We’re a little more than a week into 2014, and a handful of Washingtonians already are diving into unusual to-do lists. They won’t simply transform their waistlines and improve their cocktail-party banter, but change the city as we know it. This year, these headline-makers will vet every artifact and wall label in the inaugural exhibitions of the Smithsonian’s newest museum, ensure that the DC Streetcar finally ferries riders across H Street NE, and launch one of the city’s most ambitious fashion (and food) marketplaces. And one will move the needle in the city’s tourism industry.
Just who are these people? Discover seven of Washington’s 2014 game-changers.
— Lavanya Ramananthan
JONAS SINGER AND CULLEN GILCHRIST
In their Chucks and jeans, Jonas Singer, 31, and Cullen Gilchrist, 28, don’t look like dining impresarios. They didn’t open a trendy restaurant on 14th Street, but a humble little coffee shop, Blind Dog Cafe, on Florida Avenue, carving out a small slice of the District’s food and drink scene. But the cafe’s dearth of kitchen space led them to the biggest endeavor of their lives, helping dozens of other food-focused businesses get off the ground and expanding the city’s collective palate. They leased a commercial kitchen near Union Station that was, at 7,300 square feet, larger than they needed. To make it cost-effective, they decided to share the space. A year later, Union Kitchen has become an urban incubator in which 55 of the area’s food producers, caterers and food trucks make their wares. Running the communal kitchen, in turn, has changed Singer and Gilchrist, who have emerged as bottom-line-minded consultants on everything from cost-efficiency to marketing to lobbying for changes to the District’s food-prep regulations. Singer even became a real estate agent.
What to watch for in 2014: With more than 200 businesses on the waiting list to move into Union Kitchen, the pair is taking a gamble and growing the business just a year after launching it. They’ve nearly completed a deal for an industrial space in Northeast that will be twice as big as their NoMa building. And by the year’s end, you’ll see more proof of the kitchen’s success: Several of the businesses that blossomed there last year — District Doughnut, Korean taco truck Takorean and the bakery Rare Sweets — will be moving into their own storefronts.
Off-duty haunts: Singer, a music fan, clocked dozens of shows at the 9:30 Club, Tropicalia and the Howard Theatre in the past year, but one of his favorite places to see a band is the venerable U Street jazz venue JoJo. Gilchrist, Blind Dog’s chef, is a dedicated foodie off-duty, too: You can regularly find the 6-foot-5 former college football player noshing at Pica Taco.
— Lavanya Ramanathan
Unique among Washington’s museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is building a reputation as the place for new media. The museum acquired video-art pioneer Nam June Paik’s coveted archive in 2009. And its Film and Media Arts Initiative, an ongoing commitment to adventurous programming and collecting, brought video games, for the first time, into SAAM’s collection last year. A big player in that mission is curator Michael Mansfield, 38, who helped organize the museum’s landmark 2012-13 Paik retrospective. Mansfield also is responsible for two recent major acquisitions: Bill Viola’s 2005 meditation on human existence, “The Fall Into Paradise,” and “Cloud Music,” a seminal 1970s installation by Robert Watts, David Behrman and Bob Diamond that marries real-time footage of clouds with a constantly changing electronic score.
What to watch for in 2014: Mansfield is researching undocumented works found in Paik’s studio after his 2006 death, some of which may never have been publicly exhibited but could go on view here as early as late summer. Though clearly excited, Mansfield expresses his enthusiasm with laconic understatement, characterizing these potential discoveries as “quite good.” The curator’s longer-term plans include the exhibition of “whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir,” a new short film by Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation that the museum is set to acquire.
Off-duty haunt: A longtime judo aficionado, Mansfield works out at the Washington Judo Club, drawn by what he calls the club’s “diverse, competitive and international” clientel.
— Michael O’Sullivan
RONALDO “NICK” NICHOLSON
Almost a decade ago, the District Department of Transportation decided to add streetcars to the city’s transportation offerings to help revive neighborhoods and relieve pressure on the bus and Metrorail systems. Enter Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson. As DDOT’s chief engineer, Nicholson, 54, is charged with taking lofty city transportation goals and seeing them through. Since joining DDOT in 2010 from the Virginia Department of Transportation, Nicholson has focused on getting the highly anticipated H Street/Benning Road streetcar system up and running. He is responsible for making sure the cars happily coexist with bicycles, cars and trains, while mitigating fears of construction hassles in the neighborhood.
