At the Hamiltonian, a Treasury for Artists

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2008

Washington artists, who's your daddy?

If you're an artist without a gallery, your benefactor could be a self-effacing and bespectacled man named Paul So.

When the 41-year-old So accepts you into his arts incubator program, you become a Hamiltonian Artist. You'll receive $2,000 annually and the guarantee of one exhibition per year. So will keep you for two years, at which point you will be ejected from the nest whether you've secured gallery representation or not.

So is a tough-love kind of daddy.

The nonprofit Hamiltonian fellowship program (named after a printing company that once operated out of the U Street NW building that now houses the nonprofit and its exhibition space, Hamiltonian Gallery) announced its first 10 fellows earlier this year. Early in 2009, the organization will name 10 more. The gallery will carry a 20-fellow maximum at any given time. (Artists rotate out if they find a gallery during their tenure.)

Hamiltonian Artists install their exhibitions in the building's handsome 2,000-square-foot first-floor storefront adjacent to a liquor store and the Republic Gardens nightclub. The gallery's inaugural show features a trio of artists and hangs until Nov. 2.

Though a for-profit enterprise, Hamiltonian Gallery comes armed with a budget geared toward taking losses. So built four years of red ink into his spending plan because he was intent on buffering the space from financial ups and downs.

Nevertheless, So recognizes the imperative that his artists sell.

To succeed, he says, fellows "have to be seen as viable commercial artists." The Hamiltonian goal is to develop their artists' marketing savvy.

An emphasis on artists as capitalist entities has been the going template for the art world for some time. Of late, an MFA has been seen as an artist's most vital imprimatur. But even advanced degrees don't always prepare graduates to sell themselves.

"We're a steppingstone," says Hamiltonian Gallery Director Jacqueline Ionita, herself a recent graduate of the Corcoran's painting department. "We want our artists to move on."

This pragmatic approach includes a lecture series aimed at schooling fellows in the business side of their practice. So modeled the program on the postdoctoral fellowship he enjoyed while working on his PhD in physics. (A sometime painter, So has been a physics professor at George Mason University for more than a decade.)

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