What matters to Downtown Art

This post is written by FAB Intern Lily Barsanti.

Up until this summer with FAB, I’ve been shown that the arts stand alone. I attend American University, located in the political heart of the U.S. Nestled among the trees on our quad are the schools of Political Science, International Service, and Business. The Katzen Center for the Arts is pushed out of that quaint community of stately buildings and sits across the street from our entire university.

The physical proximity of the building for the arts only leads to a bigger, more compelling message that has been engrained in my head. Sure, the arts may draw influence from current social issues, but the isolation of the arts makes it so that they cannot spark any type of “real” social activism.

70E4 front

Downtown Art (DTA), founded by Ryan Gilliam, is an arts organization and one of FAB’s founding members, that engages in the arts and social activism together in a way that I’ve never seen before my time at FAB. DTA has been through serious renovations over the past decade, and this past Spring, revealed a stunning new space to allow others to come together to use the arts as education.

When speaking with Ryan about DTA’s newly renovated space, she proudly told me, “When I think about this building, I think about it as a community building, not just an arts building.”

DTA’s new space allows opportunities for performance pieces “that take us into what we wrestle with as a community. This community might be our block, Manhattan… even our national and international communities. That’s the kind of work that now opened this theatre to support and encourage one another.”

DTA Theater

Ryan hopes to continue to support artists via a Request for Proposal (RFP). DTA is most interested in supporting cultural and community projects which are led by people of color, advance social justice, and/or authentically engage community. The overall space, which includes a lobby, rear yard, rehearsal studio, and theater, offers a professional work space and theater for prices that are significantly below market, which continues to uphold FAB’s legacy of providing affordable space for artists to create.

I asked Ryan what kinds of stories she was drawn to, and her response was simple. “As an artist, I’ve always been interested in issues that were beyond the personal. Someone’s story about heartbreak does not intrigue me nearly as much as issues that affect us as a community.”

Birmingham, Downtown Art. Photo by Ryan Gilliam.
Birmingham, Downtown Art. Photo by Ryan Gilliam.

These types of community engaging performance pieces can force us all to think about issues that our community faces. DTA takes brave steps to lead the frontier on the conjunction between performance art and social justice. Most recently, DTA had teens perform oral history based accounts from major events in the civil rights movement, then “got together with the audience, made dessert, and had the young women facilitate a conversation about racism.”

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I admire how DTA takes the important steps to try and create a more diverse and socially aware community; it strives for quite the opposite of forcing the arts to stand alone. It consciously brings the arts and social activism together and embeds programs that prompt the Lower East Side (and beyond) to think – and act – about issues that matter.

Lily is a rising Junior at American University, majoring in Literature and minoring in Dance. She is a member of the American University Dance Team and the dance community in Washington DC, and teaches dance and theater classes at a local theater company in her spare time.

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