Incubating Art for Social Impact: An Interview with Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, DC
This spring break season has seen an increase in the numbers of students, teachers, and arts advocates choosing civic engagement over a hedonistic week at the beach. As engagement in the arts for positive impact towards civic engagement and social justice continues to trend up, community building around organizations and practitioners working in social practice becomes increasingly important. So I reached out to Nicole Dowd, Program Manager of Halcyon Arts Lab—a newly launched residency and incubator program for artists working in social justice in Washington, DC—to learn insights gained from the first full year of the program.
Tell us more about Halcyon. What exactly is an art & social justice incubator?
Halcyon is a non-profit that catalyzes emerging creatives striving for a better world. It began with a residential incubator for social entrepreneurs in 2014, and in 2017 launched a sister arts program. Halcyon Arts Lab is a residency program for emerging artists, across all disciplines, working on issues of social justice and civic engagement. Through the program they hone an artistic practice in engagement and impact while also connecting with change-makers and influencers in their particular practice area. We offer them nine months of studio space, accommodation, funding, mentorship, and access, during which they have the freedom to research, explore, and connect with individuals and organizations in DC working on similar topical issues such as education reform, mass incarceration, race and xenophobia, censorship and violence, and women’s equality.
What are some of the goals in community impact that some of the Halcyon artists are working towards?
It’s been really incredible because all the artists are working in such diverse practice areas. Sheldon Scott, a local artist with an impressive track record here in DC, has been working with educators to develop an open source curriculum to help teachers deal with bias in early childhood classrooms. This model, while developed locally, will then be made available and activated in classrooms across the United States. Similarly, Antonius Bui is using his platform as a Halcyon artist to create more opportunities for underrepresented communities. He holds weekly gatherings in his studio for queer and trans people of color, creating safe space for reflection, expression, and reconciliation with the goal of creating greater representation opportunities for QTPOC artists.
As the inaugural cohort begins to wind down, what lessons have you learned from this first official year of Halcyon?
Something that is part of the overall Halcyon value system is nimbleness. We all consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs, so the ability to evaluate and potentially pivot on an idea is key to evolution and success. So many aspects of this first year have occurred organically: we supported Georgia Saxelby in launching “To Future Women” at the Phillips Collection in January; the artists had a group show at Hillyer Art Space in February; artists who have never performed before developed new conceptual performance pieces. These have all been highlights of this first year, although they were unplanned when we mapped out the residency last summer. Leaving space for these types of programs and fellows’ input, in addition to the kinds of skills-based programs we’ve prescribed, has democratized the fellowship and created fluidity in the experience.
In addition, I’ve also learned about the importance of uninterrupted studio time and the pitfalls of over-programming the artists, even for those who are intensely extroverted and crave community interaction. Everyone, artists and administrators alike, needs time to reflect and evaluate after the completion of a program or a particularly busy period of productivity.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in this first year?
My biggest challenge in running the Arts Lab is having to split my time between two very important roles: my nurturing advisor side for the artists, and my administrative strategic side for the organization as a whole. I LOVE being in the studios with the artists conducting critiques and having thought-provoking conversations on race, gender, whitewashing, gentrification, and multitudes of topics. However, I know I also have to develop and cultivate partnerships and think strategically about the future of the program. My inbox has certainly suffered over the last year, but I definitely try to be out in the DC community as much as possible meeting with supporters and community partners face-to-face.
Considering the current political climate, and the continued threats to arts funding, what do you see is the role of art & social justice towards sustainable arts access for all citizens?
Art is one of the most powerful tools in disrupting the status quo. We see this time and time again, because artists have the ability to use the platform of art to translate difficult, topical, and controversial issues into an accessible medium for dialogue and engagement. Art can break down boundaries—political, socioeconomic, geographic—and can empower communities to protect their rights and legacies.
What trends (in media, access, public engagement) are you noticing in the field of art & social justice, within Halcyon and beyond its walls?
Because the Arts Lab is intrinsically connected with the Halcyon Incubator, we see quite a few Halcyon artists pushing to escalate their projects into fully fledged advocacy organizations. For example, Kristin Adair plans to take the multiple elements of her practice—documentary film, photography, installation, and work with returning citizens and incarcerated youth—and create a model of photographic testimony and storytelling for advocates across the country.
Overall, I think there is a push to de-silo art and move it from the studio, art museum, and gallery space and into the public realm where its impact is far more accessible. Artists working at the intersection of social justice strive to demystify the process of art creation and think more critically about audience. This work often falls outside of traditional aesthetic values in favor of bold messaging and the occasional guerilla tactic.
What do you most look forward to with a new cohort of artists joining Halcyon later this year?
With our first cohort, we’ve been incredibly lucky to support eight talented visual artists. We are in the thick of our next application cycle and I am really looking forward to seeing some fabulous dancers, choreographers, writers, composers, musicians, and artists across a diverse set of disciplines apply to the program. The possibility to pair a photographer with a choreographer, or a textile artist with a composer, creates exciting potential for collaboration and individual growth for our new fellows.
We all know that engaging with social justice, whether through art or other means, can elevate physical, mental, and emotional stress levels of practitioners. What is your self-care routine, and what advice would you give to those interested in starting their own Halcyon?
I definitely live and breathe art in both my professional and personal life. And creating a safe and nurturing environment for artists dealing with very tough issues while facing the uncertainty of a career as an artist is a 24/7 job. While I spend the majority of my day engaging with people, I’m an introvert at heart, so I have to carve out time for introspection, reflection, and quiet. I’m really bad at meditating, but I’m a runner so I often use the solitude of a run as my time for both physical and mental wellness.
For anyone in this field, I think it’s important to carve out that time in your routine. And it can be anything: weekly manicures, baking new recipes, dog walking, playground time with your children, no-judgment Netflix binges, spending time with friends who don’t care about art and want to talk about sports. Whatever it is and however you spend that time, this world will be waiting when you return; and it’s better to be rested and ready than stressed and headed for burnout.
Washington, DC is a particularly interesting place for such an incubator to take root. With influences and resources ranging from Capitol Hill to an actively engaged tri-state area with interests in arts, policy, civic engagement, and everything in between, visiting artists to the Halcyon Arts Lab are welcomed into a profoundly energetic creative environment.
Applications are currently open for the next round of fellowships; see their website for details.