Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Urban Art

From the time that Jason was starting the site, one of the ideas I wanted to probe more was the effect a city has on art. Every time I see an article or blog post about how uncool DC is (or how uncool it was until Obama blessed us with his presence) I think about it.

DC is always trying to fight above it's weight class with New York and we're always going to lose in that cultural battle. Hell, Sirius, the smaller-slower-comelier of the two Satellite radio stations somehow was able to make itself the dominant partner of their new, and in the long run doomed merger with XM.

I don't think I have any definitive answer, but I'd like to pose a few questions and knock down a few straw man arguments.

* DC is a capital city, and places with "The Government" are never cool.
As I look around our area this is pretty true. Annapolis and Richmond are really really uncool. I'm not saying Annapolis isn't a nice place to visit, but it's just a city with old buildings and boats, and that will never ever be cool. But look at the big non-governmental cities in other states, has St Louis contributed much to our culture? What about San Diego, or Charlotte, or any city in Florida? Even a city like Philly hasn't had an overwhelming impact.

But then there's Europe, which shoots this theory down. London is an art center, Paris is too, and Berlin ain't bad. You could say that these countries operate much like New York state, there's the big city and then everything-else, but that's too easy. Federal governments brings in an incredible mix of people, you've got kids of diplomats, kids of scientists, kids of politicians and their staff from all over the country. Shouldn't all these teenagers be getting together and forming bands, or putting on art shows?

* DC doesn't have the space, attitude, affordable-housing, etc for poor artists.
You could call this the Baltimore theory - it's cheap in Baltimore so all the artists and musicians are there. But that also seems like a cop out. Even as gentrification spreads through the city there are still places that are livable but affordable. It's just a matter of staying a few steps ahead of the gentrification. And there's also Anacostia, I hadn't really thought about it until this post, but there's no great reason why artists couldn't stake out an affordable location in South East and set up shop.

* DC has already contributed a lot, don't get greedy.
I think it's worth saying that DC has been responsible for plenty of great music, and a lot of fantastic art (see even in Wikipedia we don't get enough credit for our own damn art). Still, the great cities - New York, London, Chicago keep cranking out great art. Scenes come and go, but it's a vibrant community that allows new ones to emerge. I think, as I said above, the constant churn, should be good for creating new art, but it often feels like artists tend to leave more than arrive (Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, for example).

That's all I've got for now. I'm curious for folks thoughts on things like the theater scene, which from my outsider perspective seems pretty strong.


B.Graham said...

The theater scene is DC is actually pretty big, just nobody knows about it. I think the biggest issue about art in DC is not that it's not there, because it definitely is. The issue is the fact that historically people don't consider DC an artist's town, so presently they still don't.

However, this also means that throngs and throngs of homeless kids from the midwest with a wild hair up their ass aren't arriving by the minute, which gives the people who are already here and trying to make a living/make something great some space to live and breathe, and it lowers the competition. For actors, that means more opportunities to get into shows without having to jump through all the hoops that they would in NYC for example (ie equity, open calls in which people line up for miles, etc.) For designers it means being able to climb the ranks without hundred thousand dollar grad school debts. I've heard from many (theater) artists new to the city that they were very pleasantly surprised at the scene here, and the fact that it's a bigger community than expected, but small enough that the intense competition and ruthlessness that one can find in NYC and LA does not exist here.

So basically the fact that DC is not famously an artist's city presents a dual perspective: on the one hand, it's sad to see so much opportunity to make the city more beautiful go to the wayside, but on the other it presents a happy surprise for those who are willing to search out the art scene that exists.

Jason Heat said...

Fun fact I just learned the other day from the director I'm working with - a few years ago a study was comisioned to determine exactly who was employing most of DC.

In order -
1. The Arts
2. Safeway
3. The Pentagon

So DC is absolutely an arts town - especially in the sense that it forms the underpinnings of DC's economic structure. While overshadowed by the Governmen't presence, the Government is actually what lets DC be such an arts town - easier access to grants and people who have a better sense of how to get them.

When it comes to theater, New York is obviously the big dog but that means there is also WAY more demand (actors, directors, designers) than supply. LA is all about hollywood - I have friends working out there in theater and the scene is a joke compared to here in quality of buildings, professionalism, and opportunities (you do get a lot of celebrities doing plays). Which leaves you with DC and Chicago as your best towns to do Theater in America (it realkly depends on what you want though - smaller markets like Philly, Seattle, and New Orleans each specialize in their own kinds of theater)

DC is the best place for an actor to work - there are more shows per actor here than any other city in the country. By the same idea, Chicago is the best place for a director as while there are less shows, there are way more companies, which means more varied styles and opportunities for directors. Obviously Chicago is HEAVILY rooted in the Improv/Sketch scene as well (Dan could talk way more about this than I could), whereas DC has a theatrical culture all its own, starting with the fact we were home to the vey first 'regional theater' ever.

The DC market is incredibly interesting especially in the sense that it's tiers are VERY visible. You have Arena and Shakespeare and the Kennedy Center at the top pay grade; followed by places like Round House, Woolly, Signature, Studio, and Olney all reaching ages of between 20 and 30 as large professional houses. Then there's a rash of young companys really starting to make names for themselves and JUST getting their own spaces - Rorschach, Catalyst, Theater Alliance, Forum - if they last then in 20 years or so they may well be the Round House or Woolly of today, giving rise to a new generation. There are the specified companies like GALA for Hispanic Theater or Venus for women's theater, the sort of side companies tht float from project to project (Taffety Punk, Dog and Pony DC, Bouncing Ball Productions). Political theater is represented by eXtreme eXchange (though I wish there was more good political theater groups doing full lengths plays rather than XX's mission of short original 'blasts'). And then of course - TWO summer festivals, the Fringe and the Source which is proving to be a incredible entry point for new audience members - in the summer DC IS Fringe Central.

So yeah. I'm ready to maybe move just cause I've lived here my entire life minus one year, but I do kinda laugh whenever someone asks "when are you moving to New York." I'd rather become a big fish here before struggling in the Ocean that is Time's Square - especially since all the people here are my friends.

Jason Heat said...

Side note - more and more I want to write a book or do a documentary about the History of DC theater because seriously, the stories are WONDERFUL.

and I'd get to talk to everyone.

Jstone said...

you really can't compare America and Europe. As an American who devotes his life to studying Europe I can honestly say they just don't fit well. So I would argue that it is an American phenomena that capital cities just aren't cool (Albany? I mean pissing distance from NYC and one of the shitiest cities I've ever been to).
Of course, Austin kind of throws a monkey wrench in there too so maybe I'm wrong.

B.Graham said...


What about Denver, Atlanta Honolulu and Boston?

I think America just has a lot of cool cities, regardless of capital status.