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…