Cultural Tourism Founder to Step Down
Kathryn Smith, the founder and executive director of Cultural Tourism D.C., will step down from her position in March.
Cultural Tourism D.C. is a nonprofit coalition dedicated to helping residents and visitors experience the diverse heritage and culture of the entire city of Washington, D.C.
Smith said the coalition “invites visitors to find the real city of Washington, D.C.,” adding that people from Washington “look around you and see what you take for granted.” The coalition works with neighbors to determine “what makes your neighborhood different and how can we show that,” she said.
“The process is as important as the end-product,” Smith said of the work the coalition does. “We define what a place is, and when you put the pieces together, D.C. is a really dynamic, interesting city.”
The idea for Cultural Tourism D.C. came from a 1995 White House conference on travel and tourism that determined cultural tourism should be a priority for the United States.
Local institutions, sites and museums recognized the opportunity to show people that there is more to D.C. than the National Mall. In 1996, under the direction of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the sites created the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition to showcase the whole city.
In 1999, the coalition became an independent, nonprofit organization. In 2003, the coalition changed its name to Cultural Tourism D.C.
Today the coalition has more than 140 members. In the past eight years, Smith said, the coalition has “been able to be catalytic in the creation of a new piece of work for the city.”
As a past president of the Historical Society and as a writer and teacher who took part in projects related to the history of D.C., Smith said she was “interested in the idea of working to get people more familiar with the city.”
Smith said she is a public historian who has done all her work, including the study of neighborhoods, in D.C. “I have for the last three decades and more been interested in the image of D.C. as a city,” she said.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wis., Smith came to D.C. in 1966 to work as an assistant press secretary to then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.).
Having worked at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for five years, she said she began to “look for what this city was all about.” She said she “almost immediately got involved with local projects.”
In the 1970s, Smith said she developed a D.C. history curriculum for the D.C. public schools. The one-semester course, the History of Washington, D.C., is still a graduation requirement today, she said.
She edited “Washington History,” the Historical Society’s semiannual journal, for three years, and planned courses and tours for the Smithsonian.
In the 1990s, Smith said she became interested in the history of blacks in the District’s U Street area. She created a 160-foot-long outdoor exhibit of photographs called “Remembering U Street.”
Smith said she enjoys “connecting people with the stories of their own places.”
“Cultural tourism is another way to do that,” she said.
“Knowledge of place creates pride and energy,” she said. “We have pride in our place, Washington, based on the amazing richness of our community.”
Capitol Hill is one of the neighborhoods that Cultural Tourism D.C. has been focusing on, Smith said. “It’s a destination that has been overlooked,” she said.
The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has been a major part of the coalition’s work, she said.
Smith said the new director will take the coalition to the next level. “The next step has to be taking all the partnerships and building a really strong identity for D.C. as a cultural community,” she said.
“We have laid the groundwork,” she said. “We have succeeded in telling a new story about D.C. We need to tell that story to more people.”
Smith said she is eager to take part in other projects and that she will continue her “engagement with Washington.”
“I like to start things, create new things,” she said. She said she plans to write and spend more time with her family.
Deborah Ziskah, chief of press and public information at the National Gallery of Art, has worked with Smith on citywide celebrations, which Ziskah said began when D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) called cultural leaders together after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Due to her, we now have a working community of major cultural entities around the city,” Ziskah said of Smith. “She has developed ways to work together to make this successful for everybody.
“She has been able to accomplish a great deal in a short period of time,” she said. “The city has really benefited from her work.”
Ziskah described Smith as “incredibly enthusiastic, knowledgeable and energetic.” “She is a lot of fun to work with and very inclusive as well,” she said.
Ziskah said Smith is always trying to get “more money and support” from the city.
“We are going to miss her,” she said. “She’s going to be hard to replace, but she leaves Cultural Tourism D.C. in great shape.”
Julie Rogers, the president of the Meyer Foundation, said she has known Smith for more than 10 years.
Rogers said the foundation was “proud and happy to be the first investor of grant money” to Cultural Tourism D.C.
Smith has a “brilliance of packaging the historical stuff of the moment and making it so very accessible to people whether they are from here or from around the world,” Rogers said.
“Kathy’s most amazing skill is the degree to which she builds alliances,” Rogers said. “The dynamic partnerships that she has formed are a less tangible result of her work.”
“Without her vision and tenacity and 24/7-genius, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” she said.
“She has laid the groundwork and tilled the soil for many,” she said. “Others will be able to build on this.”
For Smith, the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of her work at Cultural Tourism D.C. has been “bringing people together who are used to working in their own circles,” Smith said. “People have different bottom lines and speak different languages. We help them find a common cause.”