Editorial Review

Arts Space Is Starting to Bloom
By Fritz Hahn
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, November 7, 2008; Page WE06

The scene: When was the last time you went to a concert and were asked -- no, make that told -- to not only introduce yourself to someone new, but wrap your arms around that stranger and give them hug?

"If you haven't been to BloomBars before," John Chambers, owner of the new alternative arts space in Columbia Heights announces, "we have this tradition. Turn to the stranger standing next to you or near you and introduce yourself." I say hello to Molly and Andrew, the couple standing on my right, and we agree we like the vibe of the place. "Now go on and hug them," Chambers shouts. "That's right: Hug them!"

There's some polite laughter, and then I head over to get a drink from the water cooler, checking out paintings by Baghdad-born artist Ramia Badris on the way.

I'd gone to the funky one-room venue to see the Makepeace Brothers, a group from Ithaca, N.Y., that plays folk rock with tinges of Paul Simon and Van Morrison, and I also caught a set by a Howard University student named Zimm, who performs remixes of such songs as "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by adding free-flowing raps and acoustic guitar. A good-size crowd was gathered around the low wooden stage, leaning on the walls or sitting cross-legged on the floor, while an equal number was in the building's small front yard, sharing cigarettes and gossip.

That's BloomBars for you: part concert, part arts fair, part freewheeling community gathering, infused with an almost hippie-ish vibe, which is just what Chambers intended.

He's a senior vice president at GMMB, a political consulting and advocacy advertising firm for Democratic candidates, including the Obama campaign. "Most of my professional career has been about building communities around a cause -- seat-belt use, malaria, child soldiering, foster care," Chambers explains. "It just felt right to bring that home to my back yard with BloomBars and merge it with my love of the arts."

The buzz: The past year has been rough for Washington's alternative music and art venues: The Warehouse Theater's Warehouse Next Door closed, events at the Gold Leaf Studios were shut down, the Borf Brigade lost the Bobby Fisher Memorial Building arts space on North Capitol Street, the house concerts at 611 Florida Ave. NW came to an end. BloomBars is hoping to fill the gaps with "at least two [concerts] a month," Chambers says, and other events including "poetry to film screenings to temporary art shows that will last a weekend or a week or, maximum, a couple of weeks."

BloomBars has been slow to start: Between its June opening and early October, the venue hosted only five concerts and a few temporary art exhibits. The schedule has picked up recently, with "The Best of Political Film" series last week (including "Wag the Dog" and "Senator Obama Goes to Africa") and a pair of concerts: one with a half-dozen local hip-hop and R&B singers to benefit Haitian hurricane relief and another with African and American musicians called "Art, Music and Inspiration to Get Out the Vote."

"It's very organic," Chambers says. "We're trying to connect local artists, filmmakers and musicians with social-justice causes. But sometimes it's just going to be about the music and art."

BloomBars doesn't do a lot of advertising, but one of the surest ways to attract people is to throw open the doors facing 11th Street and let the music draw in a stream of curious pedestrians heading for nearby bars and restaurants. "As long as it's not freezing, we're going to keep the doors open," Chambers says.

In your glass: The only tap that's flowing is from the office-style water cooler. "Wonderland and Red Rocks are a block away if people need to eat and drink," Chambers says. "We try and support this growing commercial district." If you're thinking about bringing your own, a sign outside warns that no alcohol is allowed.

Price points: Cover charges are always "suggested," so there's never a required charge for admission. But patrons are asked to throw in $5 or $10 to "help keep the lights on" and help the band(s) fill their gas tanks or to benefit a charity.

Need to know: Chambers seems influenced by spontaneous '60s-style happenings, so much so that the vast majority of BloomBars events aren't announced until a few days before they occur, and then only for people who have bookmarked. "Short notice is the grand plan," Chambers says with a laugh.

What people are saying: "This neighborhood needs more of this stuff" instead of Target and the national chains that dominate 14th Street, says Nathan Peek, a 35-year-old exhibit specialist at the National Gallery of Art. "It's a nice change. And there's no bar."

"I like the friendly community vibe," says Jes Simpson, 23, a project manager who lives within walking distance of BloomBars. "From the minute we came in the door, everyone was being so friendly, telling us about the place. It was just very cool. It's a grass-roots neighborhood place with a sense of humor."