It’s one thing to talk about how different things are downtown today: new restaurants, new museums, new theaters, new shops, new people, a busy, high-energy streetscape and night life.
But to gauge just how much has changed, step out Saturday to Penn Quarter’s 13th annual Arts on Foot Festival. It’s a celebration of all that is vibrant — there’s plenty — in the area bounded by Fourth and 14th streets and L Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
For city lovers, it could prove to be pure bliss.
“The streets are full of visitors — from near and far — exploring, shopping and experiencing firsthand the accessibility and excitement that make up our revitalized downtown,” says Angela Fox, executive director and CEO of Cultural Tourism DC. Cultural Tourism will run a guided walking tour of the Penn Quarter neighborhood starting at 11 a.m. from its festival pavilion on F Street.
So why not begin at the center of the festival? That’s the tented area between Seventh and Ninth streets — between the National Portrait Gallery, still being renovated, and the International Spy Museum at 800 F St. NW and the Hotel Monaco at 700 F St. NW. Then fan out into the Penn Quarter area to see the rich and varied cultural scene.
The main festival area is both a destination and a starting point: It’s within sight of a cluster of new restaurants on Seventh Street and Ninth Street, in the shadow of the MCI Center. It’s just one block from the busy Seventh Street corridor — and that goes all the way from the National Archives, past the Shakespeare Theatre Company (where Avery Brooks is starring in “Othello”), past the District Chop House and on to Gallery Place and a gaggle of new stores and shops and the Regal Cinema all the way up to the Warehouse Theater, a cutting-edge showcase for performance and visual art.
The tented area features top chefs from downtown restaurants putting on cooking demonstrations as part of a “Cooking as Art” program. You don’t have to bring lunch, either, since many of Penn Quarter’s top restaurants will be offering samplings for sale for a dollar or two.
A performance stage, hosted by Smooth Jazz 105.9 radio personalities, will offer live music and performances. Other tents will feature presentations by the area’s theaters, museums, galleries and cultural institutions. And at a juried art market 75 artists will show off their works for sale.
That’s just for starters. From there, visitors can branch out toward a rich array of cultural and art offerings, many of them especially held, staged or created for this annual festival.
It’s helpful to use a “passport,” a booklet that also serves as a guide, program, map and event listing. You can get individual visits to sites stamped, making you eligible for prizes from local shops and restaurants.
Even in its infancy, the festival was designed to put visitors directly in the path of the area’s cultural and arts sites. You’re likely to end up at the National Building Museum, which is offering not only special children’s activities but the busy “Festival of the Building Arts.” That’s adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, where a children’s tour of the memorial is available.
Or you could wind up at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, only a block down from the center of the festivities, to enjoy a sidewalk book sale, musical performances, art exhibits and artists.
You might find yourself on a backstage tour at the Warner Theater, the Warehouse Theater or the Woolly Mammoth Theater. At the nearby National Theatre, you might run into the Barrymore Eagle, the theater’s mascot, or take in a children’s puppet show of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales.
Coming back on Pennsylvania Avenue to the main area, you might stop by the Canadian Embassy, where you can catch a part of the DC Shorts Film Festival. For weekend visitors, this is the only Saturday of the year that the majestic, modern embassy opens its doors to the public.
The Goethe-Institut on Seventh Street NW will hold a Penn Quarter tour on German immigrants and artists. The National Gallery is offering numerous tours of its collection, some in Italian, some in Spanish and others in English. The Bead Museum is planning member-guided tours of its exhibitions as well as hands-on activities for children.
You can hear poetry and organ improvisations at St. Patrick’s Church at 10th and G streets NW, and drop by some of the venerable and not so venerable galleries along Seventh Street for art in progress. The Touchstone Gallery, for example, will host a sketch workshop.
Many of this year’s participants, in one form or another, have been a part of the festival for years. That’s true of the Canadian Embassy, the Goethe-Institut, the National Gallery of Art, the Zenith Gallery, the Warehouse and Shakespeare theaters, the Bead Museum, St. Patrick’s and the National Building Museum.
