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Where the artists are: BloomBars

Elizabeth WardBy Elizabeth Ward on Dec 19, 2010 | Add a Comment Add a Comment (2)

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Where the artists are: BloomBars

BloomBars Exterior

BloomBars exterior

BloomBars exterior

High school students at a BloomBars open mic night

High school students at a BloomBars open mic night

“So often artists are just “performers,” but at BloomBars it’s like, yea, I’m a performer and I’m an artist, but I’m also a part of this community, and I’m working with other members of this community to make this a dope spot and a live show and create beautiful energy that can permeate not just BloomBars but the community at large.”

The more that we delve into artist neighborhoods in D.C., the more venues akin to artist centers are uncovered. With the most recent contribution of Pleasant Plains Workshop, the longtime institution of Arlington Arts Center, and the grassroots neighborhood locale Bloombars, D.C. creatives will welcome artist centers of all shapes and sizes – the big, the small, the established, and the experimental.

One such artist center was recently uncovered by DC Setlist on The Pink Line Project is Bloombars, a non-profit arts center in Columbia Heights where cultural, generational, and socioeconomic diversity come together around the arts in a physical space. It’s not an easily definable space: it’s a community-based venture, rooted in the arts, that serves as an incubator for individual and community growth. To qualify BloomBars: it’s an artist incubator, performance space, art gallery, theater, dance studio, screening room, youth academy, and center for community engagement.

Established in 2008 by Chief Executive Gardner, John Chambers, BloomBars was founded on the belief that art and artists have the power to transform communities and alter the way individuals think, feel, and experience. That may be a mouthful of a mission, but once you enter the building, you get it. The century-old two-story storefront houses a performance space on the ground floor and a gallery space upstairs. BloomBars hosts twelve weekly events, nine monthly events and numerous one-off workshops, classes, concerts, exhibitions, performances and teach-ins. In its short existence, the venue has partnered with over 1,000 local and international non-profits to mount these events, and has presented literally thousands of artists to experiment in front of a welcoming and open-minded audience. On any given night, music wafts out the double-doors into the neighborhood. Children take guitar lesson on Sundays. Locals have impromptu jam sessions at the Cipherstock. High school students embrace open mics. Artists continually hone their crafts as poets, musicians, comedians, and storytellers, dancers, jugglers, and advocates.

It’s a training ground for the new generation; it’s all-ages and alcohol-free; it’s entirely volunteer-driven; it’s a powerful artistic conduit linking the community to the transformational power of the arts can bring. It harks “You Bloom. We Bloom” all over the place.

As Chambers, whose background is in advocacy communications, explains: “How often do you see children as young as 5 performing at an open mic? Or youth at a Saturday night rock concert bonding with the musicians during sound check? Or high school teachers sharing their poetry at an event attended primarily by their (cheering) students? How often do you see people from all over the city and world-- regardless of age, race, or income-- come together and give a stranger a hug after listening to local musicians?”

It’s that kind of idea.

More so, it’s a rallying point for the Columbia Heights neighborhood. In an interview with DCist, Chambers said, “BloomBars has a love affair with Columbia Heights — the history, cultural diversity, residents new and old, and its businesses that we all support religiously,” explained Chambers. “We’ve felt like undercover ambassadors for Columbia Heights.”

This all goes to say how significant an artist neighborhood can be within a given geographic area.

On top of that, BloomBars is also a place for individual artists. At the center of their broad mission is the core trust in the power of the individual artist. Thus, the Artist in Bloom Residency Program, designed to identify and cultivate talent within the community. The program works to support the growth of artists – as professionals, community activists, educators, and entrepreneurs – through mentorship, life coaching, workshops on financial literacy, community organizing, contracts and negotiation, rehearsal space, studio photo sessions, and opportunities to develop programming and performance skills on BloomBar’s regular performance schedule. Artists are continually chosen based on a range of criteria, including community services, accomplishments, and potential to impact audiences on a much larger stage.

The Resident Artists in Bloom include 2011 Grammy nominee, Carolyn Malachi, Grammy nomineeChristylez, progressive hip-hop group The Cornel West Theory and spoken word artists Jonathan B. Tucker and Gowri Koneswaran. Definitely check out these artists and their chronicled journeys online.

What remains to be understood, however, is the sustainability of such an artistic utopia. With a “suggested donation only” policy, BloomBars has relied on a give-back mentality that has not necessarily provided financial consistency throughout its few years. Chambers has explained in the past that BloomBars has been slow-growing over the past couple years, and as anyone associated with their mission knows, BloomBars was recently in danger of closing due to financial strains. Fortunately, after an emotionally grueling $20,000 fundraising campaign over the course of last few weeks, BloomBars has officially announced that it raised enough to keep going, with $14,322 in online gifts and another couple thousand in offline gifts.

It would definitely be ideal if BloomBars could stay alive purely on the richness of their programming. It would be ideal if all arts-centered organizations could do so. If this were the case, I’m sure hardly any of the community-based arts centers around the nation would be fighting to keep their doors open. Until that day, however, it is up to those who benefit from places like BloomBars to give back to places like BloomBars. Chambers mentioned that, should BloomBars weather the economic storm, he hopes to increase partnerships with local businesses and arts organizations, increase its youth outreach, and eventually raise enough money for a paid staff.

With somewhere with such a high-stake, high-bar mission and vision, we can only hope that this artist neighborhood continues, no matter the climate. “You Bloom. We Bloom.”

BloomBars is located at 3222 11th Street NW. More information regarding its programs and class offerings is available on the BloomBars website. Online, tax-deductible donations can be made here.

You can watch BloomTV by visiting

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