Creative companies blossom in Washington

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, January 17, 2011

The Washington region over the past decade has begun to loosen up its buttoned-up image, giving rise to a host of new creative enterprises in the arts, design, media and entertainment industries.

The metropolitan area is now a launch pad for a company like ArtJamz, which hosts painting parties throughout the region.

Michael Clements, founder of the District company, said the area was actually quite ripe for an event that allows attendees to unleash their inner Gauguin while munching on hors d'oeuvres.

"ArtJamz is succeeding because it's a reaction to the seriousness of D.C.," he observed. "People love it because they're not worried about spreadsheets, meetings, politics and world issues. They're just painting."

As an editor at the entertainment magazine Washington Life, Clements has been to his share of gallery openings and sensed a need for local connoisseurs to tap into their own creativity. With a few canvases, brushes, acrylics, some finger food and a case of wine, he started hosting events six months ago.

In its short existence, ArtJamz is already turning a profit. Events typically draw around 30 people at $60 a pop. The biggest expense for Clements tends to be supplies because the sessions are typically held at empty retail spaces or art galleries, which work out cheaper than monthly leased space. Clements likens his marketing strategy to that of the ever-popular food trucks, in that he relies heavily on social media, like Twitter, to alert his followers and fans of his next event location.

"It's a lot easier to come to D.C. and set up a creative business because the city is really hungry for it," he said. "You can put your flag in the ground here and really establish something, whereas somebody has already done it in New York or L.A."

Charting Washington's virgin luxury market certainly was attractive to Aba Bonney-Kwawu, when she started her fashion consulting and marketing firm, the Aba Agency, in 2002 in the District. Much of her work at the time centered on high-fashion or entertainment events in Miami or New York City. But as high-end clothing retailers such as Intermix entered the D.C. market six years ago, other luxury brands soon followed, changing the landscape and creating more business for Kwawu.

Today, many of her clients, including designer Elie Tahari, have turned to her for guidance in their foray into this market. Luxury retailers, Kwawu observed, now recognize the buying potential of the Washington area's well-educated, worldly population. And from what she can tell, that population's taste has grown more edgy.

Arash Shirazi, founder of Georgetown-based music agency Bullitt Bookings, agrees that in the past 10 years that he's been in business Washington has become more cosmopolitan. Just look at the diverse crop of restaurants, lounges and stores that have popped up since then, he said.

"People shied away from creative industries many years ago, but now they see they can build sustainable businesses here," he said. Shirazi has built his company into one with 15 employees, who help book internationally renowned deejays for events hosted by the likes of the fashion house Dolce & Gabbana.

As it stands, the Washington metropolitan region has the second highest concentration of workers in arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupations, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Young, intelligent people continue to move here in droves and that has only boosted the creative industries here," said Matt S. Erskine, executive director of the Greater Washington Initiative, a marketing group that promotes the region around the world. "They demand a creative and cultural environment, and the region has stepped up to that."

According to an analysis by the Initiative, creative industries are projected to grow faster in the metropolitan area than elsewhere in the country, from 72,450 jobs in 2005 to 81,820 in 2014, a 12 percent increase. Companies in these sectors are certainly composing a greater slice of the region's economy. In the District, creative enterprises generate $5 billion in income on an annual basis, according to the D.C. Office of Planning and the D.C. Economic Partnership.

The evolution of these industries in the Washington area can in part be linked to the region's network of colleges and universities that feeds the talent pool. At one time, local graduates with artistic aspirations often grabbed their diplomas and headed to the Big Apple or the City of Angels. These days, many forgo those saturated markets and carve out a niche here.

Take Nicholas Cambata, who shortly after graduating from American University launched the film production company 8112 Studios with his longtime friend Douglas Sonders. When the pair started the Ashburn-based company in 2008, they had all intentions of eventually heading to Los Angeles. Their client roster, however, quickly filled up with locally based companies, including Geico and National Geographic, making the planned move seem unnecessary.

Cambata and Sonders also learned that filming in the nation's capital was far less expensive than in other major cities and they could find all their production needs, like casting or recruiting a director of photography, right here.

"There is a [film] industry here and you can profit from it and expand your career," said Cambata, who has shot music videos locally for artists such as Mýa and Stacy Clark. "There is an artistic movement in D.C., but it's not fleshed out yet."

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