DC Art to See Right Now at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center

By Kriston Capps | June 14, 2017 | Culture Feature

This is the best DC collection you’ve never heard of.


One of the largest art spaces in Washington, DC—in every sense of the word—is a venue that residents probably never give much thought to. It’s a collection with more than 130 modern and contemporary artworks, which puts it in a class of its own, just behind the official museums in the city and on the National Mall. It’s also 2.3 million square feet in size, which means it’s a helluva lot larger than any museum in town.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center—that’s right, the convention center—is probably not the first place that comes to mind when Washingtonians think about art. The building’s purpose is almost always given over to something else, and, barring a few events on the annual calendar (Awesome Con, the National Book Festival), is usually reserved for out-of-towners. But culture vultures and residents alike should give it another look.

“Many works came over from the old Convention Center, just south of here, which was built in the 1980s,” EventsDC art program curators Robin Moore and Dena Crosson explain. “The largest number of works was acquired as part of a call for entries. In this case, artists from all over the world were invited to submit works for consideration by a panel.”

Since 2003, the Convention Center has showcased artworks by some of the best-known artists in the District, alongside some of the biggest names in contemporary art. A lot has changed in the city since the Convention Center opened its doors. Now, it hopes to embrace its place as an anchor in a Shaw neighborhood that has changed dramatically by undergoing a renovation.

The Convention Center is planning an upgrade in stages. Stage one will focus on the building’s exterior, creating a more vibrant façade for shopping and retail centers, in keeping with a neighborhood that is increasingly (and rather suddenly) a destination for luxury outlets. OMA and OLIN, the same architecture and landscape-architecture team that is designing the city’s 11th Street Bridge Park, will take the helm on the project, which includes a 4,000-seat balcony, a more attractive streetscape, and improved food offerings.

Art will be the last part of a plan that’s expected to span four years. “At the end of four years, you’re going to have this completely revitalized and transformed experience,” says Max Brown, chairman of the board for EventsDC. “Art is the cornerstone of that differentiation. There’s been a proliferation of young artists in Washington, and I think we’re going to take [an approach] where the majority of the new art [in the collection] will be from local artists, and the rest international.”

Brown continues, “We want to look ahead to the next three, five, seven, 10 years, and help position our building, using some of that art to represent who we are as a city, and what we’re doing.” For now, he concedes that to consider what the new collection could look like, the city deserves to celebrate what’s here—and what’s now...

Jaw-Dropping Installations, Sensational Sculptures, Local Tributes... What Not to Miss at the Convention Center

#1 Can’t-Miss
Parabiosis II


There are two ways to think of Kendall Buster’s Parabiosis II (2002), a hanging form that looks like a delicate drawing. This sculptural installation—which the Convention Center commissioned from the artist, a former DC resident who is now an art professor at Virginia Commonwealth University—resembles both a biomorphic entity and also a kind of organic architecture. “From above, the work resembles a view from a microscope, but from below one can see various architectural forms—like models for imaginary buildings,” Buster says. Her work changes dramatically with scale, as viewers can physically enter and walk around some of her sculptures; this one looks more like a complex of buildings seen from 50,000 feet up. Made from shadecloth and steel, Parabiosis II is one of several entries in the artist’s series. Located on the Street Level on the L Street side of the building.

#2 Can’t-Miss
Shaw Rhythms


Rik Freeman’s painting is as close to a biography of a neighborhood as any artwork is likely to get. Shaw Rhythms (2003), a piece created for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, references the neighborhood’s namesake, Col. Robert G. Shaw, the commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War; his face appears in the quilted pattern at the center of the composition. The painting also shows a mob of weapon-wielding residents from the riots of the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919. Central to the painting is music—specifically, the city’s heritage as a jazz destination, which is harder to trace in Shaw today. The most prominent figure is none other than DC’s favorite son, Marvin Gaye. “I thought if ever the opportunity presented itself to again put Marvin back on a piece, I would,” Freeman says. “And Shaw Rhythms did just that.” Located on Level Two, outside of Room 204B.

#3 Can’t-Miss
Many Things


If there’s one person who speaks to DC’s artistic past and future, it’s Sam Gilliam. An artist affiliated with the Washington Color School—the cerebral mode of stain painting that this city was known for in the 1960s and ’70s—Gilliam has mounted major international museum exhibits around the world. This summer, he is exhibiting his work in the prestigious Venice Biennale (where he has shown previously). Many Things (2003) is an atypical work, as many of his best-known canvases hang loosely like drapes. This one instead appears to have many frames: It’s a complex cross-layered jumble of shapes and forms, evoking free jazz and tongues of flame. This painting might remind viewers of late Frank Stella or Elizabeth Murray, artists who took great liberties with the notion of frame and canvas. But it may also simply strike viewers as an elegant riff on harmony and dynamism. Located at the Metro entrance, Street Level, on the M Street side of the building.

#4 Can’t-Miss


Any DC art lover will recognize Jim Sanborn’s mysterious totems. His first one, Kryptos (1990), which he made for the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, features four coded texts arranged in a quadrant of panels. (Three of the artist’s four codes have been decrypted, but one still stymies would-be decipherers.) For that piece, he cut letters out of copper using a jigsaw for two and a half years. For his more recent works—which he refers to as “projection cylinders”—he employs waterjets and prototyping technology. Lingua (2003) features four texts that chronicle, among other things, a rendezvous of French fur trappers, as well as a water battle scene reenacted by order of Julius Caesar. “I choose the text, but I offer a selection of texts, and I encourage clients to add something, usually,” Sanborn says. “I have my own fonts that have been stenciled so that the centers of the letters won’t fall out.” Located in the Grand Lobby.

#5 Can’t-Miss
Wall Drawing #1103


Perhaps the most famous artist in the Convention Center collection, Sol LeWitt died only a few years after Wall Drawing #1103 (2003) was completed. The artist never touched the piece. A pioneer of conceptual art, LeWitt was known for making instructions for pieces that would then be executed by others; his contribution, his artwork, in effect, is the outline. Ten Washington artists fulfilled his wishes for the colorful installation. The work’s full title is Wall Drawing #1103. Color vertical and horizontal broken bands—which gave the artists putting it together some leeway. However, more often than not, LeWitt’s instructions were quite specific. For another wall drawing at the National Gallery of Art (one of four in the DC area), the artist’s 1971 title spells everything out: Wall Drawing #65. Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random, using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall. Located on the Street Level on the L Street side of the building.

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