The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building will be open Thursday through Sunday to showcase interactive installations, including this one by Maya Freelon. (Sadie Dingfelder/Express)

Austin has South by Southwest. Aspen has the Aspen Ideas Festival. Now, D.C. has its own artsy, zeitgeist-capturing event. The inaugural By the People festival, running Thursday through Sunday, sprinkles interactive installations and innovative performances across five hub locations in the city.

The festival, organized by local nonprofit arts and business incubator Halcyon, is expected to attract about 10,000 participants, according to Halcyon CEO Kate Goodall. Part of the draw will be the massive, colorful art installations, but the organizers also hope to get people talking about fraught topics, like climate change and immigration.

“The goal is for people to come together around the art but also … have informed discourse and feel that sense of similarity to each other,” Goodall says. “I’ve begun thinking of it as an arts and empathy festival, an arts and democracy festival.”


Rachel Schmidt’s “Monument for Picnics”

At one hub, the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, D.C.-based artist Rachel Schmidt is creating a “Monument for Picnics,” an indoor lawn with fake clouds hanging above it, which suggests a future where nature can be experienced only through simulations.

“We are going to pair people randomly on picnic blankets to have 10-minute conversations around really broad prompts like, ‘What’s important to the future of liberty?’ ” says Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building. “It’s a super interactive, slightly risky activity, and we’re excited to see what’s going to happen.”

Visitors to the building can also poke their heads into colorful bubbles created by artist Dan Steinhilber, contribute to a whimsical tissue-paper sculpture by artist Maya Freelon, or write to the women of 2037 as part of Halcyon Arts Lab fellow Georgia Saxelby’s “To Future Women: A 20-Year Time Capsule of Letters to the Next Generation.”


“LUX” by Jenny Sabin Studio

Free shuttles will take people around the intentionally far-flung festival, Goodall says, adding, “We wanted to be present in all of the quadrants.” Some of the hub locations, such as THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) in Southeast D.C., will be familiar to local arts enthusiasts. Others — particularly The Parks at Walter Reed — might be a surprise. This park (and future mixed-use development) sits on the former site of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the installations there will pay homage to that facility’s history.

For instance, artist Stacy Cantrell will lead local knitters in creating colorful tributes to the nurses who worked at the center, and Richmond-based painter Heide Trepanier worked with disabled veterans to paint a temporary mural on the center’s historic fountain.

Musical groups including DuPont Brass and Batala Washington will circulate throughout the sites for pop-up performances, and the Bridgman | Packer Dance troupe will travel around in a U-Haul truck, staging performances at hub sites.


Dan Steinhilber’s “Mobile Interface Sites”

With all of D.C.’s museums and cultural events, the city is already a great place for the arts, Goodall says. This festival aims to concentrate some of that energy into a long weekend each year that can attract locals as well as tourists, she says.

“In the long run,” she says, “we’re hoping this becomes an international destination event.”

How to experience By the People

By the People includes hundreds of daytime and nighttime events and art installations, many of which are free and some of which are sold as ticketed performances (like concerts by Rare Essence and Jason Moran). See the full schedule online.

Don’t feel like poring over the calendar and just want to sample the offerings? Stop by any of the festival’s five hub locations during open hours (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Thursday through Sunday:

  • Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW (Hours extend to midnight on Saturday as part of the Smithsonian Solstice Saturday.)
  • The Parks at Walter Reed, 1010 Butternut St. NW
  • THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE
  • Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE
  • Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW