'Pop-up' gallery shows aim to sell condos as well as art

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, January 15, 2010

A Cinderella-like transformation of condos into art galleries -- one night only! three weeks only! -- has been going on in Washington's Shaw neighborhood for the better part of the economic downturn. Artists and developers link arms to throw art shows in unsold, high-design 2BR/2BAs along U Street and up 14th.

These pop-up galleries-in-a-condo are such a phenomenon that a new crop of impresarios has emerged to connect the creatives with the capitalists. Some are DIY veterans who aren't in it for the bucks. They might get a little cash, but the bulk of their rewards are notoriety and the satisfaction that their artist friends can pay the rent. Others hail from art consultancy backgrounds and are tweaking their businesses to serve developers.

Newest among these on-call middlemen is Wool, a roving gallery business that debuted on a chilly Thursday last month. It's a collaboration between Billy Colbert and Ryan Hackett, both artists and veteran DIYers. Hackett was a founding member of erstwhile collective Decatur Blue; Colbert has organized a host of artist-run events in the District and Baltimore.

Hackett likens Wool to Temporary Services or No Longer Empty, organizations in Chicago and New York, respectively, that fill fallow, mostly developer-owned spaces with art. The pair embrace the freedom from gallery overheads.

"We were not interested in money, only in throwing a show," Hackett says.

On the December night of Wool's debut, Colbert and Hackett invited the city's grooviest to the Lacey, a 26-unit condominium at 11th Street and Florida Avenue NW for an event they called "Bauble."

Guests milled near the Fisher & Paykel stainless fridge in Unit 101 (a 2BR/2BA w/den going for $759,000) and chatted over backbeats pumped from a DJ stationed downstairs. One couple -- she in a Moncler puffy jacket, he in skinny jeans -- attempted a makeshift dance floor. Next door in Unit 102, real estate agent Debi Fox held court among Saarinen knock-offs.

Along the wall (and on pedestals), works by some of Washington's more interesting young artists were installed with all the professionalism of a gallery. Among the artists: Cory Oberndorfer, Kathryn Cornelius and former D.C. artist Jose Ruiz. Each work was priced to sell at $250.

Was "Bauble" an art show or a dance party or an open house? Yes, yes and yes.

Yet for art partisans, it was a strange night. Yes, "Bauble" was one of the best exhibitions of this kind. The art looked good, artists made money and a charity benefited. (Wool designated that $100 from each sale go to Project Create, which offers free art programs for at-risk children. Disclosure: I sit on the board.) But the focus that night was condos.

Though the building's developers deny that the event helped sell Unit 102 (currently under contract), the buzz about the Lacey and its art were clearly part of a larger business plan.

Similar art events are the specialty of the Art Registry, a six-year-old consultancy that specializes in the "excitement of the art world transported to unique marquis properties," its Web site says. The registry recently worked with Ernst Development and Willco Residential.

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