Arts Desk

Think There’s No Room for Emerging Artists in D.C.? You’re Wrong.

Dear dude I argued with at Black Cat a couple of weeks ago,

From what I recall, I ended our conversation after you told me to go fuck myself. But right before that, we were arguing about whether or not D.C. is a supportive place for emerging artists.

You claimed to have investigated every gallery, and you declared all of them unfriendly and pretentious. When I asked if you could name any of those galleries, you said I was pretentious. You said you are an artist yourself, living and working in D.C.—"a very well-known artist," your friend interjected, working primarily in painting and street art. You said the "gallery scene" isn't "accessible," with no interest in or support for young artists; that it's a cold community to artists like yourself. Maybe you're just pitifully uninformed.

Here's why: There's no shortage of support for young artists in the D.C. area. It feels like every gallery or organization is either all about emerging artists or has a dedicated program for them. Need proof? I brought some.

Transformer, an organization founded with the explicit intent to provide support for "emergent expression," is in the 10th year of its Exercises for Emerging Artists series, a three-month critique and mentorship program culminating in an exhibition. Two years ago I began as an intern at Transformer, during E8; this year, I'm coordinating E10. I got to draw all over Transformer's P Street storefront window earlier this year in "Expansions," an exhibition for the organization's FlatFile program—which has gained me a tremendous amount of exposure. Every year, Transformer also gives a solo show to a D.C.-based artist—Forest Allread most recently.

A year and a half ago, I met the staff at Hillyer Art Space. The nascent Soapbox Performance Art Series had just lost its organizer, so I proposed to continue programming it, and I still do today. Hillyer was willing to take a risk with me, a young curator, which gave me a shot at programming performance. Without that, I wouldn't have been able to curate Supernova, a major performance art festival which took place just a month or so ago.

Then there's the Hamiltonian Fellowship, a unique "post-doc" program for emerging artists that provides professional-development support and prominent exhibitions at Hamiltonian Gallery. D.C. Arts Center has an artist collective called Sparkplug that provides peer support in a two-year-long program. ("External Memory," a Sparkplug group exhibition, is on view through July 14.) Red Dirt Studio, led by Margaret Boozer in Mt. Rainier, Md., calls itself a "graduate school with no grades" for both emerging artists and more established artists-in-residence.

Civilian Art Projects' Jayme McLellan began Transformer's exercises program and continues to show and support emerging artists; Dan Gray's spring solo show "Seeking Provision" came less than a year after he graduated from Corcoran. Connersmith is getting ready to open its annual MFA/BFA show, "Academy," this weekend. Wilmer Wilson IV's first exhibition at Connersmith last year took place just before he completed his undergraduate degree at Howard University, and he's showing again this fall. The Fridge puts up loads of street art—among other types—with a major emphasis on new artists. Its retail space, Mini Fridge, sells original work, prints, and crafts from locals. The Washington Project for the Arts has open calls all the time.

Oh, then there's CulturalDC, which puts out an annual open call for exhibitions at its Flashpoint Gallery—and it runs the Source Festival, a wellspring of performances from less-established performers. Every summer, theater artists flock to Capital Fringe, a major local theater festival driven almost entirely by emerging talents.

Among many projects she's facilitated for me, Philippa Hughes of Pink Line Project invited me to do a "residency" at her house last year, for which I invited dozens of other artists to come make drawings at her home. And significantly, Philippa let me repost my Tumblr posts to her blog, Pink Noise, which instantly grew the size of my audience, encouraging me to write more.

The list of artist-run and DIY spaces is growing, too: Pleasant Plains Workshop, Delicious Spectacle, Outer Space, and more. On July 20, 87Florida hosts "Ladyparts," a show that I'm helping Alexandra Delafkaran organize. She's a San Francisco Art Institute student just here for the summer. When you were talking to her before me at Black Cat, she could have told you about how in just a month of attending openings, going to talks, and meeting people, she pulled together what is going to be a rad show.

This might sound like a lot of love for my employers and collaborators and ass-kissing for organizations I may work with in the future, sure. But I've gotten somewhere in this town. Why haven't you?


Eames Armstrong

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • DCpony

    The art of meta-whining: Whining about somebody whining about something.

  • Milind Raj

    It's not that there aren't any opportunities however, only a handful of the emerging DC artists are able to make an impression at the national or international level. A lot of artist ignore the most basic foundation of art which is drawing. The most world renowned artist of the past and current have spent years mastering their drawing skills before even venturing into abstract works. I have about 300+ paintings/drawings of mediocre quality that I have produced over last 6-7 years and don't even bother approaching galleries since I think it would be unfair to subject viewers with mediocre art. I am not ready to produce good quality abstract art until I master the traditional forms of art. It can be clearly seen from my sample work what I mean. The only reason I have created abstract works is actually to prove my point that until you fully understand and master the concepts of composition, values, color and drawing that you are not ready to lift the brush and create the next abstract masterpiece.

  • Weston Henry

    Not to mention Docs in Progress, Sonic Circuit, Visarts, Union Arts, Ghandi Brigade, and SO MUCH MORE!!!!!

  • John

    Must feel great not being quick-witted enough to argue your point in person and instead having to shame someone in wcp. Good job.

  • Ally Schweitzer

    @John, oh please. The person is unnamed. This is not shaming.

  • Justin Vernon

    this is amazingly self congratulatory, don't you think? "I" count 50% of the paragraphs dedicated to the author's own successes. that doesn't seem like much evidence to the opportunities so much as own-horn-tooting.

  • Kate

    I have been in the area for 5 years now. D.C. has some great grants for artists, and, it seems, several opportunities for emerging artists, but less for established artists. The criteria for many of the opportunities mentioned is that you cannot "have a history of being represented by a gallery", as opposed to being "currently unrepresented by a gallery". With so many galleries closing all over the country (for me, one in NYC and two Miami galleries), many artists who have already proven their dedication and worth for decades are left without support.

    The one thing I see lacking is an annual or biennial museum survey of what is going on in the region. (Auctions don't count). LA is really great about actually trying to promote their artists nationally and internationally by mounting these types of shows, publishing a catalog, then getting the catalog out there. Everyone in the arts community benefits when a city becomes established as place with lots of "hot" artists. There is lots of great talent here, but in an international art world, it is necessary to get the word out beyond our community.

  • Doug

    You can't tell me that in a place where you need to have 3 full time minimum wage jobs to pay rent on a 1 bedroom apt. that you will be able to even get started as an artist. A subsidized art space is minimally going to be another 2-3$ per square foot, if you qualify or find one... real art space is incredibly hard to come by in this city. Galleries now take a whopping 50% on average in commission.
    There are some opportunities, yes, for those with trust funds, other careers, or who are willing to spend a majority of their time writing grants,schmoozing, and playing politics as opposed to spending their time on their craft.
    Historically, what's the first thing an artist does from DC when they make some progress?

  • Andrew

    Doug, you nailed it. DC is all about connections. Some of the best art I've seen has come from poor self-promotors. It's unfortunate that they will be brushed aside in favor of those with plentiful resources and ego to push their bullshit soulless work. Just because you call yourself an artist doesn't make you an artist.

  • Esther

    What about for writers? Are there any spaces for that?