The former streetcar tunnels under Dupont Circle are the busiest they have been in decades.
Colorful graffiti from local artists covers the walls, DC Improv performs monthly and more than 20 docent-led tours are done per week. But the nonprofit group that runs the cavernous underground art space, which has a lease with the city that ends in 2019, says it needs money — from the city, private sponsors or both — to keep expanding.
“This hasn’t been easy,” said Julian Hunt, the District-based architect who came up with the vision for the space more than a decade ago. “I didn’t have gray hair when I started this.”
Unlike the District’s new 11th Street Bridge Park, Dupont Underground hasn’t received millions of dollars in city funds or major investments from big corporate sponsors. The 75,000-square-foot space beneath bustling Dupont Circle needs a chairlift to become compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a ventilation system and additional exterior signage, which Hunt and Dupont Underground chief executive Susan Corrigan say will cost about $150,000.
“We want it to be a connector — between different groups within the city who wouldn’t otherwise interact, and between D.C. and a broader art scene that hasn’t come to the city before,” said Hunt. His quick, earnest speech underscores his passion for the project, which he took on in addition to his full-time job at as the co-principal of Hunt Laudi Studio in Northwest Washington.
In a moment of historic politic divisions, having frank conversations with new people has never been more important, Hunt said.
He calls it the “propinquity effect,” a theory in architecture that describes when people who don’t usually have the opportunity to meet are provided the space to connect — and become friends because of it, breaking down the “silos” that so often separate people by neighborhood, economic status, ethnicity and profession.
“Creating spaces like this, it’s the new form of activism,” Hunt said. “It’s tangible, and it’s positive.”
The most recent attempt to use the streetcar tunnels that were shuttered in 1962 was the Dupont Down Under food court in the 1990s.
Its failure, in 1996, left a bitter taste and made it difficult to convince neighbors, city officials and possible donors that Dupont Underground could be different, Hunt said.
But in 2014, after a decade of conversations, Hunt successfully convinced city officials to grant Dupont Underground a five-year lease for $150,000, which the group has already raised and will pay the city in 2019.
Dupont Underground — which now has a permanent staff of four — launched several temporary exhibits last year, including “Raise/Raze,” which repurposed hundreds of white plastic balls from the “Beach” installation at the National Building Museum to create what its sculptors described “as a sort of democratic form of sculptural communication.”
The installation, which opened last April, sold out for its one-month run.
But Dupont Underground wanted to have more than pop-up exhibits, and Corrigan, who was hired last month, has made it her mission to increase the space’s programming partners. Last year, they worked with about seven groups. In 2017, Corrigan said, it will be more than 45 entities — from artists to bands to educational institutions such as D.C. Public Libraries — who will host more than 144 separate events.
“We want to fill a niche that hasn’t been filled before, to draw artists into the city that haven’t come here before,” Hunt said.
The space is now averaging 2,500 visitors per month, Corrigan said, including for private events, compared with about 3,000 people in all of 2016.
Joaquin McPeek, director of communications with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, said the city admires what Dupont Underground has done with the space. But he is not aware of any plans to provide city funding to the effort.
And to be eligible to receive such funds, the space would need to become ADA-certified and install a ventilation system, which would require private donors, Hunt said.
Arlington artist David Carlson, whose exhibit “Over Water, Under Sky” opened June 19 in Dupont Underground, said the venue is “unique, and that always brings a breath of fresh air.”
The exhibit features a video installation that explores Taoist and Buddhist practices through videos of water and sky, and is meant to inspire viewers to meditate.
Carlson, who works in abstract painting and digital video, said he frequently showed his work at the Anton Gallery on R Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle, in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But as rents rose and trendy restaurants proliferated, many galleries in the neighborhood left.
Dupont Underground, Carlson said, could “help revitalize and improve the presence of the current gallery scene.”
Hunt said he envisions his project as following in the footsteps of the Serpentine Galleries, a contemporary art gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens, and the Kunst im Tunnel in Düsseldorf, Germany, a contemporary art museum in an underground tunnel.
In November, it will become the sole U.S. host of an exhibit showcasing the 2017 winners of the World Press Photo contest, which is also being shown in more than 100 foreign cities.
“It’s a balance between tapping into the talent that is here in D.C. and reaching those new markets,” Hunt said, walking past walls covered in graffiti by D.C. artists. “We want to do both.”