What to watch for in 2014: The streetcar system’s inaugural line is set to open this year; testing on the 2.4-mile segment began in December. The line, Nicholson says, will give residents of the Northeast neighborhood another way to get to and from home and the grocery store (Whole Foods, perhaps?) without a frustrating hunt for a parking spot. Restaurants and bars are planning for an influx of visitors, he adds, and apartment developers are eyeing the Benning Road corridor as newly viable real estate for the District’s booming population. And the H Street line is just the tip of the streetcar iceberg: The network is part of a 30-year plan for the District that Nicholson says will connect Georgetown to H Street and beyond with a 37-mile network. “Street cars revitalize neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s a permanent transportation option that really builds confidence in developers and businesses. It’s a civil engineering solution that will be transformational for the city.”
Off-duty haunt: You can often find the relative newcomer to Northeast D.C. (Nicholson and his family moved from Chantilly when he got the job) at HR-57. “It’s one of the best places to go,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about who’s playing. It’s always someone good. You can relax and have a cocktail and enjoy the music.”
— Margaret Ely
For two years, buzz has been building around Maketto, a food-meets-fashion venue under construction at 1351 H St. NE. Modeled after Asian night markets, Maketto will provide a rare showcase for a trio of young homegrown entrepreneurs, including Erik
Bruner-Yang of renowned Taiwanese-style noodle shop Toki Underground and Chris Vigilante of Vigilante Coffee Co. Curating Maketto’s fashion side falls to someone perhaps less well-known. Will Sharp, 33, is the designer behind the successful D.C.-born streetwear line Durkl. Sharp, who launched Durkl in 2005, was inspired by the clothes he wore growing up in Kensington. “My hand-me-down style was American workwear,” he says, as well as labels such as Levi’s. “For me, that’s what guys wear. We’re taking those cues. It’s the best made, best designed.” That, as well as accessories and shoes from other lines, is what Sharp will bring to Maketto. It also marks a homecoming for Durkl. After establishing the label as one of the District’s most successful fashion enterprises, Sharp decamped for Los Angeles two years ago when the brand’s studios in the Goldleaf industrial space closed.
What to watch for in 2014: Sharp says the long-delayed project will open by April. More than half of the 6,000-square-foot Maketto will be communal space, with the rest devoted to a kitchen serving an array of Southeast Asian and Chinese street foods, retail outlets and a Vigilante coffee-roasting outfit. The open space (indoors and outdoors) will be filled with seating that Sharp hopes will encourage hanging out. It should feel like a baby Union Market, Sharp says, and he and Bruner-Yang are betting it could be just as successful. “I want to sell shoes to people in the neighborhood who want to buy shoes. I want to sell coffee to people in the neighborhood who want coffee. This isn’t about this exclusive, cool little club. We want to make this inclusive of everyone.”
Off-duty haunts: Sharp, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Washington, loves getting lost in the Kogod Courtyard, the cavernous, modern indoor garden that divides the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum in Chinatown. He calls it “the most grand and amazing space in D.C.”
Celebrity-wise, Washington is a three-horse town: the president, whoever is playing quarterback for the Redskins and the pandas at the National Zoo. The first two will inevitably receive criticism from the media, but the pandas are untouchable, cuddly as they are. Panda cubs, especially so. Bao Bao, the National Zoo’s newest black-and-white bundle of bamboo-eating joy, will be introduced to the public, and your child’s “awwwww!” zone, on Jan. 18. Bao Bao has big shoes to fill as the heir to Tai Shan (né Butterstick), as a faith object for young zoogoers and as a cash-cow whose presence could boost the cash-strapped zoo’s finances.
