Transcript of Discussion at Busboys and Poets, December 16, 2009, in Washington, DC

Jo Reed:  In the midst of NEA chairman, Rocco Landesman's "Artworks Tour," he thought he should find out how art works in his new backyard of Washington, DC. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities agreed, and this week it hosted an Art Works round table discussion with the chairman. The event took place at the crossroads of art and commerce, a DC gathering place that combines restaurant, book store, gallery and cultural space called "Busboys and Poets." DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Executive Director, Gloria Nauden, and Chairman Landesman were joined by Bus Boys and Poets founder and owner, Andy Shallal, and DC Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning in a far-ranging discussion before a packed audience of DC arts leaders. Let's listen to some of that conversation.

Gloria Nauden: I am Gloria Nauden, the Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and I've been here for a year, so I've probably only met half of this room. But hopefully the day is the point in which we are able to touch the other half of the arts movement in DC. Andy Shallal, to my right, of Bus Boys and Poets, and I think he has three or four of these entities, two of which are based in DC, one on the burgeoning 5th and K Street corridor near Chinatown, and this one here, in the newly revitalized 14th and U Street. He has been part of the transformation. He is a Renaissance man in leading arts in a direction that the city's never seen before. And to my left, Chairman of the NEA Rocco Landesman. We are so honored and we welcome you. And this is, I believe, his third stop from St. Louis, Peoria and now Washington, DC. This is going to be your best discussion about the arts because it's robust here. And so we completely welcome you here. And then, we have Harriet Tregoning. This is a person that's really behind the scenes. She is the director in DC government, of planning. So that's urban development. She has been leading the charge on studies about the creative economy for the last couple of years with the DC Economic Partnership and the support of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, so she'll talk today about the preliminary findings on how strong the legion of the creative, workforce is, and she'll speak to that further. So we'll turn it over now to the chairman of the NEA.

Rocco Landesman: Well, thanks, Gloria. From the first moment I came in I felt very comfortable. I started meeting people, and everyone has been so welcoming, and that's been happening to me all over town, and it's a really nice, nice feeling. It's been a revelation to me to find how warm and embracing people are in this town.

As Gloria says, I've been touring a bunch of different cities, our so-called Art Works Tour, and it did occur to me that I have a new hometown, and I should find out about art here in Washington, DC, and not simply be touring across the country finding out about art when there's so much of it and so much great art right here. I know in terms of my own discipline, the theater, I know how vital the arts scene is in that area. I mean, there are so many great theaters doing so many great things. And, in that way I do feel right at home as a theater person coming down from New York.

We are going around talking about Art Works, and this is a triple entendre. Art Works means works of art, like that great, great mural that's here. You know, that's the stuff that artists do, it's the stuff that we support at the NEA. And of course, artworks in the way it always has, that it affects people, it changes their consciousness, it can have a profound effect. The third meaning, of course, is more literal and maybe is the most important to us at the NEA going forward over the next few years, which is that artists are part of the real economy. The arts workers are real workers. They have real jobs. There are 5.7 million full-time arts-related jobs in this country, and we're a very, very important constituency, and the NEA is going to be making that point tirelessly.

Part of my job is to learn and find out about what you guys are doing. I mean, you see a place like Busboys and Poets, and you've been talking for months about the relationship of arts to a community, the relationship of arts to the economy, how this is all symbiotic, how the arts can be a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, for urban renewal. And it's just fantastic when you come into a palpable physical place where that actually has happened, where it goes on. That's inspiring, and I think it's one of the things that gives me hope that this can really be done across the country. And it's exciting to come into a place like this and see the vitality and see the importance of it to the community. It's fantastic.

Gloria Nauden: Harriet Tregoning, if you could speak about your creative economy study findings.

Harriet Tregoning: Thank you very much. In some ways, our timing really couldn't be better, that the NEA is launching this art works initiative, which very much coincides with a study that we're just completing on the creative economy in the district. And I have to say that while I expected to get pretty impressive results, I was really shocked by how important, how large, how vast creative employment is in our district's economy, that it's 10 percent of all of our jobs. And that's using very conservative definitions of what is creative. The sector includes, as you might expect, arts and design media but also communications, museum management, culinary arts, of course performing and visual arts and film. In 2007, these creative jobs generated an impressive $5 billion in earnings in the District of Columbia. I mean, this is immense: 75 thousand direct jobs in the creative sector, that's 10 percent of the city's job base. But there are many, many more indirect jobs that are also created. You know, we have you. We have assets that sustain and create what I'd have to call one of the most robust creative sectors in the entire country. Visual and performing arts, non-profits, multimedia companies, a huge self-employed graphic design and interior design, a cadre of folks, creative organizations with E-platforms. We have foreign missions that sponsor cultural events.

