Seven Ideas to Improve DC’s Creative Economy

A recent strategic plan for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities notes that support for artists reinforces other economic sectors. The plan states, “A 2010 study commissioned by the DC Departments of Planning and Economic Partnership quantified that more than 90,000 individuals are employed in the creative sector. Creative employment provides over $5 billion in earnings and accounts for 10% of the District’s jobs base. Beyond direct jobs, creative industries and talent provide competitive advantage to other key DC industries.” Here are a few small investments that could enhance DC’s creative economy.

  1. Increase half price theater ticket sales

Washington DC has the second largest theater community in the nation, behind only New York City. Whereas New York City has a visually prominent and efficient half-price ticket program it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t know that Washington has a similar program. The city should engage the tech community in a competition to increase half price ticket sales, and program results should be monitored closely, quarter by quarter. There is no reason that a tech team, perhaps paired with Theater Washington, Destination DC, or even the Capital Fringe Festival, couldn’t increase half price ticket sales through modest one time support and effective ongoing partnership.

  1. Put DC art in DC public schools

Through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities the District of Columbia has a wonderful program supporting resident visual artists: DC’s Art Bank. Every year hundreds of DC visual artists apply to have their work purchased at market rate for display in government buildings. A decade into this art acquisition program the government now owns more art than can be displayed in government office buildings. Deaccession of works more than five years in the collection might make sense, and display of the existing collection should be extended into DC Public Schools. A modest capital expenditure to reframe artwork for the public school environment is all that would be necessary to include artwork created by local artists in neighborhood schools.

  1. Make rehearsal space less expensive for local artists

The New York State Council on the Arts’ supports subsidized artist work space through a grant program that encourages those with rehearsal space to provide that space to qualifying artists and productions at a reduced rate. Subsidized rehearsal space makes creation less expensive while increasing rental revenues. At an expected expense under $50,000 per year, it’s a win-win worth trying here in DC.

  1. Make it easier for local artists to make art

When the annual budget for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities was slashed from over $14 million to under $4 million between 2009 and 2012 it was necessary for some granting programs to be eliminated. One such program was the Young Artist granting program that provided grants up to $2500 to artists under 30 years old. Now that the budget for the arts has rebounded — it’s more than $17 million for the coming year – it’s time to consider restoring DC’s Young Artist granting program, which could enliven communities across the District at a total cost of less than $100,000 annually.

  1. Increase support for the largest local arts organizations.

The Federal arts institutions in the District create downward pressure on development of the local arts community, so in 1988 Congress created the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs (NCACA) granting program to support non-Federal DC-based arts organizations. The Arena Stage, Studio Theater, and Shakespeare Theater wouldn’t exist in their current forms without the past support provided by NCACA. The total value of the NCACA fund is split almost evenly annually between the qualifying organizations but in recent years that support has plummeted from $9.5 million (in 2009) down to just $2 million dollars (for the current year.) The largest operating support award offered this year from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is just $100,000. Because of NCACA’s decline, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities should create a new “major organization” operating support category. The largest arts institutions in DC should be able to count on some substantial annual support from the city government, and with that support they’ll be able to broaden their programs for residents and non-residents.

  1. Re-award the Franklin School to the ICE

In the last mayoral administration the historic Franklin School was awarded to a development team, led by Dani Levinas, for use as a contemporary arts center (the Institute for Contemporary Expression.) Then, shortly after taking office, Mayor Bowser rescinded the offer and put the Franklin School back into a new competition for re-development. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning art critic Philip Kennicott wrote, “[Mayor Bowser’s] first major arts decision, and perhaps the one that will most profoundly affect culture in the District for years to come — is bizarre and unaccountable. It may seem a small thing, especially in a city where new buildings rise every day, but it portends yet another city administration that will prioritize money over quality of life, developers over children, boutique hotels with rooftop restaurants over cultural amenities.” The Bowser administration has said their decision was based on concerns about the financial viability of any local museum that expects to rely on admission fees. With the recent closure of Arlington’sArtisphere, and the challenges facing the Newseum, they may have a point. When the Corcoran Museum closed last year I argued it was partly due to the past stain of censorship while others saw it as a sign of mismanagement, but perhaps the business model for arts museums that charge admission simply doesn’t exist in DC. Still, the ICE is much more than a museum and the Franklin School should be re-awarded for that use.

  1. Increase support for arts education

At the urging of arts education advocates, including the DC Advocates for the Arts, the Gray administration funded a local study of arts education. The study was designed to provide granular detail about which DC students receive what kinds of arts education opportunities. While the data from the study has not yet been released, every child in DC should have access to ongoing and immersive arts education opportunities, and that goal should be a target for investment in supporting DC’s creative economy.

What other ideas should be considered to support the Creative Economy?

This was originally published on Urban Scrawl here.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.