The number of Washington art galleries is decreasing both in longtime habitats — Dupont Circle, downtown — and such newer locales as Logan Circle and the Atlas District. While some seek and a few have found fresh locations in gentrifying districts, the area that’s experienced a significant growth spurt is one that was far artier a generation ago: Georgetown. ¶ There are currently eight galleries in the area known as Book Hill, just south of the neighborhood’s library, including three that arrived this summer: Cross MacKenzie Gallery, All We Art and Washington Printmakers Gallery. Next month, Artist’s Proof is scheduled to make it nine when it moves from Cady’s Alley, south of M Street, to Wisconsin & Q.
These four join such longtime inhabitants as Addison/Ripley Fine Art, Maurine Littleton Gallery and Susan Calloway Fine Arts, as well as many antiques and furnishings shops.
“I think it’s interesting how things go in circles. Everybody moved away and now everybody’s moving back,” says Calloway, who’s been selling contemporary paintings and antique prints in the neighborhood for 21 years.
The current boom may have started with the 2011 decision of three galleries to share a townhouse at 1662 33rd St. NW, near where that street intersects with Wisconsin Ave. Two of them are still there: Robert Brown Gallery and Neptune Fine Art. Their married proprietors, Robert Brown and Christine Neptune, have worked to organize the area’s galleries.
(The building’s original third tenant, Galerie Blue Square, has an office in Georgetown, but does not have exhibition space there.)
“I had been the president of the galleries in Dupont Circle for a long time, and we had a very successful association. At that time, we had 15 to 20 galleries,” recalls Brown, who moved his gallery to Dupont from New York in 1981. “So it was a natural thought to do something similar here.”
He and Neptune started a Web site, georgetowngalleries.com, printed a brochure and helped organize twice-a-year joint openings. “I’ve actually had a couple of inquiries from other galleries about moving to this area,” Brown adds.
Neptune, who operated a gallery in Manhattan for 30 years, was new to Washington. “It’s nice for me, coming from New York, where there were 500 galleries. It’s nice to be part of a small community. Because you can actually do something that makes a difference,” she says.
For Rebecca Cross, whose Cross MacKenzie was on Dupont’s R Street gallery row for three years, her new location is a return to Georgetown. She first opened in 2006 in Canal Square, the south-of-M Street complex that once held a half-dozen galleries. Her relocated gallery took the place of Heiner Contemporary, whose owner, Margaret Heiner, moved to Connecticut when her husband took a job there.
“What I think is very helpful is being near all these antique shops where people are thinking about their homes,” says Cross, who finds Wisconsin Avenue much livelier than R Street.
Traffic from one dealer to the next “is already happening,” she notes. “Somebody came to my gallery this morning, and she said, ‘Well, I saw something I really liked at Sue Calloway’s gallery, but it was sold, and so I’m looking for a painting.’ She came to mine next, and she probably went to Addison/Ripley after that. And that’s great.”
“With art, you’re not really competing with each other, because it’s so personal,” she adds. “If you fall in love with that painting, you can’t fall in love with something else in a different gallery. It’s such a visceral response.”
While Brown and Neptune note the diversity among the dealers, Cross says the businesses have a quality in common. “We’ve talked about not being the super cutting-edge galleries. I think everybody feels that they have very high-quality artwork by established, sophisticated artists. Not necessarily the most innovative, cutting-edge sort of work. ”
She contrasts the Book Hill style with art displayed at Connersmith, which is about to leave its space on Florida Avenue NE. “They were showing installations of live chickens. We don’t have anybody like that here.”
“We’re all paying a lot of rent,” Cross adds. “I can’t afford to curate like I’m nonprofit.”
Washington Printmakers Gallery is also native to Dupont, where it began operating in 1985. The cooperative spent the past three years in Silver Spring, sharing a building with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, a print- and paper-making studio. “We thought the synergy would be good for both of us. But we had virtually no walk-in traffic,” says Carolyn Pomponio, the co-op’s treasurer.
While the Georgetown space is smaller, the area is busier, notes Alysia Thaxton, the gallery’s director. She’s one of several Book Hill gallerists who extol the drawing power of Patisserie Poupon, a nearby French bakery and cafe.
