Exclusive Interview with Co-Founder and Executive Director of Culture House
By Mike Goodman
Southwest resident Ian Callender has led the arts and culture scene of our community into a new era. Born and raised in DC, Callender now has a number of cultural arts spaces in the quadrant.
He is the owner of Suite Nation, a CBE certified event design firm; the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Culture House (formerly Blind Whino SW Arts Club), which has gained notoriety throughout the city because of its contributions to the arts and culture creative economy; and he co-owns the newly launched Sandlot Southwest in Buzzard Point, an outdoor cultural arts event space adjacent to Audi Field and Nationals Park.
Callender has over a dozen years of experience in event production, originally stemming from his hobby of collecting sneakers, to later launching creative non-traditional spaces with corporate brands and partners. He has been successful in reclaiming vacant and dilapidated spaces and beautifying them for the benefit of the community. Culture House, located on Delaware Ave., SW, is a prime example of the reimagining of the historic 1886 Friendship Baptist Church into a bold beacon of creativity and community.
Callender was recently honored by Mayor Bowser, given the city-wide Award for Excellence in the Creative Industries. In addition, in November, Callender was appointed as a Commissioner to serve on the city’s Commission on Nightlife and Culture. The Southwester interviewed Callender about these recent honors, his career in the DC arts and culture scene, and what is next for SW arts.
Culture House celebrated its sixth anniversary earlier this year. What are some of the most memorable moments over that time?
Our inaugural year was actually pretty amazing. Amazing to have pulled off an unimaginable experience for neighbors and residents of Southwest and the entire city. We reclaimed a historic abandoned church and activated it in the same magnitude of what churches represent; community & cultural spaces. We have seen programs like the Kennedy Center Finding a Line Project to Woolly Mammoth Theater Company celebrating their Spring Gala to events having numerous celebrity talent, such as P. Diddy showing love during an Invisible Bully Pop Up Retail Shop, to Arrested Development performing for Free for a Pulse Event with the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. In other words, with so many moments and memories, it’s often difficult to play favorite to a few.
You were recently given the Award for Excellence in the Creative Industries by Mayor Bowser. Tell us a little more about what that award means to you.
It was a special feeling to be recognized for work that has been developing over time. We often question ourselves if we are doing something right, or if people truly understand your value and your worth. This award helped justify my purpose in life – creating unique spaces for artists and creatives and entrepreneurs to flourish without taking on any risk. It’s a sector untapped and the fact that the Mayor has recognized that is an amazing win for creative industries always looking at ways to be different without being identified as different.
As a DC native, you’ve been following DC’s arts evolution for many years. What are your thoughts on the DC arts community, and where are we headed?
We are starting to find the DC Arts Scene surging into areas uncharted and it’s uber amazing. Visual and Performing Arts are breaking into traditional models with showcases and exhibits. We are finding breakthrough installations and performances by local artists at Smithsonians and other major institutions in and around our city, something that never really occurred. Developers are also tapping more local artists to help reimagine their apartments and public spaces versus allowing an outside firm to do that job for them. We are headed in the right direction. We just need to secure more space for artists to create and more opportunities for artists to earn revenue to live in a city that is getting extremely expensive to reside [in].
You’ve also led the creation of Sandlot in Buzzard Point. For our readers who have not been there, tell us about it.
Sandlot Southwest is a 5,000-square-foot open-air cultural arts and event space built from the ground up in partnership with Absolut, Sunbelt Rentals, and Lyft, located directly across the street from Audi Field. The inspiration of the project originated in 2018 when I had a conversation with my childhood friend and business ally Kevin Hallums, and we wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of one of their favorite movies, “The Sandlot.” We’ve hosted DC Jazz Festival, Art All Night, and have even hosted DC United Tailgate before all home games. Unsure if we’ll be returning for next season as it was just an interim project ahead of the MRP development that is forthcoming in 2020.
What other projects are you working on, or plan to tackle in the upcoming year?
Looking to create more unique places and spaces for our communities. Preserving our culture through the arts and through experiences whether short term or long is the goal.
What’s next for Culture House?
Considering we recently rebranded, we are planning to do a full refresh of how we program and operate, all for the greater good! Stay tuned for more exciting activity to happen along Delaware Ave., SW!