'Who doesn't want a conversation with what's beautiful?'

Take a virtual tour of the Washington area's vibrant gallery scene.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011

Here's a paradox for you. It's a lousy time to be running an art gallery, what with the economy still limping back from a bruising recession. Why pay good money for something you can't eat, wear or live in? On the other hand, it's quite possible that there's never been a time when we needed art more than we do now, for its power to uplift, inspire and challenge the status quo.

Vast swaths of you, however, have yet to discover the joys of the area's gallery scene (which may explain why it's such a lousy time to be running an art gallery). Sure, you've been to each of our world-class museums at one time or another -- who hasn't? -- but have you ever ventured into one of the places where today's artists try out ideas and give shape to images that might grace museum walls tomorrow?

Art galleries are laboratories where artists can take chances.

And that's a scary thing. Not just for the artist, but for the viewer. Unlike a museum, there's no docent, no wall text, no art history book to tell you what's good or bad, what it all means, why it's so expensive or what it's made of.

That's scary, yes, but it can also be thrilling, as with anything that's brand new. That's why art openings (at least the good ones) are so often jammed. To be sure, there's strength in numbers, and looking at something unfamiliar -- and something very possibly perplexing -- is less intimidating in a crowd. But there's also a rush that comes from being among the first to experience something that's never been seen before.

We'll make the adventure easy for you. Here's a list of eight area galleries to get your feet wet, along with dates of upcoming opening receptions. Think of them as parties that you're encouraged to crash. And with an open bar. Most gallery receptions offer free wine or beer, along with light snacks. (On rare occasion, there's a modest suggested donation.) The best way to get notified of future exhibitions is to sign the mailing list when you walk in the door. And don't worry. There's no obligation. No salesman will call.

Each of the places we've picked -- a mix of nonprofits and commercial spaces -- has something to recommend it: longevity, daring, verve, smarts, commitment, pluck, sheer beauty of the space, or proximity to other galleries. In each case, we've included a suggestion of another gallery stop in the same neighborhood, so you can compare and contrast.

Why bother? That's the easy part. For the same reason you read books, watch movies, go to plays and listen to music. As one gallery owner we talked to said, "Who doesn't want a conversation with what's beautiful?"

Addison/Ripley Fine Art

1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-338-5180

www.addisonripleyfineart.com If any art dealership deserves the term "venerable," it's this one. In business since 1981, the space - half frame shop, half gallery - takes its name from Christopher Addison and his wife, Sylvia Ripley, whose decisions about what to show, Addison says, are still guided primarily by "what engages us."

What engages them runs the gamut from the emerging to the established. In recent years, that includes everything from the work of longtime D.C. painter Manon Cleary, whose pictures range from sublime skyscapes to portraits of her pet rats, to the work of Amy Lin, a young artist known for abstractions of dots and swooping slashes in colored pencil. It's an approach that entails some risks: Photographer Frank Hallam Day's recent show of eerie nighttime photographs of RVs was a critical success but a commercial bust.

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