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In Washington, presidents have been killed in the theatre – specifically Abraham Lincoln in the famous Ford’s – and been masters of it. Washington is full of the drama and acting and artifice that comprise the most fundamental definition of theatre: the art of convincing people that you feel a certain way about something. District citizens are the subject of daily political theatre, ranging from federal sleight of hand to promises from police to step up patrols in local wards.

Locals are trained to see through an act; ergo they appreciate a high level of performance art. It helps that Washington has such a diverse range of stage lovers: educated types who patronise the likes of the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger, high-end production-philes at the National Theatre and niche performance-goers at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Studio.

Immigrants give the diaspora experience dramatic voice in spaces such as Gala while an appreciation of global perspectives is fed by regular international performances held in the Kennedy Center. The cutting edge of experimentation plays out under lights at the Woolly Mammoth, a palpable sense of African American history exudes from the Lincoln and a show under the stars at the Carter Barron is always a family-friendly treat. Yup - Washingtonians can see through an act. But that does not mean they don't enjoy a good one when they see it.

There is another world of art in Washington that you do not want to miss. To the locals, it has become so obvious that it is not even considered a "scene". We are referring, of course, to the fine and modern arts concentrated in Washington's museums. True, those institutions may not offer the exclusive local talent that constitutes the traditional definition of "scene", but Washington's official aesthetic style should, to a degree, reflect America's.

Some citizens criticise pieces displayed at the Smithsonian as conservative, but there is much to say in their defence: some exhibits, particularly in the National Portrait Gallery, are pretty cutting-edge, and the Smithsonian is trying to encourage love of the arts among Americans as a populace, not satisfy avant-garde envelope-pushing. And you simply can not ignore the masterpieces preening in their gorgeous spaces such as the Hirshhorn, east wing of the National Gallery, Corcoran and the Phillips Collection.

Then there are the aforementioned local studios, a result of this town attracting educated types who either appreciate good art or need outlets for their creativity. The freshest galleries crop up in U St and the newly gentrifying frontier of Columbia Heights and Northeast DC.

One of the best places to begin delving into Washington's local aesthetic is the great local artist/designer cooperative of Dekka, and no exposure to Washington-area artists is complete without a visit to Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The art of Washington’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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