Washington, DC: Dance Place
How can artistic programming help to strengthen the image of a neighborhood in transition?
For an area of Washington DC that has long been faced with lower-than-average income levels and higher-than-average crime rates, Dance Place is an important cultural anchor that aims to enrich the field of dance and serve as a social and cultural development catalyst in their neighborhood. As the economy and real estate values of the area began a sharp uptick, residents became concerned that they would have to leave a neighborhood they had long called home. So, Dance Place set out to develop programs that would welcome new community members while continuing to serve its longtime audience, and it would use that programming to address the issues of neighborhood identity and gentrification.
In the northeast Washington DC neighborhood of Brookland, just south of the Catholic University of America campus and adjacent to the surface-level Metro tracks, Dance Place has been a key cultural anchor. Diverse in both its population and the its physical make- up, the area is a mix of single family homes, row houses, low-income subsidized housing projects, warehouse spaces, charter schools, and recently developed townhouses. Founded in 1980, and in its current location since 1986, Dance Place has become a social and cultural landmark to the Brookland neighborhood, and one of the few cultural organizations in the Northeast quadrant of Washington DC (since most are in the Northwest). Today, mixed-use development is bringing in new opportunities to the neighborhood—along with an expected 1,500 new residents.
The Brookland neighborhood is known both for its strengths and its challenges. Known for high crime, 30% of residents live below the poverty line and 51% of children live in poverty. But it is a neighborhood that is also known for its strong sense of community pride and friendly character. Currently, the neighborhood is predominantly African American, but this is beginning to change, and Dance Place is taking a leading role in the dialogue about how those changes affect the community. Into this diverse mix, Dance Place draws over 50,000 visitors to the area each year for community-based dance- and performance-related programs.
Dance Place knew that the Brookland neighborhood was often dismissed as dangerous, and that they had a needed to put forward a more accurate vision of their own identity. Traditionally, one of the neighborhood’s biggest shortcomings has been, as Dance Place Founding Director Carla Perlo says, “the complete lack of any outdoor cultural activities that were open to the public, particularly during the weekends and evenings.” The influx of new residents and developments provided potential audiences and economic development, but this potential was not without challenge. Dance Place had already been gentrified out of an earlier location in the 1980s when its rent quadrupled in the Adams Morgan area of Northwest DC. The organization was determined to avoid the same fate for itself and its community members again.
Committed to the cultural vitality of its neighborhood— even one in the midst of great change—Dance Place developed a series of programs that would take place outside, on Monroe Street Market, and on a newly created plaza between its building and the new Artspace Brookland Lofts. By programming events outside, Perlo wanted neighbors, especially those entering and leaving the Metro station, to see an active, vibrant area and feel safe. The outdoor venues would also expand their potential audience, including passersby who may not otherwise be inclined to buy tickets for dance performances. As Perlo put it, outdoor performances would be “designed to encourage creative activity, improve the quality of life in Brookland, create community identity and sense of place, and revitalize the local economy in northeast Washington DC.”
To plan and implement its outdoor programs, Dance Place worked closely with Cultural DC, a non-profit organization that supports Washington DC’s creative community. Because it was developing innovative programming outdoors, beyond its own property lines, Dance Place also needed to identify partners willing to participate in creating community arts events. The developers of the adjacent Monroe Street Market—Abdo Development/Bouzzuto Group—became active partners, providing critical access to their ground level open space. When the Artspace Brookland Lofts went up on an adjacent loft, not only did it provide 39 units of affordable housing meant for artists, it also created a plaza space between Dance Place and the Lofts buildings that could be used for programming.
Dance Place organized a series of programs that would allow the plaza to become “an incubator for cross collaborations.” The hope was that this new space would allow for the possibility of inventing new hybrid art forms, inviting to non-traditional audiences. Because they were partnering with outside organizations, they had to closely orchestrate complex schedules. The Art on 8th program for example, was a series of events that transformed Washington’s 8th Street into an outdoor performance venue, and was timed to coincide with the opening of the Monroe Street Market that drew a large public audience. In an effort to work with the community, Dance Place also found itself needing to collaborate with organizations and businesses that did not have experience in producing public art events. To address this need, they designated in-house staff to work on joint logistics and relied heavily on their knowledge of how to reach out to the surrounding community. For example, they knew that long-term residents preferred printed matter (including flyers and posters), while newer residents were more reachable through social media and websites.
The Art on 8th program drew a big crowd, including both new and long-standing Brookland residents, as well as visitors from further afield. For artists, the expanded programming meant enhanced economic and creative opportunity. Perlo conceded that measuring the impact of arts can be difficult, especially on quantitative terms, but Dance Place has been committed to charting its impact as methodically as possible. By tracking press coverage, for instance, they have been able to document an expanded visibility throughout the wider Washington DC community. They have also noticed an increase in visitors to Brookland, generally, and to Dance Place, specifically. On an anecdotal level, Perlo reported that the new programs—Art on 8th and those carried out in the plaza—have been enthusiastically received.
Because of the influx of new residents, they were also unsure about how the community would respond. As it turned out, the response was overwhelmingly positive, evidenced by large audiences and favorable mentions and reviews in the press; and their partners have already signed on for other events. By making the commitment to initiate an ambitious series of outdoor programs, Dance Place was stepping outside of its comfort zone. It was in tackling something new that the group realized it had the capacity to do programs well beyond what they had previously imagined.
"Our advice to others would be to be creative and ambitious with creating a project and not be afraid of making a few errors -- these can be worked out in time. Careful planning is important, but at a certain point you just need to launch it and execute decisions along the way." Judy Estey, Dance Place
Washington DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities - Festivals and City Arts Project grants