Art losing its toehold in downtown Washington


A view of the Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space at 1111 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C. The art and sculptures in the gallery are from the current exhibit, "Shining Stars," curated by Zenith Gallery. (Courtesy Zenith Gallery)
February 10, 2012

Thirty years ago, Washington’s old downtown was the center of the city’s visual arts scene. Galleries, studios and not-always-legal artists’ apartments filled older buildings, most awaiting redevelopment. Cheap rents and hangouts such as d.c. space and the original 9:30 Club drew artists and fellow travelers (notably musicians) to the neighborhood.

Today, in the redeveloped downtown, arts spaces are mandated by zoning, yet the arts scene is hard to find. Nearly a dozen exhibition spaces populate the area bounded by Fourth and 15th streets and Pennsylvania and New York avenues, but most don’t have access to the street and aren’t clearly identifiable from outside. They are in lobbies or tucked away in office building interiors. To visit some you have to sign in at security desks.

The spaces “are quasi-public,” says gallery owner George Hemphill, who organizes shows at Carroll Square, 975 F St. NW. “Well, they are public. But you have to be pretty motivated to go to them in most cases.”

Not only is the scene hidden to passersby, but it makes for friction between the arts community and property managers managing expensive real estate.

Some property managers view the arts requirement as “a poison pill,” says Zenith Gallery owner Margery Goldberg, who programs art for the lobby at 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.


‘Site Aperture’ opening reception at Flashpoint Gallery. Installation view of Margaret Boozer's ‘Line Drawing’ and Mia Feuer's ‘Rebirth.’

And some arts programmers feel their selections are encumbered by conservative office environments. “The restrictions are so enormous, of what you can’t do, that by the time you’re done can’t doing, you don’t know what to do,” says Goldberg.

The D.C. government’s downtown arts requirements were “all very, very well-intentioned,” she adds. “You know what they say about good intentions.”

Location, location, location

When the area’s redevelopment as a “living downtown” was envisioned in the 1970s and ’80s, part of the concept was to have art galleries buttress the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (mostly along Seventh Street) and a “theater spine” (on or near E Street). These goals were advanced by the District’s Office of Planning, as well as the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., a federal agency that closed in 1996.

The city has used various methods to encourage arts uses, says Anne Corbett, executive director of the Cultural Development Corp., a nonprofit group that was created to find space for artists and that runs the Gallery at Flashpoint at 916 G St. NW.

Flashpoint exists because the city owned the building and required an arts use when it sold it. Carroll Square — which hosts law, government and investment offices, but also the Caos on F gallery and subsidized artists’ studios — was created by a historic preservation deal. And some of the earliest arts tenants in new or redeveloped buildings were required by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.

In the mid-’90s, the city implemented zoning to require arts, part of the plan for the Downtown Development District. “A lot of establishments are a result of the zoning,” Corbett says. “They’re just not galleries,” but also theaters.
Lansburgh Woolly Mammoth Theatre Ticketplace

But much changed after Verizon Center opened in 1997. Today, the neighborhood’s street life revolves around Verizon, something planners in the 1980s could not have anticipated.

Escalating rents forced many galleries out, notably such longtime commercial galleries as Zenith and Touchstone, which moved north, their spaces usually replaced by eateries.

The zoning definitions of “arts” allow broad retail uses. For instance, Hill Country Barbecue — in a building that once housed five galleries — is considered “arts” because it features live music. Such commercial operations as the Museum of Crime &Punishment, the International Spy Museum and the Riot Act comedy club also qualify.

Of the nearly dozen art exhibit spaces in the area today, only one is a commercial gallery (Gallery 555dc), though several are programmed by galleries elsewhere or by art consultants.

“The arts district downtown was a failure,” says Jayme McLellan, owner of Civilian Arts Project, which moved north to 1019 Seventh St. “It had the best of intentions, and it failed.”

Still not sold?

If the arts district zoning has done more for theater than visual arts, that may be because galleries can be tucked into out-of-the-way locations.

Corbett recalls being asked to help find a tenant for a city-mandated arts space in a building she’d prefer not to identify. It was “literally just a room in the basement — the last time I saw it — with a generic label on the door that says ‘arts use.’ ”

Goldberg doesn’t have any reservations about the lobby at 1111 Pennsylvania, which she calls “really a beautiful space.” But she does have problems finding acceptable art.

“You can’t get religious. You can’t get political. You can’t get sexual,” says Goldberg, whose Zenith Gallery is now in the Chevy Chase Pavilion shopping mall. “Take all that out of the art world, and then start trying to curate a show!”

