By Kriston Capps | June 22, 2015 | Culture
The District's art scene has been in flux for the past decade—but it's readying for an upswing.
Any major city looking to cultivate a thriving art scene needs two things: artists and buyers. In Los Angeles, it’s the Hollywood juggernaut that creates the collector base for LA artists and galleries. In New York, the real estate and finance sectors are where you’ll find the city’s art collectors. Tech czars amassing their wealth in Silicon Valley don’t spend much of it on art in San Francisco, but the hope there is that they’ll come around.
In one respect, today’s gallery scene in Washington, DC, is standing strong: Its artists produce work worthy of any second city in the nation. But political gridlock in the nation’s capital, coupled with the fallout from the 2010 burst of the law-school bubble, has hemmed in the market for fine art in the District at a time of unprecedented growth for the city.
At one point, galleries were ready to ride the wave. In 2003, when the city’s explosive growth was just beginning to surge, several art dealers moved from the safe enclaves of Georgetown and Dupont Circle to 14th Street NW, which was then a former automotive showcase corridor marked by burned-out buildings and boarded-up windows— the legacy of the riots still very much visible. Storefront galleries and white-cube spaces—namely Fusebox, Transformer, G Fine Art, Adamson Gallery, Hemphill Fine Arts, and Curator’s Office—turned 14th Street into the heart of the visual art scene.
Each gallery played a different vital role. Transformer, a nonprofit incubator, held true to the city’s punk and hard-core music roots, hosting shows by young and untested artists in a microgallery setting. Andrea Pollan and George Hemphill, art dealers behind Curator’s Office and Hemphill Fine Arts, respectively, built spaces to host their strong stables of local and national artists. Annie Gawlak—who joined Pollan, Hemphill, and Laurie Adamson in a gallery building at 1515 14th Street—represented some of the finest artists working in DC.
More and more people arrived to the city over the 2000s, many of them buyers flooding a housing market marked by depressed prices and deep supply constraints. (Which adds up to steeply rising prices.) Even through the 2008 housing crash and the ongoing recovery, the local economy in DC stayed afloat. The condos kept coming, and rents kept rising, on 14th Street and several other commercial corridors that had been vacant for years and years. Yet the collapse in the legal job market has had a lasting impact on the city’s art scene. Art dealers say that they cherish their returning clients, lawyers and firms alike; but the number of galleries that have closed, downsized, or otherwise adjusted their programs speaks to the fact that the legal industry has yet to regain its pre-2008 form.
And so, 14th Street is changing again. High-end restaurants and luxe-design retailers have popped up all over the thoroughfare, unfazed. While Hemphill and Transformer are still there today, most of their peers were forced to move elsewhere (or move on). G Fine Art and another gallery, Civilian Art Projects, share a space in a neighborhood called 16th Street Heights, alternating shows from month to month. Pollan shuttered her physical gallery space to focus on a floating model for Curator’s Office. Irvine Contemporary, Project 4, and other galleries closed with no immediate plans to reopen.
Despite the tidal changes, DC is still a vital hot spot for art—and stronger in many respects for having evolved. Quota, an independent project by Dawne Langford, a filmmaker, and Avi Gupta, a photographer, is one welcome newcomer: It’s a roving curatorial program that showcases work by artists of color (in particular artists who aren’t making work about color). All around the city, curators are proving nimble adapting to a market that emphasizes brick-and-mortar spaces less and less. Pleasant Plains Workshop and the Wild Hand Workspace are newer shops that follow different models for supporting artists; local DIY house spaces such as Hole in the Sky are too numerous to count and even harder to find.
This fall, the Washington Project for the Arts, one of the longest-running arts organizations in the District, aims to open its new headquarters in the U Street corridor. In addition to offices, the membership organization’s new home—in a flashy mixed-use building at Eighth and V Streets NW—will include dedicated gallery space and a flexible meeting area. Established by arts doyenne Alice Denney in 1975, it’s been rootless for nearly 20 years; with any luck (and a lease that extends through 2022), the WPA can be a source for continuity in a changing DC as well as a true resource center for its hundreds of member artists.
The District has always been unique among cities—it may be the nation’s capital, but it’s just one of a number of municipalities in the region: a tiny diamond carved out into the border between northern Virginia and southern Maryland. Arts organizations draw funding from all these different areas, meaning there is no central well for art but a ring of them, including the Arlington Arts Center, the McLean Project for the Arts, the Greater Reston Arts Center, the Bethesda Urban Partnership, and so on. They’ve helped the area to develop a talented group of curators and leaders beyond the museums of the National Mall, each one focusing on a particular niche. Consider the “Strictly Painting” series at the McLean Project for the Arts (which runs through August 1) or the Spring and Fall Solos exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center (next up in October).
The District isn’t New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco—although rents around the city are trending just as high here. As the city continues to evolve owing to demographic and economic changes, it will lose some of its defining features while gaining other qualities. The same could be said for the District art scene—whose artists, curators, and dealers are still navigating the new terrain. Today, the art scene is fresher, more agile, and less reliant on established legacies, and more willing to experiment with form and format.
PhotograPhy courtesy of hamiltonian gallery (whatisaspiral); adamson gallery (fair mount forest)
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