10/02/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What the Shutdown Says about D.C.'s Cultural Scene

Since America's founders picked a site near their own landholdings to serve as the nation's seat of government, Washington, D.C., has remained a government town. In the city's early years, malaria and muddy streets meant that diplomats stationed here received hardship pay. Today, D.C. is a lot more livable. But it remains a government town. Aside from higher education and medicine -- two industries that exist everywhere else -- every big business in D.C. closely interacts with the federal government. The shutdown this week, just about 18 years after the last federal closure, gives local residents a chance to get an idea of what the town might be like without the government here. And it's not all bad. A look at the landscape shows that D.C. is, indeed, coming into its own as a cultural destination.

There's no doubt, of course, that D.C.'s culture relies on the federal government. The D.C.-based institutions that rank as the best of their kind in the world -- the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian museums -- rely on Congress for their existence. And they're closed. D.C., without direct government aid, can't claim to be a world-class cultural destination of any sort.

That said, enough has changed in D.C. and its suburbs to retain a lively cultural scene even without the federal government. And, on the whole, things have improved here since 1995.

  • A lively performing arts scene has improved a great deal since 1995. The Kennedy Center, which has increased its private support a great deal in the last 18 years, will remain almost fully open for business despite the shutdown. Arlington's Signature Theater, quite arguably the best regional theater company in the country, operated out of a converted bumper shop in 1995. Today, it has an elaborate theater and is often the first regional company to produce many Broadway/West End hits. D.C. also has a fringe festival that didn't exist in 1995 and at least a half dozen new or remolded performing venues. The entities that were important in the performing arts in 1995 (the Shakespeare Theater and Arena Stage) have much better facilities than they did 18 years ago.
  • The music scene is also better than it was in 1995. There are more venues for live music (mostly in Chinatown and along H Street) and Adams-Morgan and U Street have held their own.
  • Visual arts have changed since 1995. The city's visual arts scene has probably declined a bit; the suburbs have seen a blossoming. On one hand, rising rents have priced most art galleries out of DuPont Circle while one of the city's two private art museums, the Corcoran, has struggled to hold its own. On the other hand, the other private art museum, the Phillips Collection, has added a new wing since 1995 and while new arts venues have opened in Arlington, Lorton, and Herndon.
  • Eating out is a lot better than it was in 1995. D.C. has tons of new food trucks and scores of interesting restaurants in areas like H Street and 14th Street that were largely devoid of interesting places in 1995. In the 'burbs, areas like Eden Center have become culinary meccas.
  • Business improvement districts, which didn't exist in the District in 1995, have played a major role in making some neighborhoods more interesting. Artisphere is sponsored mostly by a BID in Roslyn and, this weekend, Shaw Mainstreets is sponsoring a major overnight arts festival.

Washington, D.C. would probably be a backwater without the federal government. But a look at what cultural events will continue despite the shutdown shows that the District has, indeed, come into its own.