DC’s own SXSW? Welcome to the inaugural ‘By the People’ festival

WASHINGTON — Those who live in the D.C. area know that the region is brimming with creativity. The nation’s capital is home to a number of artists, musicians, writers and chefs.

But what is the city’s reputation like beyond the Beltway? Kate Goodall, chief executive officer of Halcyon, worries.

“I think it might have a reputation for being the antithesis of a creative place,” said Goodall, who also co-founded Halcyon, a D.C.-based incubator for entrepreneurs and artists.

“People think of D.C. and they think of policymakers and bureaucrats and lawmakers, and at the worst end of that spectrum, a swamp … but this is actually an incredibly vibrant, creative place, and I think it’s becoming even more so.”

To shine a spotlight on the city’s rich and rampant arts and culture scene, Halcyon, along with several powerful partners (The Smithsonian Institution, the D.C. government and the Washington National Cathedral are all involved), is launching a four-day “arts and dialogue” festival that Goodall hopes will one day rival the likes of South by Southwest (SXSW).

Its name is By the People.

“When you think about SXSW or Aspen or some of these other offerings, D.C. doesn’t have something quite like that, and quite frankly … it was time for this to happen. We’ve seen D.C., in the last couple of years, get its 12 Michelin stars and really become recognized for its culinary offerings, and there’s so much going on here that I think there’s a lot of people who realize that this is sort of the beginning of that wave for us, for the arts community, to receive that same kind of acclaim,” Goodall said.

Artist Georgia Saxelby will hold a four-day exhibit at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building during the By the People festival. (Credit: Joe Gibson)

True to the name, the purpose of the event (or rather, the more than 100 events) is to explore the topics of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by way of various musical performances and interactive art experiences hosted throughout five main locations, including the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, the Washington National Cathedral, Union Market, THEARC West and The Parks at Walter Reed.

The best part? Most of the events are free.

The festival technically kicks off on the evening of June 20 with a show at The Anthem featuring Ray LaMontagne and Neko Case (this event is ticketed and not free), but the majority of the action is packed into the proceeding days with discussions, installations and performances all over the city.

Maya Freelon is another artist at the inaugural By the People festival. (Courtesy By the People)

Goodall said she hopes the four days of programming spark empathy and encourage civil discourse.

“[It’s] figuring out how we can bring people together and bridge divides at a time when we might need that reminder that we are stronger together than when we are apart — and using art and dialogue as levers to be able to do that,” she added.

What are the top events? Here are a few highlights:

By the People will feature everything from punk bands to ballet shows. On Saturday, June 23, most Smithsonian museums will hold extended hours until midnight. (The date is dubbed “Solstice Saturday.”)

“So you can come down to the Mall and just really take your pick of where you want to go and most of them are doing some really unique activities and fun things that you can experience,” Goodall said.

Dupont Brass will hold free performances at By the People. (Courtesy By the People)

On Thursday, June 21, renowned composer and jazz pianist Jason Moran will perform at the National Cathedral in response to artist Nick Cave’s installation. And over at The Parks at Walter Reed, Marine veteran Jefferson Pinder will play multiple pop ups that commemorate U.S. veterans.

The four-day festival is open to the public, and those interested in attending are encouraged to register in advance for free passes. By the People has free transportation arranged to shuttle the public from each site over the course of the four days. The bus will run approximately every 20 minutes, and signage will be posted at each “festival hub.”

Goodall said she hopes this inaugural festival is an extension of what Halcyon aims to accomplish through its mission every day.

“We’ve really created this structure around this belief in the power of creativity and compassion to solve a lot of problems, and we wanted to be able to bring that to more people, and this festival is a really great way to be able to do that,” she said.

The 2018 By The People festival was curated by a team of creatives, including Virginia Shore (visual art) and Septime Webre (performance art).

Stay tuned for updates on next year’s event. 

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