5 Lively Groups Nurturing The Arts In Washington D.C.
When most people think of Washington, D.C., politics is the first thing that comes to mind, but the city is also a thriving artistic and cultural center. It's home to groups ranging from national touring companies to local independent galleries, which provide support for artists, writers, and performers of every stripe. Listed in no particular order, the following organizations work to promote creativity in the nation's capital.
Starting us off at #1 is the District of Columbia Arts Center, which showcases under-recognized creators and provides a forum for education and cultural exchange. DCAC's gallery often hosts works that would be difficult to execute in a more commercial space, like Stephanie Garon's sculptures incorporating organic decay. Its black box theater, meanwhile, offers a venue for intimate performances from improv comedy to dramatic plays. The Center's annual 1460 Wallmountables installation is a creative free-for-all, inviting anyone and everyone to hang artwork on the walls.
The Curatorial Initiative at DCAC helps apprentice curators gain experience by planning and executing exhibitions with the guidance of experienced mentors. This has resulted in thought-provoking installations such as Public Displays of Privacy, an exploration of identity, memory, and Black womanhood. The Sparkplug artist collective offers a structure for local creators to critique and learn from one another's practices, and participate in collaborative exhibitions displaying their work.
Our #2 is the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, or DCEFF, the world's largest showcase of environmentally themed cinematic works. This annual event gathers tens of thousands of participants for screenings of short and feature-length productions that call attention to ecological issues, celebrate stewardship, and educate viewers about the natural world. Audiences can attend panel discussions where filmmakers offer insights into their creations and the urgent issues that inspired them.
DCEFF recognizes outstanding works with honors including The Shared Earth Foundation Award for Advocacy, which highlights efforts to inspire environmental action, and the William W. Warner Beautiful Swimmers Award, celebrating films that reflect a spirit of reverence for the natural world. The Festival's entries deal with subjects ranging from the global impacts of human activity, to efforts by small communities to save and restore treasured landscapes. The organization provides an Education Guide for viewers looking to learn more about the topics presented.
Next is #3, Step Afrika!, a professional dance company blending traditional African dances with contemporary performance forms and historically Black percussive styles. The program brings shows to venues throughout the United States, and also tours the world as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador. Its repertory performances include works such as The Migration, inspired by Jacob Lawrence's famed paintings of African-American migrants, and Symphony In Step, which combines stepping with orchestral music.
Step Afrika! provides arts education programs for young people, including the Summer Steps Camp, as well as a number of in-school offerings promoting literacy, creativity, and college readiness. The group works to preserve the tradition of stepping and educate the public about this art form's roots in African-American fraternities and sororities. The organization highlights the role of music and dance in Black history with creations like Stono, a film honoring resistance by slaves in colonial America.
At #4 we have Arena Stage, which strives to support and promote the unique theatrical voices of the Washington, D.C. region and the nation as a whole. This organization commissions and produces plays from notable writers such as Eve Ensler and Idris Goodwin, and provides space and funding for playwrights to develop new works. Many of the group's productions explore issues of American history, identity, and politics. One of them, The 51st State, is a film inspired by the protest movement following the killing of George Floyd.
The many educational efforts from Arena Stage include the D.C. Ticket Partnership, which subsidizes theater visits for public and charter school classes, and the Moving Stories initiative, promoting literacy through interactive storytelling. The group's masterclass series and customized workshops assist participants in developing specific creative skills, and the Actors Arena program offers learning opportunities at no cost for local theater professionals.
Closing out the list is #5, the National League of American Pen Women, a professional organization for female writers, artists, and composers. From its founding in 1897, the League has worked to promote creative excellence and professional standards, offering its members numerous opportunities for networking and education. The group celebrates the work and achievement of women in the arts, and hosts a Biennial Competition showcasing the creations of members.
The Pen Woman literary magazine provides a space for members to publish their work. It includes features like conversations with artists about their processes, and retrospectives on prominent female figures in the organization's history. The Pen Women Press, meanwhile, publishes books and collections by emerging talents. NLAPW provides grants and scholarships to support the creative endeavors of non-members, and creates initiatives to promote community-based arts education.