Storefront exhibits offer artists a different kind of exposure

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, January 1, 2010

In Brooklyn and London, they're called pop-up galleries. Temporary art exhibitions brokered by artists promising to fill fallow commercial property, these events purport to benefit all: Artists get exposure, developers get good PR.

Here in Washington, storefront exhibitions in for-lease spaces have been happening, on and off, for years -- remember the "Peeps" windows? It's just that nowadays there's a whole lot more free space and projects are popping up all over.

Two current downtown D.C. exhibitions involve developers, a business improvement district and local government -- entities invested in keeping up appearances and preventing the economic downturn from sullying the urban landscape. The upside of both projects is that they're visible from the street and require no staff -- theoretically you can visit them right now. (Downside: It's cold out there.)

Multiple-artist efforts

"Construct" is a joint effort of the NoMa Business Improvement District (yes, that's NoMa -- as in "North of Massachusetts Avenue," just behind Union Station) and the Cultural Development Corporation (the people who bring us Penn Quarter's Flashpoint gallery). For "Construct," CuDC program manager Karyn Miller picked five artists to install work in the ground-floor storefronts on and around the neighborhood's main artery, First Street NE, where a decrepit bus station sits alongside a handful of shiny glass buildings awaiting tenants.

The second project, "Windows Into D.C.," is a 14-artist effort in the vacant storefronts and vitrines of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Convention Center officials tapped D.C.'s Commission on the Arts & Humanities to stock the fallow space with artists from its database. The artists made site-specific murals or displayed existing work in lighted vitrines along M Street NW.

Cellphone audio tours accompany both projects. For "Construct," each artist discusses the works on view; for "Windows," a narrator reads prepared statements about each artist's career.

We know that such exhibits are good for developers. According to NoMa BID President Liz Price, "Construct" was inspired in part by the success of the 2008 edition of Artomatic, the massive art free-for-all held inside a building at 1200 First St. NE.

John Gordon, president of Polinger Development, one of the firms making up the partnership that owns the First Street building, considered Artomatic a public relations coup: "Artomatic gave us a lot of name recognition later, when we were discussing the building with prospective tenants," he says.

Such projects may lend art-world cachet to vacant properties, but are they good for art?

Let's be honest: These works are hard to see. At "Construct," glare off of plate-glass windows makes viewing difficult during daylight hours. The buildings' expansive, undifferentiated ground-floor spaces dwarf artworks installed inside. And who wants to see a canvas leaning up against a window?

Ask the artists, though, and they'll say they don't mind. How could they? They get paid (albeit little) and hope that people see their work.

Exposure, not money

For "Construct," with a budget of just under $30,000, each artist got paid $500. But Anthony Cervino, whose two oversize birdhouse sculptures stand in 1100 First St. NE, appreciates the project's intangibles -- such as face time with developers he hopes he'll work with again. "I had the opportunity to meet some of the generous lenders of the installation sites and underscore the importance of D.C.'s cultural foundation to them directly," he says.

But, really now, where's the art?

Juan Tejedor's found-object sculpture in 1200 First St. NE looks like a visual pun: Made from a found chair and a whole lot of construction materials -- electrical wire, blue tape, lumber, mason's twine, plastic tubing, plexiglass -- the work is nearly indistinguishable from the construction detritus around it. And on South Capitol Street, where artists Billy Friebele and Michael Dax Iacovone have installed video monitors documenting a walk through the neighborhood, pedestrians speed by, seemingly unaware of the art behind the building's smoked-glass windows.

Iacovone, for one, isn't bothered: "I don't expect everybody to notice," he says. "The piece is kind of about that. It's about passing through space, and things that go unnoticed."

Friebele likes that "Construct" divorces him from gallery rules, even if that means losing a gallery's built-in audience. "There is an interesting movement occurring where artists are interested in having their work not so reliant on the gallery," he says. "We are used to seeing art on the Mall or on 14th Street in Northwest, but to bring art to Northeast for free is an exciting prospect."

"We should stuff art into every open corner, alley and empty office," Iacovone adds.

Of the five "Construct" artists, only Iacovone also participates in "Windows Into D.C." For "Windows," artists who created site-specific murals were paid $1,375 each. Artists who installed preexisting work in lighted vitrines got around $500 a pop.

Cory Oberndorfer, who painted an abstract image of the Convention Center Metro station for "Windows Into D.C.," views the project as a way to add life to too-long-vacant spaces: "This is a great opportunity to put a positive spin on hard times," he says.

Construct: Spaces Transformed

is at four locations between H and M streets in Northeast Washington. Audio tour: 202-292-1385. Map of sites at The works remain on view through Tuesday.

Windows Into D.C.

is on view in the windows of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, N and M streets NW, between Seventh and Ninth streets, through the end of March. Cellphone tour: 202-292-2565.

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