Local DC performing and visual artists and installations will invade seven DC neighborhoods Saturday night as part of a free program called Art All Night. This year’s festival, and events like it, are great for fostering urbanism.

Artist Monsieur Arthur mixes paints for a live feed projection on the front of the Carnegie Library at Art All Night 2015. Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

Art All Night includes dozens of individual events in seven neighborhoods that are part of the DC Main Streets program: Shaw, Dupont Circle, H Street, North Capitol, Congress Heights, Tenleytown, and Van Ness, from 7pm to 3am. (The full schedule of events for each neighborhood is online here.)

Art All Night started in Shaw in 2011, inspired by the Nuit Blanche festival in Paris. This year it features almost exclusively local DC artists (with a few invited international guests), “in celebration of the Made in DC initiative,” according to event organizers.

Shaw Shaws installation at 2015 Art All Night. Photo by Victoria Pickering.

Festivals make us consider the urban fabric in new ways

Art All Night founder Ariana Austin has described it as an opportunity for the community to get exposed to local and international artists and “encounter the city in a new way.”

That’s true, but it only scratches the surface on why festivals like this one are a boon to communities.

GGWash contributor David Meni went to the Art All Night exhibits along North Capitol Street in the Truxton Circle/Bloomingdale area last year. He says nearly all of the art installations and concerts there took place in vacant lots that would be fenced off at any other time.

"These are spaces that would normally be overlooked or even intentionally avoided. I think one of the biggest values of Art All Night, at least in that area, was to get folks from the community and neighborhoods nearby engaged with those spaces and envisioning their potential. There’s a particularly large vacant lot at the intersection of Florida and North Capitol, but for this one night it was active with artists and music and food vendors — I’m sure that got a lot of people thinking about how that lot could be used in ways that bring the community together year-round.”

"An arts festival is akin to a parade, marathon, or any other big urban event,” adds contributor Abby Lynch. “They can draw people to a new part of the city, let us experience it in a different way. They can also take a busy area and activate it at a different time— I’m guessing that Van Ness isn’t typically that busy at 2 or 3 am, so this is bringing new activity to the area in that sense as well.”

Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

They can be an economic opportunity, too

Van Ness Main Streets sees art and cultural programming as an opportunity to use art for business revitalization. “Our Jazz @ VN series was developed to showcase our local restaurants and create an activity to highlight our restaurants as well DC’s vibrant jazz scene,” says Theresa Cameron, the organization’s executive director.

These sorts of events can provide mini-breaks to an overly restrictive zoning scheme too, points out contributor Canaan Merchant. “Mini businesses that may not make sense in a brick and mortar space can still flourish in a festival space and the great thing is that the brick and mortar places do well as well, which makes me think that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Abby also adds that festivals like this “compliment the activities of brick and mortar institutions, too. They can concentrate programing to draw a big crowd in a way that a performing arts center with two stages and shows every Thursday through Sunday just can’t. That big crowd is also a good way to showcase lots of artists (or arts groups) for a broad audience, providing them exposure in a way they wouldn’t get if they were to produce a show on their own. And a healthy creative community is a good thing for a city.”

In fact, some urbanists have argued that cities should focus less on museums as a development magnet and more on festivals. Why? The flexibility and overhead of festivals can provide a greater return on investment than capital-intensive museums. Certainly, that doesn’t mean DC should jettison the Smithsonian, but it’s an interesting argument.