Sometimes I think about Washington - I've lived here for 20 years, you know - and there were so many things I didn't know about Washington, despite having been here for so long until I got into this job. And sometimes the way I describe it is that our Federal Government identity, our Clark Kent identity, our button-down, it's so strong that there's no bandwidth to hear about our superhero identities. And one of our greatest superhero identities is that we are a cultural hub. You know, we have amazing organizations, amazing non-profits, almost 90 performing arts organizations, 70 plus museums. I mean, it's an amazing thing. Another thing that really helps to contribute is that we're also a vastly international city - 180 missions and foreign embassies, the World Bank, the IMF, many other organizations, many of those organizations sponsor a really rich array of arts and cultural programming. You know, so, not only do we have this great local community, we have the ability to tap and to be exposed to arts from all over the world. And I think part of our struggle, part of our collective job is to let these super hero identities out, you know, let them out and left people really know about how tremendous they are. And part of what we're doing at the Office of Planning is to identify how important this is from a way any city would understand. Not only does it make it wonderful and rich and fascinating to live here and to visit here, but it's an important part of our economy. It's an incredibly important part of our economy that needs to be more prominent.

Not only do we have this significant concentration, but our employment in DC among creative occupations is some of the highest in the entire country. You won't be surprised to hear that news syndicate employment is 26 times the national average. TV broadcasting employment is four times the national average, periodical publishing also four times. We have more than ten thousand employees just in museums and heritage. That is more than any other place in the U.S. But let's be honest, the economic downturn that we're experiencing along with the rest of the country has really presented some major challenges for this sector. A lot of these jobs are in a part of the creative sector that's rapidly transforming media, in particular. So this makes it even more volatile. But at its core, the creative economy is strong because it relies on innovation. And if we ever had a moment where innovation was important in our economy, it's right now. So we're optimistic that new entrepreneurial initiatives and business restructurings will actually help our sector weather the storm, and even lead to new or retooled organizations, collaborations and businesses.

The great thing is creative industries are often at the heart of the small business economy. It's not those Fortune 500 companies that produce jobs in America. It's small businesses. That's where you really have the rapid growth. That's where the funky, quirky space that Washington has so much of, you know, can really be put to use. That's where talented, smart workers start their own businesses or sole proprietorships that can easily fit into these infield spaces around anchor tenants. Many creative industries have low barriers to entry, extending business opportunities to entrepreneurs and employment opportunities to many folks who may not have vast years of formal education but have a lot of other skills and talents. So one of the things that we're trying to do is lay out an action agenda that for the first time identifies strategies that the DC government will help to support to strengthen this creative economy, develop new strategies for bringing arts and cultural programming to destinations throughout the city, leverage the work of creative entrepreneurs, businesses and organizations as part of neighborhood revitalization. You know, we're sitting in an example of a revitalizing corridor where Andy's business is really, you know, the heart of this community. I mean, I heard so many people say, "This is the Washington I want to live in, the place that's represented by the people who frequent this establishment, this is the Washington of my aspiration. All people, all colors, all incomes, all kinds."

And we have the opportunity in a downturn to find spaces all over the city where people are anxious to have the street-enlivening, community-making projects and efforts that you are so intimately engaged in, be part of what it is that they're trying to do in these revitalizing neighborhoods. So a lot of our effort is almost like art speed dating, you know. <Laughter> We're trying to bring those people with spaces together with those of you who could make short-term or long-term use of those spaces. So we're looking at creating an action agenda that helps to do a lot of these things and really to give very deliberate and specific meaning to Rocco's credo that art works. We want art to work in the city and we look forward to working with the NEA on this. Thank you.

Gloria Nauden: Next I'll turn it over to, Andy Shallal, the, owner of Busboys and Poets, to tell us more about the impetus for this creation and how art works here at Busboys and Poets.

