Gallery Owners Trade Traditional Spaces for Pop-Ups and Shares
When Andrea Pollan announced that she was leaving her gallery space, Curator’s Office, at 1515 14th Street NW, she was emphatic that she wasn’t closing it down for good. She’d run the microgallery for nine years before her lease expired in June 2013, but with rising rents putting storefront or smaller spaces on the District’s commercial corridors out of reach, the way forward was unclear.
Unclear, perhaps, to everyone but Pollan. Despite the fact that she shut down her physical space, she’s arguably enjoying one of the best years of her career. Her letters are being inducted into the Archives of American Art, a prestigious honor. She was asked to serve as a special correspondent for the Future Generation Art Prize, meaning that she’ll nominate artists for a $100,000 prize and a spot in the Venice Biennale. And she’s found a home for her gallery—a sublet of sorts for the next few months—at Studio 1469 in Columbia Heights.
“It is, in essence, a pop-up space for my gallery, but with a dedicated location so people know where to find me and the artists’ shows,” Pollan says.
She isn’t the only art dealer on the up-and-up these days. Jayme McLellan, who closed down the gallery space for Civilian Art Projects at the end of 2013, also insisted that it wouldn’t be the end for her practice. Instead, she planned to go spaceless for 2014. But McLellan has changed her mind, and changed course: She’s moving her gallery into a new space occupied by G Fine Art in 16th Street Heights.
So the rash of gallery closures that capped off 2013—art dealer Margaret Heiner also closed her Georgetown gallery, Heiner Contemporary, to move with her family to Connecticut this January—may have only marked a transition, not a failure. D.C. art dealers, it appears, haven’t abandoned physical spaces in favor of the art-fair circuit or another space-free model. Instead, they’re trying to build new, more resilient models that they think are better suited to Washington’s real-estate reality.
“We each run like separate businesses, but we split the rent 50/50,” says McLellan, who will be sharing the two-story, street-level space at 4718 14th St. NW. Her gallery-mate, Annie Gawlak, found and renovated the spot after G Fine Art was forced out of Trinidad when developers announced plans to raze part of the commercial strip at 1300 Florida Ave. NE to erect a condo building. (In community meetings, Trinidad residents said they’d rather see a bakery take up the new space in the condo storefront.)
At Pollan’s pop-up, programming is already under way. She is hosting two Curator’s Office shows this spring at Studio 1469’s 750-square-foot converted garage in the alley off 15th Street NW between Harvard Street NW and Columbia Road NW. The first show, on view now through April 19, is “Closer & Closer,” a solo exhibit by the rapidly rising photographer Jason Horowitz.
“This is clearly an experiment in seeing how I can redefine what a gallery can be given the drop in gallery attendance over the past five years,” Pollan says. “It wasn’t worth committing to another five-year lease and doing build-out when so few people come on a regular basis anymore. People only come to special events.”
As part of that experiment, Pollan is packing the gallery’s schedule with events. Horowitz’s large-scale photos, which feature skin and lips in such fine detail that they become dehumanized, will serve as context for a show by Bradley Chriss this Sunday. I saw one of Chriss’ meat poems during a performance-art festival in Rosslyn last year: He read from the Marquis de Sade through half a cow’s heart that he held clenched in his teeth.
In addition to Captain Beefheart’s performance, Pollan is moderating a panel on photography, porn, and pop with curator (and Washington City Paper contributor) Jeffry Cudlin, collectors Jackie and Philippe Loustaunau, and Horowitz. After the Horowitz show comes down, Curator’s Office is immediately mounting another exhibit by Jonathan Monaghan: The emerging artist’s prints, videos, and 3D-printed sculptures will be on view from April 25–May 31. (Disclosure: Monaghan attended a class I taught at the University of Maryland.) In the fall, Curator’s Office is showing work by U.S. artists Dawn Black and Betty Tompkins and U.K. artists Paul Kneale and Andy Holden—and making a couple of art-fair appearances in between.
Uptown, the first show at the combined McLellan–Gawlak space opens on May 10. It’s a solo exhibition of paintings by Amy Hughes Braden, a Civilian exhibit—one of the two or three shows that McLellan will mount over the course of the year. Given that they’re essentially alternating between galleries at the space, Gawlak will also only put two or three exhibits on the calendar.
There are potential snags with these untested models. Fewer shows at G Fine Art and Civilian in one space means fewer shows for artists represented by those respective galleries. That could work for many galleries: Most established brick-and-mortar dealers live or die at the art fairs, which are year-round and worldwide. But Gawlak and McLellan aren’t especially active on the art-fair circuit, and from the D.C. art-lover’s perspective, one gallery space isn’t better than two.
Still, two galleries are better than zero. The G Fine Art and Civilian Art Projects calendars may be lighter looking forward, but their rents are likewise lowered. The stability built into the sharing model may serve them well if and when D.C.’s hyper-gentrification reaches the three-syllable streets of 16th Street Heights.
This way, too, McLellan can dedicate more time to teaching (she’s an instructor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, her alma mater) and the art activism that’s central to Civilian’s mission. And Pollan says she plans to spend the summer months (a lag time for most art galleries) doing research and studio visits (and, this summer, booking a show for an art-punk duo called Unstoppable Death Machines).
“I am definitely testing the waters with this fluid model for 2014,” Pollan says.
Will other D.C. art dealers eventually go guerrilla? George Hemphill has said that he has no plans to leave the third floor of 1515 14th St. NW—the same building that Pollan left in 2013 (and Gawlak left in 2009). Hemphill is joined by Adamson Gallery, which moved from the second floor to the third floor of the building after some uncertainty about whether it would stay or go. Randall Scott Projects is preparing to open its 11th show (featuring the work of Bobby Coleman) at its second-floor location on H Street NE. Transformer isn’t leaving its Logan Circle digs any time soon, but a physical gallery presence has never stopped it from mounting DIY shows across the city.
So it’s hard to see a pattern to curatorial gambits in D.C. right now. Maybe, as more of them try new models, the gulf between established commercial fine-art dealers like Pollan and indy curators—someone like Eames Armstrong, who brings performance art to Hillyer Art Space in Dupont Circle and The Fold in Rockville, among other venues—will keep shrinking. Dealers doing different things may come to outnumber dealers doing it the old way, although there are still traditional holdouts like Marsha Mateyka Gallery in Dupont Circle.
One thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed: These dealers aren’t leaving D.C. They may be experimenting with the idea of what a D.C. gallery should be, but for the time being, at least, they’re keeping it local.
Top two photos courtesy of Jason Horowitz; bottom photo by Darrow Montgomery
Due to a reporting error, the article originally said Randall Scott Projects is preparing to open its third show; in fact, the Bobby Coleman exhibit is its 11th.