Arts Desk

Civilian Art Projects Closing Its Space in Mount Vernon Square

IMG_0145On Dec. 19, Mount Vernon Square gallery Civilian Art Projects held a holiday party for all its artists, friends, and supporters. It was the last event the art venture will host in the space; Civilian closes its doors tomorrow on New Year's Eve.

Jayme McLellan, who founded Civilian eight years ago and has operated it at 1019 7th St. NW for four of them, says that shuttering the space is not a decision she regrets. The large upstairs gallery has served her more as an empty office than anything else, she says, so she plans to go spaceless and host events from her home or in tandem with other institutions. Besides, the owners of the property, Douglas Development, may soon evict Civilian and other tenants sharing the block at 7th and New York Avenue NW—including The Passenger, Hogo, and Fort Fringe—to make room for development.

McLellan helped to revive the D.C. art scene as its loci moved from Georgetown and Dupont Circle to 14th Street NW. In 2002, she cofounded Transformer with director Victoria Reis, who still runs the nonprofit art incubator in Logan Circle.

The Civilian founder's decision to close shop may come as a surprise to her supporters, since the gallery has enjoyed some of its most popular programs in recent years. This time two years ago, McLellan co-curated "Hard Art D.C. 1979," a show by Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins documenting the D.C. hardcore scene in its infancy. That show, which was accompanied by a book and traveled after its run at Civilian (it goes next to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in May) helped usher in a period of nostalgia in the D.C. art scene that included the 1980s hardcore and go-go revue at the Corcoran Gallery of Art earlier this year.

At the holiday party, hanging on the walls were works by more than a dozen artists who have supported Civilian or vice versa over the years, many of them locals, such as Ken AshtonNikki Painter, and Ryan Hill. Most of the artists in the gallery's roster are based in D.C., and almost all of them have a connection to the city.

McLellan still has planned a busy 2014, with events that include a house salon of Amy Hughes Braden's work in February, a pop-up in New York in March, and a salon and exhibition of Jason Falchook's work in September. She also expects to funnel some of her energy into D.C. in a different way, with teaching gigs at Maryland Institute College of Art and St. Mary's College of Maryland. Nevertheless, the loss of the gallery space is a setback for the local art scene.

Photo by Lely Constantinople courtesy Jayme McLellan

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  • Jayme McLellan

    Thanks for this article. My gallery isn't closing. It is moving. My gallery isn't the space, it is me, you, and the artists who exhibit work and support it. Okay, enough said about that.

    It seems the real story here is the development of the block, and all of the businesses getting kicked out by April. And the next central part of the story is that only about 2% of the DC public buys the art of the artists living and working around them (and half of this percent buys the work from a non-profit art auction and not a gallery). Combine that with rising rent costs and you get a city that can't sustain its galleries. I had to sell $10k a month - for seven years – to cover my overhead without paying myself. Think that's easy? Maybe in New York but not DC. This model, without a backer or a rich family, is impossible to sustain.

    Thank God for the wonderful patrons Civilian does have, and will continue to have, throughout this transition. No purchase, however small, wasn’t incredibly valuable.

    The art scene always fights over the bone on the floor and never goes for the pot roast on the table. What I mean by this is that if we all got together and bought a building and rented the spaces like condos and held the property as a public land trust and did it in partnership with public and private investors, we could have a whole building or two as designated art centers. The models exist all over the country. This way, each arts organization would have an accruable asset – something to sell or keep or whatever. We wouldn’t just be paying rent to a landlord waiting to sell or redevelop. We would once and finally be in the driver’s seat. Yes, there would be problems and yes their would be a mortgage but with the right ingredients the mortgage could be manageable. And we all know what an arts center brings to a community. It brings people who come to restaurants and theaters and movies. It brings buyers who like the neighborhood. It brings arts organizations who do outreach into the community enriching its members in seen and unseen ways. Arts move in, the neighborhood improves, arts get pushed out. Let’s change that model.

    In terms of Douglas Development, I think this is the story: they tried to buy the Ruppert buildings (the only thing on the block that they didn't own) about five or so years ago but the market tanked and he walked away from his deposit. This allowed me to move in at a slightly below market rate which I appreciated. So when he finished the NPR/Medical association the block before mine, and the market improved, he was ready to redevelop the whole block for Living Social. Then they tanked which set the timeline back a bit. So now, he's ready. The Ruppert buildings sold in April with everyone getting one year to stay. I could have stayed until then but the end of the year was a better time for many reasons. The New York Ave side of the street will vacate by February when they will demo the Warehouse Theater - the one thing I am sentimental about. And in April (permit permitting) they will keep the historic facades, like they did the block before ours and they will dig way down in the ground to install a parking garage and then they will build a giant office building behind the 125 year old facades. I'm not sure of the tenant but I'm sure that is being worked out right now behind closed doors.

    And I've tried the public land trust route (a few times with different partners) and everyone is too busy struggling to keep their organizations alive to do the big work to make something sustainable long term (myself included). Maybe it'll happen one day....

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