Inside the White House's Inaugural South by South Lawn Festival

Inspired by South by Southwest, the White House's festival of ideas, arts, and action brought 2,000 guests to the South Lawn.

By D. Channing Muller October 6, 2016, 7:45 AM EDT

President Barack Obama, climate-change scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, and Leonardo DiCaprio headlined the day's panel discussions by talking about climate conservation and its present and future impact on society.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the White House brought a little bit of Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C., by hosting the inaugural South by South Lawn (SXSL) event, which was inspired by the annual South by Southwest festival. President Barack Obama, who was a keynote speaker at SXSW this year, also headlined at SXSL, which has the tagline “A White House Festival of Ideas, Arts, and Action.” About 2,000 SXSL attendees gathered on the White House's South Lawn (the event's main hub) for a series of discussions, film screenings, live music, and technology activations focusing on the collaboration among technology, innovation, and creativity. About 22 curated art installations and technology exhibitions dotted the lawn to encourage guest interaction and conversation, and Chaia, Kind Snacks, Little Sesame, Milk Bar, Sir Kensington's, and Sweetgreen provided food and beverages. 

Just like at SXSW, the activities at SXSL were divided into three programming tracks—interactive, film, and music. For SXSL, these tracks were planned in coordination with the American Film Institute, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, the National Park Foundation, and SXSW. But unlike SXSW, where attendees can purchase badges and tickets for the event, SXSL had a very different admissions policy: Attendees had to first submit an online request form and then be approved by the White House.

The day began at the Newseumwith about 350 people attending a breakfast panel co-hosted by Events DC. The panel included artist James Turrell and architect David Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened September 24 on the National Mall. Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan moderated the discussion, entitled “Hard Things Are Hard,” a reference to a plaque that sits on President Obama’s desk. Turrell and Adjaye gave insight into their motivations for pushing boundaries in their respective creative fields, as well as the cultural and technological changes they have seen evolve throughout their careers. 

Guests who received the proverbial “golden tickets” to the South Lawn activities could head to the White House, which hosted performances in the East Wing by alternative R&B singer/songwriter Gallant and soul-inspired rock band Black Alley. Outside on the South Lawn, there were two stages for activities: the Innovation Stage and the Discussion Stage. Guests could watch live music on the Innovation Stage, the site of performances from the Lumineers, the Dap-Kings, and DJ Bev Bond.

The event's film programming included the third annual White House Student Film Festival, presented in association with the American Film Institute. Students from kindergarten through 12th grades had short films at the festival, which had the theme “The World I Want to Live In.” A giant video screen was set up to watch SXSL's film programming. Cast members and creators of the Netflix sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things also made appearances. 

President Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio, and climate-change scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe headlined a discussion about climate change and environmental preservation. After the discussion, SXSL concluded with the United States premiere of Before the Flood, a climate-change documentary produced by and starring DiCaprio. National Geographic Channel will televise the movie on October 31.

About 450 select guests headed to the POV lounge at the W Hotel Washington D.C. for the official SXSL after-party co-hosted by Events DC and the White House. DJ Young Guru, DJ Kiran Ghandi, and hip-hop artist/social activist Talib Kweli performed at the soiree, which had catering provided by Sweetgreen.

“We wanted to create these spaces where locals and those out-of-town guests that occupy this same head space have a chance to mix and mingle,” said Erik A. Moses, senior vice president and managing director of Events DC sports, entertainment, and special events. “POV is close to the White House, and that view is just very unique to Washington." 

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