Two major focal points for art gallery activity exist currently in Washington: the P Street Strip, with adjoining Dupont Circle establishments, and the more scattered scene in Georgetown.
This week, with the opening of the born-again Studio Gallery in the historic Le Droti Building, 802 F St. NW., opposite the National Portrait Gallery, the possibility of a whole new downtown art scene has suddenly snapped into focus.
The Studio Gallery, Washington's first and longest-running artists' cooperative, closed its doors on P Street last June because of what they called "excessively high rents." "We now pay less than half the rent," says co-op president Val Lewton, who also is chief designer for the National Collection of Fine Arst, also just across the pedestrian plaza that Studio Gallery overlooks. The small, light-filled space will be shared by the bi-monthly publication, Washington Review of the Arts.
Arts-related activity is not new to this building nor to the F Street area. The Mickelsons opened their frame shop around the block at 709 G St. way back in 1928, adding a gallery in the mid-'50s.
More importantly, for the past 40 years the 100-year-old Italian-revival style Le Droit Building at 8th and F - along with the Atlas Buidling around the corner on 9th Street, and another tall structure across from Ford's Theater on 10th Street - have provided high-ceilinged, low-rent studio space for dozens of Washington artists, including Jacob Kainen, Gene Davis, Frank Wright, William Woodward, Ken Young, John Clemente Sirica and Shiela Isham.
In 1968 the opening of both the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery, followed in 1973 by the Martin Luther King Library, guranteed the area a permanent cultural identity. In 1975 the Washington Project for the Arts enlivened the nearby 1227 G St. block as did the Museum of Temporary Art across from WPA, with more artist studios upstairs. Last season the photography gallery "Intuitiveye" extended the area by a few blocks when it moved to 641 Indiana Ave. NW., next door to an arts and crafts shop called "Artifactory."
The latest spurt of arts activity began three months ago, with the opening of a combined health-food restuarant-bar, new-music showplace, and art gallery called "District Creative Space" on the corner of 7th and E. Featuring a big poster of Joseph Beuys, sweetheart of the German avant-garde, the restaurant walls also are covered with conceptual art by Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson and Bruce Nauman, and way-out Avalanche magazine replaces the customary free coffeehouse newspaper. D.C. Space is surely the closest thing Washington has ever had to an artists' bar.
It really is an artists' bar, owned by sculptor Jim Schaeufele, painter Bill Warell and restauranteur Byron Washington who are well acquainted with the artists they show, many of whom they met while studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which, believe it or not, was a hotbed of conceptual art in 1970. Upstairs, in their loft space used chiefly for live performances of new music, art shows will be mounted and artists will be invited to speak. Narrative artist John Ferni is currently on view, as are a small selection of artists' books from "Printed Matter," a New York shop specializing in works of art in the large-edition, inexpensive book format.
Now, with the opening of Studio Gallery, though not a monumental event in itself, the whole F Street art scene seems to have reached critical mass.
And if a bit of crystal-ball-gazing may be permitted on the occasion of the New Year, it seems altogether likely that, on a not too distant future Saturday afternoon, one might find the area filled with throngs of art lovers trudging happily from one artist's studio to another on "Open Studio Day," watching people like Frank Wright hard at work etching a plate. And after taking in a few museum and gallery shows nearby, they might head for D.C. Space to relax over a cup of "Morning Thunder" and spinach salad while waiting for the music to begin in the upstairs loft. (Tonight at 8 and 10 Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell will be featured.) In a crystal ball, at least, the whole scene takes on some of the grubby exhilaration of a Saturday afternoon in Soho.
The most amazing part of this fantasy is that it is very likely to happen. For once, the wrecker's ball is not poised; au contraire, the city, in the form of the Municipal Planning Office, is firmly behind such development. "We can't take credit for it," says special projects chief John Fondersmith, "it's been a spontaneous thing growing out of the tremendous interest in the arts and the fact that this such good, low-cost space for making and showing art. This is the kind of 'use' phenomemon you like to see happening. It's our role to push it."
The bad news, however, is that though the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan provides for the preservation and recycling of the Le Droit Building and the whole block between it and the Atlas building around the corner - all of which have "landmark" designation - "it is not likely to happen soon, and there is no guarantee that it will ultimately be used for artists' space unless a financially viable plan can be found," says Leland Allen, director of design for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.
The current plan for development of "Square 406" as the LeDroit block is called, states only that the facades of the existing buildings must be preserved, and that "retail structures" will be built in the empty space behind the Le Droit Building, now being used as a massive parking lot.
But according to both Fondersmith and Allen, Washington artist Sam Herman has taken up the cause and has been pushing for a proposal to develop both the existing structures and new construction on "Square 406" into a complex of studios, graphics and photographic workshops, and maybe even lowcost living space for artists, all combined with galleries and art-related shops on the ground floor which might make the whole project financially feasible - in short, a mid-town Nirvana for artists.
Herman, who has an office and studio in the Le Droit Building, has subsequently formed a non-profit corporation called Washington Center for the Visual Arts, which seeks to find funds to study and carry his proposals for "Square 406" forward.
Short of that, however, the area has already picked up enough momentum to keep it going in the right direction, and it is likely that other galleries will follow Studio's lead and refurbish space within Le Droit until such time as the big change takes place - probably some years from now.
Other developments, too, point to the inevitable growth of the cultural flavor of this area. The small but fine building next door to the Le Droit Building, now the Federal Tariff Building, is being eyed greedily - and understandably - by Smithsonian officials for a new museum. And not far away, in the Pension Building, there is the very live possibility that a Museum of the Building Arts will be established.
Meanwhile, Washington Art Fair promoter Eli Felluss is squarely behind efforts to get a Convention Center built downtown so that he won't have to move the fair to Texas for lack of decent space here. Should that dream come true, there could well be a whole art scene ready and waiting to surround the thousands who come to the fair.
It should be said that the new incarnation of Studio Gallery has opened, not with a show of its own group of artists, (now reduced to 14 from last year's two dozen), but rather with the annual show of the Society of Washington Printmakers, reflecting the gallery's interest with interspersing outside exhibitions with one-person shows by gallery members. Only one Studio member - Ralph Logan - is represented in the show, with an elegant abstract silkscreen.
The show is not one of the society's best, but it serves to remind us how many good printmkaers there are at work in this city. There are new works by well-known artists Werner Drewes, Deborah Ellis, Aline Fruhauf, Marjorie Hirano, Tadeusz Lapinski, Jonathan Meader, Herbert Sanborn, Prentiss Taylor, Isabella Walker and Noche Crist, who is concurrently showing large sculptural assemblages at Gallery 10 along with paintings on paper by Sharron Antholt.
Ferol Warthen, Barbara Davis Kerne and Liliana Gramberg head the list of impressive newcomers.