D.C.’s Year in Art Galleries: Woof
The news that Civilian Art Projects is closing its 7th Street NW gallery space caps off a year of many memorable exhibits—and too many art galleries passing into memory.
While Civilian director Jayme McLellan is taking her situation in stride, planning a 2014 full of pop-up shows and house salons, hers is not the only gallery to close its doors in 2013. Andrea Pollan, who opened Curator’s Office on 14th Street almost a decade before Le Diplomate served its first $12.50 onion soup to the fat-walleted who followed her, left the space behind when its lease ended in June. Adamson Gallery, which shared the second floor of 1515 14th Street with Curator’s Office, closed its space and moved to a smaller third-floor suite, where it has yet to mount any art shows. And across the street, in the space once occupied by Irvine Contemporary (and Fusebox before it), Contemporary Wing closed in October with nary a peep as owner Lauren Gentile decamped to New York.
For most if not all of these galleries, closing doors doesn’t mean closing brands. Like McLellan, Pollan is taking the pop-up route for now; she mounted an ambitious show by artist Olivia Rodriguez at the Studio 1469 project space in Columbia Heights last fall, for example. Yet no matter how many temporary exhibits these art dealers mount in 2014, it will be hard for the city to recover from the loss of so many brick-and-mortar spaces. The District art scene is starting to feel homeless.
The hypergentrification along 14th Street NW—marked by high-end restaurants and luxury furniture outlets—was inspired originally, at least in part, by the art dealers who converted former auto showrooms into storefront white-cube galleries in the early 2000s. Those gallerists have been (mostly) squeezed out by rising rents—or the end of generous subsidies that building owners can no longer afford.
Even those dealers who have turned to less desirable commercial strips in the District aren't having an easy go of it: Some are finding themselves outpaced by the waves of gentrification expanding outward from the trend's epicenter in Northwest. Annie Gawlak, who closed G Fine Art at 1515 14th St. in 2009 and moved to the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NE in Trinidad, is departing again, since the shabby storefronts are being torn down to make way for condos. (Yes, that is all happening in a neighborhood where just five years ago, police were setting up illegal checkpoints.) Neighbors are said to be angling for a bakery to anchor the forthcoming building’s storefront space. East City Art reports that Gawlak is moving back to 14th Street NW, but in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood.
Despite the string of closures, some art galleries can still mark 2013 under the win column. Craig Appelbaum is representing the world's most innovative 21st-century designers via Industry, on the floor just above Connersmith in Trinidad (down the block from the soon-to-be-condos strip housing G Fine Art). Connersmith directors Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith operate the (e)merge Art Fair, which just enjoyed its third year in Southwest and appears to be a successful enterprise. Randall Scott returned with the first show at a new space at the top of 2013. In Georgetown, Margaret Heiner mounts some of the scene's best shows. George Hemphill, last man standing at 1515 14th Street, isn't leaving the corridor any time soon. And D.C.'s core of nonprofit art institutions—Transformer, the Washington Project for the Arts, and the District of Columbia Arts Center—are all still maintaining.
But art galleries became increasingly endangered in 2013. And of the vital art institutions to emerge in the last decade, none have been conventional. One of the strongest brands to surface in D.C. in the 2000s, Philippa Hughes’s Pink Line Project, is now dialing back its signature pop-ups and parties. While there are plenty of local brands out there eager to prove themselves to be as relevant—from Animals & Fire to the No Kings Collective to Worn Creative—they are now competing with developers and corporations that have figured out the pop-up formula. How long will temporary performance-art happenings matter now that the Rosslyn Business Improvement District is hosting the year’s superlative performance art festival (as it did with SuperNOVA in June)?
That might be the wrong question. Fine art is not a DIY product like hardcore; it’s a commodity that ought to thrive where restaurants are reaching peak cocktail prices, whether that's the aspiration in Rosslyn or the reality on 14th. George Hemphill told me that when law firms stopped buying art just before the recession hit, he changed course to meet collectors where they were—and more and more, he says, they’re on 14th Street NW, dining out. Following suit, he hosts more private events that have the intimate feel of a dinner party to court a younger class of might-be art collectors.
Closing up shop might be the right answer for dealers who are facing the same pressure as Hemphill. But it’s to the detriment of the larger art scene—which is a scene that works very much like a hardcore scene, despite being organized around the love of this peculiar luxury/goods category. If the scene is crucial for cultivating collectors—if brick-and-mortar locations and openings are vital for a healthy market—then the loss of several gallery spaces is a severe setback.
Looking ahead, art dealers need to think about new ways to support physical spaces. There are some models out there: Co-op gallery spaces appear to work for Philadelphia, for example. The potential for art subscriptions (think community-supported agriculture, or CSAs) to support a scene is still untested. As with all things in D.C., the Height Act and the limitations it imposes on the District make it harder for artists and dealers alike to find space to do their work. Eliminating the Height Act may not be a silver-bullet solution for the art scene, but it would tweak the ratio of supply and demand that is crushing it today. Unfortunately, change on that front seems distant at best.
Or maybe the art scene will survive and even thrive in 2014, via art-house spaces such as Delicious Spectacle in Columbia Heights and other noncommercial enterprises. Many of the best shows in 2013, though, happened in those commercial galleries. Topping my list are "Unspoiled" by Nicholas and Sheila Pye at Curator's Office and "Revival" by Jefferson Pinder at G Fine Art. I also enjoyed a bunch of stuff by Patrick McDonough, whose work I met through G Fine Art (in 2012) and Civilian (in 2011).
In 2013, the District art scene is looking back at the end of a strong, nearly decade-long run, one that saw galleries shift and grow from Georgetown eastward starting in the early 2000s but contract as the rest of gentrifying D.C. caught up with them. If 2014 is going to be a rebuilding year, then new enthusiasts—new dealers, or anyway, people with new ideas for how to show art to people who like to look at it—will need to step up. I could recount a dozen more fantastic art shows that I saw this year. But the thing that 2013 has impressed upon me most is that next year, there probably won't be a dozen proper art galleries in the city.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery