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The Atlantic’s Big DC Festival Will Have a New Name and a Really Large Tent

Washington Ideas forum is no more, and yes, that tent is a metaphor.

An audience at last year's festival.

Last year’s Washington Ideas forum brought a magazine-like feel to a multiday event. There were few events that felt like a traditional panel. You could dip in and out of Sidney Harman Hall as if you were flipping through pages and usually find something worth stopping for: Jeffrey Goldberg talking with Michele Norris, Melanie Whelan chatting with Alison Stewart, Major Garrett interviewing Steve Mnuchin.

So there’s a certain logic to the event’s new name, which coincides with its tenth anniversary: It’s now the Atlantic Festival, a rebranding that not only better reflects the entity that puts on the event (AtlanticLive) but also echoes the company’s namesake magazine. “I think we realized after ten years we wanted to give fuller expression to the Atlantic itself,” says Margaret Low, AtlanticLive’s president.

This year’s festival, scheduled for October 2-4, will have a larger physical footprint downtown. It will again take over Sidney Harman Hall and Rosa Mexicano, but this year AtlanticLive will erect a large tent on F Street between 7th and 8th streets, Northwest. “So it will feel like a central Washington experience, not just sort of cordoned off behind the doors of the Harman,” Low says. Under that tent you’ll find nods to the city’s food and tech scenes, as well as other events. “There’s a beautiful metaphor to the tent,” Low says.

The name change does not presage a move out of DC, Low says. Right now, most of the audience is well-educated, well-heeled locals (about 2,500 attended last year) so it’s possible that a new name might serve as a beacon to travelers. But it also reads as an acknowledgment that for many people, “Washington” is a metonym for politics and policy. There’s room for lots of facets of DC culture, like music, dance, and movies, under that tent. But the focus will remain on what Low calls ” the biggest issues and ideas” as well as “people who are transforming the world in a significant way.”

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the announcement of who exactly will make the cut this year. Last year, Sally Quinn did a book talk, Chris Ruddy explained Trumpology to a somewhat skeptical audience, and Astro Teller talked about using balloons to deliver internet to remote areas. “You have a conversation with various cabinet secretaries and business leaders,” Low says. “And yet we also try to make sure that there are people you’ve never heard of but you walk out being totally compelled by a story you would have never heard anywhere else.”

AtlanticLive now has a staff of about 50 and produces events all over the country, including, in partnership with the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ideas Festival. It accounts for almost a fifth of the Atlantic’s revenues, which is notable for a sector lots of other media companies have jumped into. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s some sense that events are easy,” Low says. AtlanticLive’s staff is divided into teams that concentrate on management, on underwriters, on graphics–the never-ending details that attendees feel even if they don’t notice them. “We’re deeply read,” Low says. “The world is cacophonous right now. There’s something very powerful about bringing people into a room to talk about what matters.” Or, you know, a tent.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.