If most of the new arrivals are from nearby, a few made longer trips. Peggy Sparks, who runs Artist’s Proof, is a native of Singapore; Luisa Elena Vidaurre and Pablo Brito Altamira, the married couple who just opened All We Art, hail from Venezuela.
“Everybody asks, ‘Why D.C. and not Miami? Everybody [from Latin America] goes to Miami!’ And that’s why,” explains Vidaurre. (She has two other reasons, she admits: Her daughter and grandchild live here.)
All We Art opened with an exhibition of contemporary work by Venezuelan artists, as well as one American who used to live in that country. Future shows will have a wider focus, says Vidaurre, but will be “always connected to Latin America.”
“Venezuela is a very mixed society,” she adds. “So the art that’s produced there is very international, in a way.”
The business is also a Venezuelan craft store, stocked with jewelry, chocolate, wooden dishes and furniture and woven handbags and wall hangings. Many of the items are made by indigenous Venezuelans using traditional techniques. The couple plans to add a cafe soon.
“The idea is to become a place of encounter, not just an art gallery,” Altamira says.
The building’s interior white walls are strategically punctuated by little sections of wall paper. “When you see it, you feel like home,” explains Vidaurre. “Or that’s the idea.”
And the business’s name? “All that we love or that we dream is related somehow to art,” Altamira responds. “Everything that’s related to beauty is art.”
Where Vidaurre and Altamira are first-time gallery owners, Sparks is a veteran who decided to move from Asia to the District after marrying an American. The current incarnation of Artist’s Proof is large and boutique-like; it’s the only Georgetown gallery that offers cappuccino and plays soft pop music over a PA system. It’s also the only one that’s open seven days a week. (Most are closed Sunday and Monday and some on Tuesday, except by appointment.)
The new location is, Sparks says, “like any Georgetown house. It’s a little tight. But we’ve opened it up.” It will have two stories of display space, with a glass rear wall to showcase the neighborhood’s second commercial sculpture garden. (Brown and Neptune also have one.)
“How do you do justice to the work? It’s quite hard to appreciate an artwork in 10 square feet,” she says.
“You don’t get into this business trying to make money. Artists appreciate that we do a little extra. It doesn’t help the bottom line,” she adds, laughing.
The majority of the artists Sparks represents are international, but she estimates a third are local. And while she still caters to customers from her previous posts, “we’re building a real nice clientele from D.C. as well. It’s a fun market.”
The next Book Hill joint opening is scheduled for Sept. 12, followed on Nov. 15 by “Do the Loop.” The latter will send a free shuttle bus among the galleries, American University’s Katzen Arts Center and the Kreeger Museum on Foxhall Road NW. According to Neptune, if the shuttle experiment is successful, it will repeated once or twice a year.
Such ideas, and the new blood, have energized the Book Hill galleries, says Calloway. “I feel like everybody’s excited about it. I hope the general public will be as excited as we are.”
● Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-338-5180; www.addisonripleyfineart.com; painting, photography, prints, sculpture.
● All We Art, 1666 33rd St. NW; 202-375-9713; www.allweartstudio.com; painting, sculpture, photography, crafts.
● Artist’s Proof Gallery, 1533 Wisconsin Ave. NW (as of early September); 202-803-2782; www.aproof.net; painting, sculpture, photography, prints.
● Robert Brown Gallery, 1662 33rd St. NW; 202-338-0353; www.robertbrowngallery.com; prints, drawings, painting, sculpture.
● Susan Calloway Fine Arts, 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-965-4601; www.callowayart.com; paintings, prints.
● Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-337-7970; www.crossmackenzie.com; ceramics, painting, photography, prints.
● Maurine Littleton Gallery, 1667 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-9307; www.littletongallery.com; glass, ceramics.
● Neptune Fine Art, 1662 33rd St. NW; 202-338-0353; www.neptunefineart.com; prints, drawings, painting, sculpture.
● Washington Printmakers Gallery, 1641 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-669-1497; www.washingtonprintmakers.com; prints.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.