Much-moved alternative arts program finds long-term home on U Street corridor


Rendering of Washington Project of the Arts's new space at the Atlantic Plumbing building. WPA, which provides exhibition and gallery space for artists and hosts public dialogues on arts and culture, will be part of Atlantic Plumbing, a mixed-use development under construction at Eighth and V Streets NW. (The JBG Companies)

After moving roughly eight times in its nearly 40-year history, the Washington Project for the Arts, a nonprofit organization devoted to contemporary art and artists, is putting down longer-term roots in Washington’s U Street corridor beginning in fall 2015.

WPA, which provides exhibition and gallery space for artists and hosts public dialogues on arts and culture, will be part of Atlantic Plumbing, a mixed-use development under construction at Eighth and V Streets NW. The move places the D.C. arts stalwart adjacent to the 9:30 Club music venueand helps anchor the historically vibrant U Street corridor with a veteran name, reputation and deep community ties.

“It’s a rich, rich, rich history,” says Lisa Gold, executive director of WPA, currently located at the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Southwest Washington. Gold calls WPA — which annually hosts 70 free programs, reaches about 100,000 people through public art projects and ArtFile Online and has a budget of $650,000 — a beacon for contemporary artists.

Founded in 1975, WPA was part of a nationwide movement of alternative art spaces, and “anybody stopping through town had to stop through WPA,” Gold says. She calls it an alternative to institutional places on the Mall or museums that showed just Western European art.

It has showcased homelessness and AIDS; punk artists; a synchronized-swimming performance-art competition; emerging Washington painters; and an exhibition by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images dealing with same-sex and intimate themes were at the center of debates about public funding for the arts more than two decades ago.

At its 35th-anniversary celebration, Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum, called WPA “Washington’s most anti-establishment of institutions.”

“Nowhere else have the careers of emerging and innovational artists been recognized and documented with more enthusiasm,” he wrote.

Its new 1,500-square-foot space and long-term lease — the terms of which will keep WPA on V Street until at least 2022 and possibly longer — will facilitate ambitious exhibition planning. There will be dedicated space for artists and exhibitions that show national and international artists together.

The 2012 exhibition “The Ripple Effect, Currents of Socially Engaged Art” featured Virginia artist Mark Strandquist alongside his hero, alongside his hero, internationally renowned artist Pedro Reyes.

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