But the central tent area, the “Cooking as Art” center, the food sampling and other activities are relatively new wrinkles that reflect not only the growth of the festival but the changes in Penn Quarter, including the rapid growth in the number of restaurants.
The innovations are largely the work of Jo-Ann Neuhaus, executive director and secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association, which is sponsoring the festival along with the Downtown Business Improvement District.
“I went to Taste of DC one year and I was amazed at the number of people there,” Ms. Neuhaus says. “That’s what gave me the idea for ‘Cooking as Art’ and the chef demonstrations and the samplings. It’s also a good way to make the restaurants a part of the festival.”
Ms. Neuhaus, 62 and an urban planner by profession, has been one of the festival’s driving forces since she took on the role of producer in 1996, three years after it began.
In fact, if there is a person who is the face of Arts on Foot, and its unsung heroine, it’s probably Ms. Neuhaus. Many participants readily call her indispensable.
“It wouldn’t happen without her,” says Margery Goldberg, proprietor of Zenith Gallery and an artist herself. Ms. Goldberg is a neighborhood pioneer on Seventh Street, along with Jaleo Restaurant and Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre.
But Ms. Neuhaus sees the blossoming of the festival as one with the development of the area itself.
“It’s grown a lot,” she says of the festival. “It’s grown with the neighborhood, which has changed enormously in the past 10 years or so.”
In years past, she says, all the promotional effort — the marketing, the e-mails, the fliers and receptions — was directed not so much toward getting visitors down to the neighborhood on the day of the festival, but just getting people to participate.
“Now people call me, which is kind of nice,” she says.
As for visitors, normal foot traffic has increased tremendously, and today she can’t even estimate how many visitors the festival draws.
“We print about 1,500 of the ‘passports,’ and there are never any left — so that can give you some idea,” she says.
The neighborhood’s change has not come willy-nilly, but to a great extent is the result of ideas birthed in the early 1970s, when the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) was formed to develop the then-neglected thoroughfare and its surroundings.
Ms. Neuhaus, who worked for PADC, recalls that much of its planning centered on including cultural and arts venues in the developments then in the works.
“There would be X amount of space that would be devoted to, say, artists’ studios, or a performing arts space, or a gallery,” Ms. Neuhaus says. “In the end, that’s what’s happened. There are artist studios in the Mather Building where Flashpoint Gallery is, and that’s how Woolly Mammoth came about.”
To show all this off was the point of the Arts on Foot Festival.
“There was an artistic community here,” Ms. Goldberg says. “But it was kind of hidden, and the whole idea of the festival early on was to bring it to the surface, to show that there was an arts community downtown.”
No one appears to know exactly where the name “Arts on Foot” came from.
“It was sort of like the idea of ‘explore the neighborhood on foot,’” says Susan Zusy, now director of business development for Design Collective in Baltimore, who worked with Ms. Neuhaus at PADC and organized the first festival in 1993.
“We sent out fliers in the shape of a foot,” Ms. Zusy says. “We were trying to really identify the arts community. There was a lot here already; it just wasn’t cohesive.
“People didn’t come down here at night. There was no MCI Center yet, and Woodward and Lothrop was vacant. So we went on our own walks, and we found all these artists’ studios on F Street, and we had a studio tour as part of the festival.”
In those early years, says the Shakespeare Theatre’s Mr. Kahn, “there were institutions that would hold open houses — the Building Museum, or the Portrait Gallery. We all thought it would be a good idea to hold an event for everyone to get more visibility for the community.”
Scott Sanger, now the press representative for the Warner Theater, was with the Shakespeare Theatre then and was one of the organizers of the first six festivals.
“We had backstage tours at the Shakespeare; we held auctions; we had open rehearsals. It just seemed like there was a natural coming together of the arts community.”
