New art gallery opens in Irvine Contemporary space

Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST - Lauren Gentile, director of Contemporary Wing, poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. Artwork by Oliver Vernon seen in the background is displayed in the alleyway behind the gallery.

In the past three years, three galleries on 14th Street NW have shut their doors — but next month, a new exhibition space will open. Lauren Gentile, former director of the now-shuttered Irvine Contemporary, is opening a new art gallery, Contemporary Wing, with a focus on emerging artists and synergy with local museums.

Contemporary Wing will open at a time in which outside interest in the D.C. art scene is growing despite the high rents that have made it difficult for some galleries to make ends meet.

“You can see it in the art press — things are changing. People are starting to take notice of Washington,” she said. “I think if it’s going to happen, it will happen now, and I want to be a part of it.”

As for the location of the new gallery, it’s one that Gentile knows intimately: 1412 14th St. NW, the former location of Irvine Contemporary, where she worked for six years under Martin Irvine. Interior designer Lori Graham has taken over the space and will be sharing the basement and first floor with Contemporary Wing. Graham is giving the space a dramatic renovation that will add a basement floor to the gallery, giving Gentile more space to devote to the artists she hopes will put Washington on the map. Irvine views the transition as a passing of the torch.

“It’s great that there will be a high-end design and gallery business on 14th Street,” said Irvine, who has given Gentile his support. “It was likely that all art-related businesses were going to be priced out” of the area.

Irvine moved into the space, which earlier had housed the Fusebox gallery, nearly six years ago from a gallery space on Connecticut Avenue. Logan Circle became a core for galleries until the economy and rising rents forced some of them to close or find new space. The Randall Scott Gallery closed in 2009 to move briefly to New York and return, online-only, to the area; G Fine Art relocated that same year to Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington.

After trying to renegotiate his lease in the spring, Irvine said he decided not to renew. He will continue to curate exhibitions, such as an upcoming photo show by musician Moby, at the Montserrat House exhibit space near Ninth and U streets NW. He is not seeking another space for his gallery.

“It wasn’t only about that building, but our time in life, in feeling like it was time to transition,” he said.

Irvine teaches in the Communication, Culture & Technology program at Georgetown University and will dedicate more time to two books he is writing: The first will be an examination of contemporary art media, the second about his inside take on the art industry.

Irvine credits fortuitous timing to Gentile’s ability to preserve the space’s function as a gallery. Once he knew he’d be letting go of the space, he talked to Graham, a friend and art collector, about its availability. When Irvine Contemporary closed its doors Aug. 30, after two farewell exhibitions, Gentile was prepared to move to New York. She said she was persuaded to stay by Graham and D.C. art community members, who told her to take the risk of starting a gallery in a bad economy.

“I am constantly selling art to keep this funded . . . I do not have a backer,” Gentile said. “I feel like I’m my own jobs bill. I’ve put people back into work. When a gallery closes, artists lose their source of revenue . . . we’re pumping money back into the arts community.”

Gentile’s plans for the gallery’s debut include “Ivory Tower,” a video exhibition at Art Basel Miami Dec. 1-4, to get the word — and images — about the D.C. art scene to art collectors from across the country and the world. After that, she aims to bring big-name artists to Washington and to raise the profile of emerging artists, just as September’s (e)merge art fair hoped to do.

“One thing we’re going to be working on is the synergy between the galleries and the museums,” Gentile said. “We’re going to do a lot of response shows to museum exhibitions [but featuring] emerging artists.” The first will come in February, in response to the Corcoran’s current exhibition, “30 Americans.” Gentile wrote to artists in “30 Americans” and asked them to name an up-and-coming artist they admire, and she plans to exhibit their choices in the show.

She also hopes to make her shows more interactive than traditional gallery displays with the help of exhibition designer Veronica Jackson.

“We may do some more interpretive labeling to showcase the content a little more than just the standard label of artists’ names. There will be more storytelling in it,” said Jackson. Adding QR codes for smartphones to the labels is one of the ideas she and Gentile are toying with.

Gentile will move into her new gallery once construction is completed in November, with a soft opening scheduled for that month. She plans to show works by gallery-represented artists until the opening of “Next Generation” in 2012.

“We’re trying to create experiences,” she said of her upcoming Basel debut with “Ivory Tower.” “I want some guy from Brussels to be, like, ‘What’s going on in Washington? I want to go there.’ It’s to build as much buzz around Washington, to make it the go-to place around emerging art.”

 
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