Anacostia Arts Center is Not Just a Thriving Hub for Visual Art, But Live Music Too
Camille Kashaka is one of several key people responsible for growing the Anacostia Arts Center into a thriving arts venue, but the journey was not easy.
“In the past, there was a lot of crime here,” noted Kashaka, director for the Anacostia Arts Center, “but it has improved over time. That reputation has followed it into the 21st century, but it’s not true anymore. People will come for a specific event and find that it’s a lively, vibrant neighborhood.”
The Anacostia Arts Center is a project of ARCH Development Corporation, a non-profit organization focused on growing the neighborhood’s economy. ARCH originally functioned with the intent of job training and education, providing hard and soft skills such as carpentry, electrical training, customer service, and management to people of the Anacostia neighborhood. But an overabundance of students and lack of available jobs made it difficult for the company to continue their education-based format, so they reached out to the community.
“The overwhelming response was ‘no more social services,’” said Kashaka. “’We need arts and culture in the corridor.’”
This redirection toward the arts started with the Honfleur Gallery in 2007 and eventually led to the Anacostia Arts Center in 2013. The Center initially had multiple galleries that featured artists, studios and a café, and they also helped to facilitate the Anacostia Playhouse. Eventually they launched two music programs, Eclectic Tuesdays and Live Wednesdays.
“We have performance space, and we use that to facilitate other groups coming in.” These groups can be small theater or dance organizations, or any, as Kashaka called them, “individuals with a dream.”
The Eclectic Tuesdays originally featured everything from music to dance to comedy to burlesque, then veered off to being a music-only venture. As of this year, and with Kashaka’s influence, Tuesdays have shifted to All the Way Live, a monthly hip-hop performance series. The Anacostia Arts Center is also running a quarterly jazz series, which will transition into a monthly jazz series next January. “We’re trying to make more robust performance programming,” added Kashaka.
One of the Center’s newest music partnerships is The Hut. “The Hut is not officially an Anacostia Arts Center program,” Kashaka noted, but the Anacostia Arts Center helps facilitate the bookings and provides opportunities for musicians to find space and play live. “It’s a musician-led program,” she explained. “[Associate Creative Director] Terrence Nicholson is running it, but he is curating The Hut as a local musician.”
For Nicholson, it is a hefty bit of additional work, but he loves it. Because The Hut is not officially an Anacostia venture, “I really have to deal with The Hut as an after-hours project,” Nicholson said. “But it is art all the same, so it feels like play half of the time.”
The idea for The Hut grew from an experience that showed Nicholson that local artist support is not as strong as it should be. “I got an epiphany after leaving an event where the tastemakers-du-jour were sending off Wu Tang Clan to SXSW as representatives of Washington DC,” remembered Nicholson. “It was indicative to me that a lot of folks in position to support local artists are still really not that in touch with the wealth of talent in this town.”
The Hut is a nod to the competitiveness that local musicians experience in trying to book gigs. “We feel that local musicians aren’t getting the play that they deserve, mostly because there are so many local musicians here,” said Kashaka. But because The Hut is a musician-led program, it eliminates the middlemen and the promoters and puts all the responsibility directly in the artist’s control.
“With The Hut, they [the musicians] do all the PR, all the marketing, they get the people in,” Kashaka explained. “They come to us with an idea and a bill, and if it works in our schedule and with what we are trying to do, then you’re in.”
The Center’s programming efforts have had a positive impact on the community, encouraging more people outside the neighborhood to check out the area. And it’s created a word-of-mouth buzz that is keeping the momentum going. Kashaka noted that the performers and patrons are often pleasantly surprised by their experiences, which is helping generate more grassroots promotion for Anacostia.
“We have people from the neighborhood who come here and are so ecstatic about us,” Kashaka said. “If somebody is talking poorly about you all the time, it’s hard to feel good about yourself. And when our neighbors see that they have something here, it makes them feel better about living here.”
Kashaka would encourage anybody to check out Anacostia and not be deterred by its reputation. “The Anacostia neighborhood is no more dangerous than any other neighborhood in D.C. There’s stuff to do here, there are places to eat here, there are places to stay here, and patrons go back to wherever they came from, and they talk really well about the neighborhood.”