Liz Selzer, who was also at PADC at the time and would go on to work in marketing and public relations at the National Gallery of Art and other museums here, ran two of the early festivals.
“I don’t think anybody knew how it would work out,” she says. “It kind of snowballed like things do. We used vacant buildings to showcase artists, or as black-box performance spaces.
“I remember the studio tours. I think the arts community down here was a lot more cohesive then. It had an identity — and that was our job, to let people see that this was a civilized, cultural place.”
Michael Berman, a Washington artist, was one of the artists on F Street whose studio was on the tours back then. He was one of the last to leave to make way for the Carroll Square project now under construction.
“It was kind of funky,” he says. “People could see artists at work, talk to them, see how they worked, where they lived. So that part, yeah, you sort of miss it.”
The studio tours were a casualty of change, but change and growth are a regular feature of the festival program.
Last year, Woolly Mammoth Theater, while a part of the “Theater Downtown” pavilion, didn’t have a theater of its own. This year, having moved into its brand new permanent theater space on D Street, it’s offering backstage tours every half hour and free ice cream to the first 500 visitors during the festival.
Renowned sculptor Robert Cole, who was a fixture with his eerie and visually bold, masklike works for years at a Seventh Street outdoor sculpture garden, will display sculptures in the plaza leading to the Landmark Cinema, which is part of the Gallery Place complex.
He and his wife, Susan, will also perform together as part of the band “Blue Judy,” a stint they’ve done off and on for years.
Last year, Mr. Cole says, Gallery Place was just nearing completion around this time.
“We had the sculpture garden in a vacant lot,” he says at his studio behind 1708 15th St. NW, where a well-know sculpture of a motorcyclist sits outside. “It was a little different then. There wasn’t a central location and people just came by. It was used as a performance space too.”
Also new this year is a preview of the upcoming 2006 Capital Fringe Festival, scheduled for July, a riot of performance art that will be staged in various places, including a stationary Downtown Circulator Bus parked at Eighth Street. Last year the buses, designed to serve the downtown area, were not yet up and running.
“You know what’s really good about all this?” Ms. Neuhaus says, thinking about the 13 years through which the festival has grown. “All that time at PADC, we were talking about the area becoming a cultural center and we were planning along those lines.
“Well, you look around, and it’s actually happened.”
What to look for at Foot Festival
The organizers of the Penn Quarter Arts on Foot Festival have planned it as a stroll around their neighborhood, timing its events to correspond to a west-to-east walk that begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Here’s a guide to participants and where you’ll find them:
1. National Theatre
2. Utrecht Art Supplies
3. Warner Theatre
4. Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space
5. Old Post Office Pavilion
6. Chapters Literary Bookstore
7. St. Patrick’s Church
9. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
10. American Immigration Law Center
11. 901 E Street Exhibit
12. Washington Convention Center
13. Edison Place Gallery
14. Theatre Downtown pavilion (Ford’s, Flashpoint, Shakespeare, Warehouse, Washington Improv, Stage Guild, Woolly Mammoth), with display space for:
Capital Fringe Festival
National Building Museum
National Portrait Gallery
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Marian Koshland Science Museum
Cultural Tourism DC
Utrecht Art Supplies
Washington Performing Arts Society
National Cherry Blossom Festival
Passports, prize entry returns
Main Stage — Smooth Jazz 105.9
“Cooking as Art” demonstrations
15. Warehouse Theater/Gallery
17. Aveda InstituteRobert Cole sculptures and Blue Judy
18. Capital Fringe Festival SiteNumark Gallery
19. National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial and Visitor’s Center
20. HNTB ArchitectureZenith GalleryTICKETplaceWoolly Mammoth Theatre
21. Olsson’s Books & RecordsTouchstone GalleryMotophotoBead Museum DC
23. National Archives
24. Artists’ Studios, 443 I St. NW
25. National Building Museum
26. Canadian Embassy
27. National Gallery of Art