The former facilities manager for Morgan Lewis, the law firm that is 1111’s sole office tenant, had to personally approve every piece of art, Goldberg says. It was “his mission in life to make every lawyer in that building happy. Hello! Have you ever in your entire life been to an art show that 100 percent of people liked? It’s not humanly possible!”

“We have no desire to interfere with anybody’s artistic sensibilities,” says Peter Halle, a Morgan Lewis senior counsel who used to manage the firm’s internal art program, but did not supervise the lobby art space. “At the same time, it’s space that our folks have to walk through on a daily basis. We tend to think that there’s all sort of wonderful art that can be exhibited there without creating a discomfort for our employees.”

One thing she has learned about 1111 Pennsylvania’s tenants, Goldberg says, is that “they want shiny and slick. They don’t want warm and fuzzy.”

“My own taste goes to warm and fuzzy, rather than shiny and slick,” responds Halle. “I think that, over the years, we’ve had both kinds of exhibitions. And I think there’s been no objection to either kind.”

At Carroll Square, Hemphill, whose namesake gallery is off Logan Circle at 1515 14th St. NW, is programming art for a building partially owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. “We can’t do anything that’s religiously critical, has overt nudity or sexuality in it,” Hemphill says. “I don’t think we can be particularly partisan, one way or the other. That said, the shows have varied a great deal; they’ve spoken about many issues, some local, some national, some environmental.”

Hemphill says he’s “very comfortable with the deal. Free speech was never an issue. You run into a problem when you put something up and somebody says, ‘Hey, you can’t say that.’ But if they tell you at the outset, ‘We’re not a platform for these issues,’ and you agree to that, it’s not a difficult circumstance.”

Most of the arts-district spaces are programmed by a single gallery owner or art consultant paid to organize three or four exhibitions a year. (Goldberg estimates that the fee per show is in the $5,000 to $20,000 range.)

Pepco’sEdison Place Gallery takes a different approach. Its space, at 702 Eighth St. NW, is made available to nonprofit groups. Proposals are vetted by the company’s art consultants.

Generally, office-building art programmers show abstract art. That’s Jean Efron’s speciality at Heurich Gallery, the lobby space at 505 Ninth St. NW. But she went representational for Terrell Place, at 675 E St. NW. The owners of that office block opted to meet the arts requirement by installing a permanent display of work inspired by the life of the structure’s namesake, civil-rights activist Mary Church Terrell.

Gallery 555dc owner Jodi Walsh also tends to show abstractions. After she moved into 555 12th St. NW, she says, “I told my landlord, ‘You’re very lucky it’s me. You never asked me what kind of art I do.’ ”

Although her building puts no restrictions on what she can display, Walsh has other reasons to be circumspect. On the other side of a nearby door is the Barnes & Noble bookstore children’s section, and kids from the downstairs day-care center often visit.

Walsh, whose gallery is cloistered within the building’s lobby, is the only downtown arts-space operator who’s actually on the premises to sell art.

“They’re not sales circumstances,” notes Hemphill of the office-building spaces. “Someone can say, ‘I like this piece,’ and it can be sold, but they’re not commercial settings. They sort of sit in a funny place between museum display and commercial gallery activity.”

The shotgun marriage of galleries and upscale office tenants has not produced a boom in sales, Goldberg and Walsh agree. The latter says she gets more business from clients of 555 12th St.’s Celadon spa than from its major office tenant, the Arnold & Porter law firm.

When she programmed a lobby space at 901 E St. NW, Goldberg recalls, “I sold to people in the building occasionally.” But at 1111 Pennsylvania, “not one lawyer has ever bought a piece of art, either for the firm or for themselves. I think there’s a better chance of being hit by lightning.”

Under the zoning, most arts uses are required for only 10 years. That means many of the galleries are near their expiration dates; the one at 901 E St. NW has already closed. But not all will depart after a decade, as some are part of a larger mission. The Goethe-Institut, at 812 Seventh St. NW, uses its gallery to spotlight German photography. Edison Place’s time is up in 2012, but the gallery will continue to operate, says Debbi Jarvis, Pepco vice president for corporate citizenship and social responsibility.

Flashpoint’s lease runs through 2013, and Corbett is not certain it will stay. She’s also not sure it should.

“To me, the aesthetic of downtown no longer jibes with ‘fine art galleries,’ ” she says. “If, today, I was picking a place to open Flashpoint, Gallery Place isn’t where I would think to do it.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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