Alice Denney, who founded the Washington Project for the Arts in 1975 and continues to be a regal fixture in D.C.’s art scene, was in attendance.
“There were two galleries when I started in 1957,” she said, peering out at the gallery through round, red-tinted glasses. “I couldn’t sell a Warhol, I couldn’t sell a Jasper Johns. ... There was no audience.”
That number has since skyrocketed. Leigh Conner, the gallery’s owner and co-founder with Jamie Smith, estimates an all-encompassing tally of contemporary art galleries in the D.C. region would be over 75 , from DIY spaces to commercial fine art exhibits to nonprofit shows.
As for the audience, all the chairs at CCA were full well before the panel began. Women holding Longchamp bags stood next to girls with tattoos for sleeves; men wearing Clark Kent glasses sat alongside people with peroxide extensions and glittery faces who looked like they’d gotten lost en route to a Lady Gaga concert.
New York City has the Armory Show. Art Basel Miami Beach is an institution. The Pulse Contemporary Art Fair is an annual event in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Art Chicago just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Artists from around the world participate in these shows where a single piece of artwork can cost up to a million dollars.
Washington’s attempts at a fair on this scale have been less than successful. ArtDC, 2007’s effort, is often prefaced by the modifier “ill-fated.”
“D.C. has always been perceived as an art and culture center,” said Smith, Conner Contemporary’s co-founder. “But not for contemporary art.”
Together with Helen Allen, the former executive director of the Pulse Contemporary Art Fair and founder of Pulse in New York and Miami, Smith and Conner founded (e)merge in October 2010. The fair will showcase the work of both nonprofits and galleries from around the world along with pieces by unrepresented artists. The plan is to make (e)merge an annual event — discussions about year No. 2 are underway — and, as Conner put it, “a place for discovery.” At the Conner Contemporary booth, the price range will be from about $1,000 to $6,000.
“D.C. is not all about politics,” said Conner. “D.C. is hungry, culturally.”
Conner and Smith first met Mera and Don Rubell, the Miami-based art collectors whose family owns the Capitol Skyline Hotel, in 2002. As the Rubells became more involved in the D.C. art community, Conner, Smith and Allen came up with the idea for (e)merge.
“We brought the idea to Mera and Don,” said Conner. “They were like, “Oh wow! Give us two seconds to think about — yes!”
“(e)merge is a very, very exciting happening,” Mera Rubell said. “It’s going to show the kind of vitality a living, working artist is experiencing in Washington.