Some say our nation’s capital has a split identity. There’s the iconic Washington: buzzing with politicians, studded with stone and bronze monuments, filled with sprawling museums. And there’s the homier District of Columbia: birthplace of go-go, the Washington Color School, the half-smoke (debatably), Black Broadway — a place once known as Chocolate City for its predominantly Black population. Between them, there can be a disconnect.
But the Phillips Collection exhibition “Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop” stitches these two realms together. Here, the local feels as significant as the national, and that’s to Stovall’s credit. As the co-founder of a short-lived but influential studio and exhibition space known as the Dupont Center — set up in 1969 by Stovall and curator Walter Hopps — the longtime printmaker and now six-decade District resident made what you might call a people’s history of D.C. in graphic art.
Stovall’s lively, borderline-abstract posters — many created with D.C. jazz musician and visual artist Lloyd McNeill — feature prominently in the show, and give arts and activism events, big and small, the same distinctive aesthetic flair. On one poster, a blocky, blue figure that appears as improvised as a jazz solo invites viewers to performances by Miles Davis at the now-defunct Bohemian Caverns. On another, loosely connected shapes suggest swaying hands and bobbing heads, promoting the Black Arts Festival, featuring D.C. soul group the Unifics and D.C. painter Alma Thomas. A flurry of elongated red and blue rectangles conjure a rush of bodies on a sign for an anti-Vietnam protest made for the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
As museums around the country wrestle with how to make their spaces more equitable and accessible to their communities, this show, curated by Stovall’s son, artist and writer Will Stovall, offers a model. Bringing together works made by artists at the workshop and collected by the elder Stovall between 1969 and 1973, along with Stovall’s community posters from 1967 and 1968, the exhibition paints a multifaceted portrait of D.C.: its Black community, its activism, its rich arts scene. After visiting, you step out into the narrow streets of Dupont Circle, just a few blocks from where the center was located, with a heightened sense of history around you.
The Stovall show makes bigger strides than just bringing to life the city’s past. In spotlighting Stovall, it challenges our sense of what kind of artistic labor is considered noteworthy and what kinds of artists are written into history. All too often, we learn about art through the myth of the singular star, the isolated genius. It’s easy to forget how many hands it can take to make a work of art. While striking natural landscapes in the show make clear that Stovall was an artist in the conventional sense — he called drawing his “high skill” — it is Stovall’s role as community organizer, printmaker and collaborator that really comes to the fore.
Stovall was often behind the scenes, functioning as the connective tissue of an outwardly burgeoning art scene. At the Dupont Center, he made prints for such Washington Color School artists as Gene Davis and Thomas Downing, showing them how their abstract images could take on new life in a fresh medium. He printed photographs for William Christenberry. He crafted stretchers for Sam Gilliam’s beveled-edge paintings and collaborated with the abstract painter on almost two dozen works. Under Stovall’s leadership, the Dupont Center fostered artistic talent, but not just the kind fit for a museum. The center offered classes to elementary school students, military personnel on leave from Virginia’s Fort Belvoir and other members of the public.
On the one hand, the show can feel like stepping back in time. Posters crying out for peace and love give it a decidedly 1960s tone. One image announces D.C.’s first bike lanes (with the slogan “Bikes Have Equal Rights”), while another advocates for Charles Cassell’s campaign in D.C.’s first school board election. A 1972 poster showing a jet-black figure with loud orange hair celebrates singer Roberta Flack, on the occasion of D.C.’s first Human Kindness Day.
On the other hand, there’s a way in which the contents of the exhibition feel oddly contemporary. Prints reflect the nation railing against a violent war overseas, the District fighting for political rights, Washingtonians reeling from violent riots, and Black-centric spaces flourishing on the heels of the civil rights movement.
Perhaps that’s why the founding principles of the Dupont Center sound so similar to what museum advocates are calling for today. “What is needed now is something else, something different and more active than the ponderous, national museum,” Hopps wrote when he was dreaming up the institution, which evolved from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, over 50 years ago. “What is needed is a new sort of local institution, an institution that not only serves the local art audience but vigorously expands it.”
Making art accessible in a city where most artworks hang in grand buildings is no small task. But from his own painterly silk-screen prints to his collaborations at the Dupont Center, it’s evident that Stovall has a knack for giving art the human touch.
If you go
Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 9.
Admission: Included with general admission of $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, children 18 and under, and military personnel. Masks and timed-entry tickets required.