DCist: BloomBars Fights to Stay Afloat

The following article is courtesy of DCist and Sriram Gopal

Bloombars building, Columbia HeightsDuring this economic downturn, DCist has reported on several arts institutions that are facing financial challenges as a direct result of the crisis. Unfortunately, there is yet another addition to that list — BloomBars, the non-profit community gallery and performance space located in Columbia Heights.

“Like a lot of folks, we’re hurting,” said BloomBars founder John Chambers in a recent interview with DCist. “Our immediate need for funds is critical.”

BloomBars is in the midst of an aggressive fundraising campaign in which Chambers hopes to raise $20,000 to meet BloomBars’ immediate financial obligations. In addition to collecting online donations, activities have included a silent auction and a benefit concert at Līv, which featured recent Bloombars artist-in-residence (or Artist-in-Bloom, in BloomBars parlance) and Grammy nominee, Carolyn Malachi. The campaign ends on Wednesday, and despite strong efforts from volunteers and partner organizations, Chambers admitted that, as of Saturday, there was still “a long way to go.”

BloomBars took shape nearly three years ago, during the run-up to the 2008 elections. Chambers, whose background is in advocacy communications, came up with an idea for a community-based venture, rooted in the arts, that could serve as an incubator for individual and community growth. With this mission in mind, Chambers purchased the century-old two-story storefront that houses a performance space on the ground floor and a gallery space upstairs. Adopting the motto, “You Bloom. We Bloom,” Chambers’ vision of an alcohol-free, all-ages creative space became a reality.

“Never underestimate how fast an idea can come to fruition,” said Chambers. “Sometimes the stars just align.”

Dedicated volunteers coordinate around specific disciplines such as dance, theater, visual arts and film. Under their direction, BloomBars hosts twelve weekly events, nine monthly events and numerous one-off workshops, classes, concerts, exhibitions, performances and teach-ins. In its short existence, the venue has partnered with over 1,000 local and international non-profits to mount these events, and has presented literally thousands of artists to experiment in front of a welcoming and open-minded audience. In addition to Malachi, Artists-in-Bloom include Grammy nominee Christylez, progressive hip-hop group The Cornel West Theory and spoken word artists Jonathan B. Tucker and Gowri Koneswaran, who Chambers cited specifically among his most committed volunteers. These are examples of seasoned performers who are part of the community, but Chambers was proud to note that BloomBars events have seen 5-year olds perform at open mics, and, in one instance, a high school teacher read poetry in front of an audience consisting mainly of her students.

In addition to fostering local talent, Chambers is committed to strengthening ties with the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

“BloomBars has a love affair with Columbia Heights — the history, cultural diversity, residents new and old, and its businesses that we all support religiously,” explained Chambers. “We’ve felt like undercover ambassadors for Columbia Heights.”

But while BloomBars operates with a local focus, its reach is international. Artists from as far as Sweden, Ireland, Brazil, Japan and Iraq have exhibited or performed in the space. One notable success story involves Hip Hop Pantsula, a South African hip-hop artist and activist who was invited to BloomBars for a two-week residency. Pantsula was so impressed with his experience, he has since invited many of the Artists-in-Bloom to South Africa for performances on the Jay Leno-style talk show he hosts on a CBS affiliate in Johannesburg.

Chambers has grand plans for BloomBars should it weather the economic storm. He hopes to increase partnerships with local businesses and arts organizations, increase its youth outreach, and eventually raise enough money for a paid staff. BloomBars is also developing a multi-media effort through outlets like Bloom TV and its newsletter, The Weekly Bloom. All the while, Chambers hopes to maintain the high level and high rate of programming that is central to the BloomBars mission.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the richness of our content became the source of our sustainability,” he said.

BloomBars is located at 3222 11th Street NW. More information regarding its programs and class offerings is available on the BloomBars website. Online, tax-deductible donations can be made here.