Andy Shallal: Thank you so much, Gloria. Busboys and Poets is named after Langston Hughes, the great artist-poet of the last century. The story goes that Langston Hughes was working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel and was discovered by Vachel Lindsay who was a great American poet who happened to be dining at the Wardman Park Hotel, where the young Langston slipped some of his poetry under his plate. The next day Vachel Lindsay announced to the press that he had just discovered a busboy poet. So, that's Busboys and Poets, and that's the story of this place. We know here, of course, at Busboys and Poets, that arts do work. They work on so many different levels. I understand the power of art. I've always known the power of art. I'm an artist. In fact, my business card says "artist" on the back of it. I don't know how else to identify. Everything that I do is infused with art. I know that we're seeing some downturn in the economy. We're seeing an increase in our business here. It's a real telling sign that art does indeed work. And if you can create something that people can connect with on a much deeper level, through their soul, through their body, you see that they will support it and come back. This stage has housed so many different things. We do book events. We do poetry on a regular basis. We do music, everything that you could possibly imagine. And people come back again and again because they feel a sense of belonging here. And the belonging part is really the art that we have all around here. People walk in here. They look at the mural. They look at the art we have on the wall, and they understand where we're coming from immediately. The art speaks so much louder than words, obviously. As a young child, I remember coming to this country, not speaking any English, had a very severe speech impediment, went to middle school, and I remember not being able to talk to anyone. And an art teacher took me under her wings, and she used to bring me inside her classroom during lunchtime and be able to sit and do art. And in so many ways, I really think that she saved my life. And I really do believe the power of art just goes way beyond anything that I could say to you. I think all of you understand it, and I thank you for continuing to do what you do.

Gloria Nauden: So, now we can talk a little bit. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has been around for 40 years and we're now undergoing a five-year strategic plan that most of you all have engaged in. You know, stimulus money's a more powerful tool to help either preserve or sustain jobs, real jobs here. I think the DC arts advocates are on the charge right now with, you know, galvanizing the messaging, the data that we need. So I'm really proud that, you know, everyone is stepping up to the plate. But, you know, artists have always been able to do a lot with just a little bit. They are the supreme entrepreneurs. And we want to become more dynamic at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as we're hearing back from so many of you all. The participation has been so high in saying, "Hey, we need more resources." So once again, the stimulus fund is a resource. Our baseline support has been able to benefit so far 350 arts organizations, 240 individuals, millions of dollars that are going into, you know, be able to sustain art works in Washington across all genres. I think what everybody realizes from looking around the room and knowing your city so well, we are everything. We are black, white, Asian, gay, Latino, we are everything. And everybody in this room is serving that. We look to unearth and cultivate all the cultural assets. And again, thank you here for taking the charge and helping to do an inventory so that we can more internally understand our core relevancy and assets and the service that we provide to Washingtonians as well as to the tourists that come into DC.

So we have a mission to fund artistic excellence in the district. But there's a vision that also speaks to institutionalizing and making sure that the arts stays as a part of the fabric of the communities. So, again, in serving a more dynamic role, last year we tried to raise the profile of the Arts Commission, and for that we have a 55 percent increase in grant applications, which is outrageous. Some east of the river, like that grant program was increased by 75 percent in response. I thank you guys for all of the fantastic work you're doing in the community for us. And thank you for being here.

Jo Reed: The day after the round table, I had the opportunity to ask Chairman Landesman about his impressions of the event.

Rocco Landesman: Well, it was great fun. We've been talking about the relation of arts in the economy for quite a while. And we went into this incredible building, Busboys and Poets where Andy Shallal is really walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. He's been doing this. And you see here's this place that's a gallery, a bookstore, or a restaurant, a bar, everything, and the community really congregates there, and it has a direct relationship to the community. It's very, very exciting to see. And then to see that kind of turnout by the arts organizations was really heartening. I think more than half of the arts organizations in Washington have representatives there. It was great of Gloria Nauden to put that group together, and Harriet Tregoning came, and I think that was a big boost for everyone that she would come to that. She's the DC Director of Planning. It was just a wonderful morning. I had a great time.

Jo Reed: Is there anything that you particularly walk away from after an event like yesterday?

Rocco Landesman: Well, yes. I think there's a great value in some of these convenings that we have not only in terms of what the arts community can say to us--and that's important because we need to listen to what they're saying. They're out there in the field--but also it's an occasion for them to talk to each other. They don't congregate all that much. They don't get together all that often. And so, there's a feeling that- to the extent that they have common purpose and speak with one voice, they're going to be that much stronger, and it's great to see them all in the same room. It was great. And they have a lot to teach us, of course.

Jo Reed: That was Chairman Rocco Landesman talking about how Art Works in Washington, DC.