Home to many world-class museums and a dynamic performing arts scene, the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, Metropolitan Division ranked 3rd overall in Arts Dollars according to the 2022 Arts Vibrancy Index Report. In particular, this region ranked highest in the nation on levels of contributed revenue and artistic expenses per capita.
This region encompasses three states and reflects the global perspective of inhabitants who come from around the world. The expanding presence of higher educational institutions and strong real estate development contribute to this thriving hub of arts activity while providing the means for investment in arts infrastructure, such as small gallery spaces, small theater space, and public art. The regional arts sector also benefits from the presence of several of the nation’s arts service organizations, including the American Alliance of Museums, Association for Performing Arts Professionals, Americans for the Arts, Chorus America, and National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
Each individual community within this interconnected region brings is unique contributions to the local arts scene. Washington DC is well known for large national organizations, such as the Smithsonian Institutions, that welcome visitors from far and wide, and is also home to a wealth of small and grassroots arts organizations across its vibrant neighborhoods. While famed for its visual arts and museums, this area is also flourishing in theatre, dance, and local arts offerings. In 2019, DC was highlighted by the Actor’s Equity Association for offering the most work weeks per member, indicating high demand and job opportunities for local equity actors. The metro area is also home to an unusually large and vibrant choral community, including several of the largest budget choruses in the nation.
Arlington, adjacent to the nation’s capital, has a reputation as the gateway for emigration into Virginia. Its arts ecosystem is made up of individual and craft artists, small performing groups, as well as ethnic and heritage organizations. Anchor institutions are the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington and Signature Theatre, which is well known for its mastery of the Sondheim repertoire. Arlington has also played a significant role in the emergence of niche and counterculture art movements, such as the DC hardcore music scene (harDCore), which is considered one of the first and most influential punk scenes in the United States from the late 1970s.
Just eight miles south of Arlington is Alexandria, VA where a range of arts opportunities contribute to the overall arts vibrancy of the DC metro area, including the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, housed in an old munitions plant and a Mobile Arts Lab offered by the City of Alexandria’s office of the arts.
The DC Metro Area ranks in the top 1% on government support for the arts, with particular strengths in state arts dollars and federal grants per capita. (Note that, Although Washington, DC, is not a state, District of Columbia funding is reported as state funding through the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies). The local County government supports art programs, including arts grants, through its Cultural Affairs division in the Department of Economic Development. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) provides grant funding, professional opportunities, education enrichment, and other programs to individuals and organizations in all communities within the District of Columbia. Starting in 2021, CAH now allocates 54% of its annual grants budget to general operating support grants. These unrestricted grant funds enable CAH grantee partners to build capacity and organizational infrastructure. In 2022, 22 new grantee partners received nearly 3 million in general operating support funding and over $5 million was distributed to organizations and artists in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8 where funding has historically been smaller – a 78% increase from 2021.
Multiple funding streams were also made available to support the arts community during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Taking Care Fund was established in 2012 by Theatre Washington, and became an essential response to the challenges faced by theatre professionals during this time. Since 2020, one million dollars has been raised, and almost as much as been given to theatre professionals working in the community. Most grantees have worked in the community for more than 6 years and personally identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The Taking Care Fund continues to give funding every month to help with the needs in the theatre community. Also notable is the Arts Forward Fund, a collaborative partnership between The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Greater Washington Community Foundation, and other individual and institutional contributors to support arts and cultural organizations during the pandemic with a focus on racial justice.
Over the last few years, the arts have come together to provide support and shared experiences for the community. In Arlington, the US Poet Laureate as well as several regional poet laureates partnered with a light projection artist to create VISUAL VERSE, a socially-distanced shared literary experience that showcased written poems projected onto large outdoor public spaces. In 2020, many organizations pivoted to online programming during the shutdowns, including Arena Stage which shifted their annual youth devised theatre festival, Voices of Now, to an online film-based format. Now, local organizations are finding solutions to adjust to some of the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on audience habits, foot traffic, and real estate.
Washington, DC's commitment to nurturing local talent and fostering creativity ensures that its arts scene continues to evolve and thrive, making it a destination that celebrates the transformative power of the arts.
Thank you to Amy Austin of Theatre Washington, Shonali Burke of Arena Stage, Catherine Dehoney of Chorus America, and Michelle Isabelle-Stark of Arlington Arts/Arlington Cultural Affairs for their thoughtful contributions to the making of this article.
ABOUT THE ARTS VIBRANCY INDEX
The Arts Vibrancy Index examines the level of supply, demand, and government support of the arts in more than 900 communities across the country. Accompanied by an interactive Arts Vibrancy Map that reveals the arts-vibrancy score of every county in the U.S., the Index lists, in alphabetical order, the 20 most arts-vibrant large cities, the 10 most arts-vibrant medium cities, and the 10 most arts-vibrant small cities. In this year’s Index, the first since 2020, four communities debut on the lists, and an additional five return after an absence of at least three years.