city needed to step in, even raise the possibility of "eminent domain" to facilitate the reopening of discussion. But that didn't happen.
A privately owned venture in a privately owned building, Bohemian Caverns was the city's premier jazz club.
Me I am not into jazz, but it's an important element of the city's cultural history and cultural offer.
Based on the rendition of the issues in the WCP article, there was a need for "mediation" between the property owner and the business owner to facilitate the continued existence of the club. But that didn't happen, the property owner refused to renew the lease, the business wasn't doing so well financially, and now an important cultural institution--albeit privately owned--is now gone ("Bohemian Caverns' Inventory is Up for Auction," WCP).
(It's also yet another lesson that separating a business from ownership of the real estate in which it is housed is usually a losing proposition for cultural institutions, private or public.)
Located in a then unattractive part of the city, and owned by a typography firm.that needed less and less physical space with the digitalization of the printing industry, the owner who was a supporter-of-the arts, started renting space out cheaply to artists who were desperate for low-cost space, regardless of the suboptimal location.
Now the area is transforming so the building is worth a lot of money, the property owner died, his family wanted to cash out, so they sold it to a real estate firm.
There, the solution was to buy the building and maintain it as an arts facility (or instead of tearing down Walter Reed Hospital, use it for a variety of activities, including the arts).
(7) Somehow the city needs to better engage the philanthropic community for the support of local cultural endeavors. DC doesn't have a lot of wealth. Government workers don't make all that much money, the federal government no longer acts like a benefactor, and businesses that normally fund local activities such as department store companies, banks, utility companies, and media are no longer locally owned and don't put out all that much money.
But there are some wealthy people in the area. But mostly, local "rich people" aren't interested in funding local cultural endeavors. They chose to operate on a bigger scale, and the federal cultural institutions tend to capture their interest and "sweep up" their monies and donations.
For example, the various donations by David Rubenstein to the National Archives, Library of Congress, Washington Monument, etc., are incredible, but support national cultural endeavors, not local ones ("Washington is home to 16 billionaires. How much are they giving away?," Post).
Commenter charlie also points out that local rich people may prefer to go spend their money in other communities, where they can be bigger fish ("The $40 Million Party Pad," Wall Street Journal). That $40 million party pad is in part funded by lots of money made off of streetlight and traffic signal maintenance contracts let by the City of Washington.
Other examples include, the Glenstone Foundation arts museum in Montgomery County which is amazing, funded by Mitchell Rales ("Art collector Mitchell Rales's grand design hangs up over sewer issue," Post, and "Art Collectors Gain Tax Benefits From Private Museums," New York Times), but located in a rural part of Montgomery County and miles from Metrorail and ill-served by public transit.
The Broad museum set to hit new milestone," Los Angeles Times).
Although one cool element of the Glenstone's rural setting is the ability to feature the landscape as an element of the museum's presentation of art, landscape art, and sculpture.
Speaking of Reading, Pennsylvania, it is the headquarters of the Boscov's regional department store chain. The family, Albert Boscov in particular, are big funders of local cultural endeavors, such as the Berks (County) Jazz Festival--this week--and the creation of the multi-faceted GoggleWorks art center (no such facility exists in the DC area at that kind of scale, which is dwarfed by the aforementioned facilities in Europe).