Yet, the tunnels are now part of a wave of spaces — from small galleries that host artists to sitting rooms that accommodate musicians — where local talent can showcase work in the capital rather than fleeing to New York. And DuPont Underground is looking at other ambitious projects as inspiration, like the Serpentine Galleries in London and the Lowline underground park project in New York.
“We’re this intermediate opportunity,” said Noel Kassewitz, director for arts programming at Dupont Underground. “We’re a young nonprofit so we have the flexibility to host more experimental works here while at the same time having the space that is often not available.”
The Dupont Circle neighborhood has developed as part of the spread of gentrification across the capital over the decades and now is home to fashionable bars and restaurants surrounding a circular park with an imposing fountain. In decades past, those same streets were known for crime and drug use.
The tunnels belong to the District of Columbia government. But after much haggling with the authorities, delayed further by the turmoil of the global financial crisis, Mr. Hunt won a five-year lease in 2014.
His nonprofit has since spent about $300,000 — raised through crowdfunding and private donations as well as ticket sales — to clean the space and install basic lights and ventilation. Local officials are watching its success closely after an attempt to draw people to the tunnels with a food court on another platform failed in the 1990s.
For Mr. Hunt, the project is a form of activism in a city where, when people think of beautiful architecture, they think mostly of the preservation of historic buildings.
“It’s not the kind of activism where you actually do things, new things and where you experiment,” Mr. Hunt said. “That’s not here. This is not an entrepreneurial city.”
It was only last year that the first event in the tunnels caught the public imagination after the nonprofit claimed about 750,000 lightweight plastic balls left over from the National Building Museum’s retired beach exhibit and initiated an ideas competition. The result was a community project somewhere between giant Legos and a hands-on Tetris, where the balls were stuck together in giant blocks the public could arrange and rearrange in groups.
“We needed our public to make the public art,” said Craig Cook, who led the exhibit. “There was really this whole play on democracy and cooperation.”
Since then, programming has ramped up from seven events last year to 144 events planned for the 16 months between January 2017 and April 2018, including visual art, theater and even film accompanied by musical improvisation. The space remains relatively bare, with graffiti art along its gritty walls and worn-out street signs punctuating the length of the tunnel where exits once were.
Dupont Underground has ambitious plans, with talk of building stairs between the tunnels and the park above it, partnering with local schools to showcase student work and extending the exhibition space along the trolley tunnel to another platform across the street.
That will come only after the organization slashes through layers of red tape. Raising the money to clean up a disused tunnel is one thing, but when regulations require fire sprinklers, emergency exits and access for the disabled, the bills add up.
According to Mr. Hunt, much of the problem is the politics in the District of Columbia.
Lacking statehood, the district has one delegate in Congress, who cannot vote on the House floor; there is no representative in the Senate. The unique administration in the capital has complicated fund-raising and negotiations for the nonprofit, which is nestled under Dupont Circle, a National Park Service property.
“We have had people from other parts of the country come look at what we are doing,” Mr. Hunt said.
“They talk to their congressmen, they talk to their senators and the public money flows in and they get their projects up and running,” he said. “We’re self-financed. We don’t have any representation.”
For those in Washington’s established art institutions, spaces like Dupont Underground are seen as a much-needed addition. Adriel Luis, curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, said the capital lacked “a bridge between the galleries and the museums” to foster local talent.
“We’re constantly casting such a wide net, the artists and creatives in our own backyard are often missed, and that often contradicts the way so many of us interact with so many parts of our lives,” he said, pointing to the rising demand for locally sourced food and small local businesses.
Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, described the range of art institutions in the capital as an “ecosystem,” where fringe spaces like Dupont Underground grow organically like weeds with little support, larger galleries are the purposefully cultivated crops and federally funded behemoths like the Smithsonian are the grand greenhouses that loom large.
“There is always a funny tension between the established museums and the local art scene,” she said.
For some, like Jocelyn Frank, managing facilitator of the D.C. Listening Lounge audio collective, who has partnered with the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and has visited the tunnels at Dupont Circle, the underground art space is “magical” but also a symbol of the difficulty involved in setting up fringe art institutions in the capital.
“There is something sad about having art buried underground,” Ms. Frank said.
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