What to watch for in 2014: Zoo director Dennis Kelly recently cited federal budget cuts, including the sequester, for a staff that had become “spread too thin” after a series of animal deaths at the zoo in 2013. What can a panda cub possibly do to fix that? More visits to see Bao Bao mean more visitor dollars spent on concessions, parking and merchandise: The Friends of the National Zoo reported an all-time high of $13.2 million in revenue from those areas in the year after Tai Shan’s introduction. And higher revenue means more money for FONZ, which directly contributes to zoo operations. With the zoo forgoing the ticketed-entry process that limited access at Tai Shan’s debut, even more visitors will be able to see Bao Bao in the early months. That’s music to the ears of District tourism officials. Destination D.C.’s Kate Gibbs believes Bao Bao will be a draw for families from beyond the immediate area: Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, Philadelphia. “The idea that we can be the only city in the country where you can see a baby panda without paying an admission fee is very appealing,” she says.
Off-duty haunt: Bao Bao could not be reached for comment, but with the Panda Cam paparazzi, there’s no such thing as off-duty.
— Alex Baldinger
LONNIE G. BUNCH
With just over a year before the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in its high-profile spot at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch, 61, is feeling the pulse-quickening effect of his looming deadline. He’s crisscrossing the nation, raising the last bits of cash for exhibitions, programming and the film festival he wants the museum to host. Last year, Oprah Winfrey donated $12 million, ensuring that the venue’s 350-seat theater will bear her name. But among Bunch’s important tasks this year is to choose items from a trove of artifacts — there are 35,000 items and counting in the collection — and shape a narrative of the African American experience. Too much pop culture and the museum won’t pull off its historical mission. Emphasize only injustices, and you risk alienating visitors, rather than uplifting them. “The hardest part of this job was to frame what the museum would be, what would be inside,” Bunch says, adding that he won’t shy from polarizing subjects, including discussions of race. “It’s got to embrace controversy,” he says of the museum. “It has to tell difficult stories, and everyone may not like the spin. If we do our job right, we’ll help people embrace ambiguity.”
What to watch for in 2014: In February, 11 years after Congress approved the museum, passersby on the Mall will finally begin to see the bones of the structure rise. Expect Bunch to give talks and make appearances to drum up interest in the museum. Expect news, too, of more big gifts. Bunch and his staff also are developing the 11 permanent exhibitions that will serve as the opening offering to the public. “I’m more involved than I should be,” the longtime historian and curator admits.
Off-duty haunts: An obsessive filmgoer, Bunch has already worked his way through the winter’s most buzzy movies, many of them at his two favorite theaters, the swanky AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, and the Landmark’s E Street Cinema downtown. “I remember when I asked my wife to marry me — most people talk about children, religion, all that. I said to her, ‘Do you like film? Cause if you don’t, we’re not gonna make it.’ ”
DEBORAH F. RUTTER
“Arts administrator” isn’t the most compelling description for new Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter. So how’s this: After Rutter — the first woman to take on the role — begins her new assignment Sept. 1, she’ll be overseeing a sweeping transformation of the performing arts complex that will add waterfront gardens and a video wall. She’ll mingle with living legends at the Kennedy Center Honors and take in shows on all of the center’s seven stages, which host more than 2,000 events in a single season. But first, Rutter, 57, will start small: After moving to Washington, she and her husband and 15-year-old daughter will begin exploring what the city has to offer. After nearly a dozen years in Chicago, Rutter says, “it’s really an exciting experience to get to know a new city, as well as seeing all the sites.”
What to watch for in 2014: Rutter won’t have a say in this year’s season, which is usually announced in March. But she’s already scheduling Washington visits, including a drop-in at next month’s World Stages international theater festival, to get to know the artists and the Kennedy Center’s aesthetic. Rutter already attended the Honors in December, going “incognito” just days before the announcement of her hiring. This year should also bring the groundbreaking for the center’s $100 million expansion.
Off-duty haunts: Rutter, who will continue to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for several more months, isn’t yet a regular at any Washington haunts. But the longtime Californian says she’s looking forward to exploring the Eastern Shore and hiking. “My greatest passion in life is being outside, which has been thwarted in Chicago,” she says. “I’m a true California girl. Flip-flops are my favorite footwear.”