The stereotypical contemporary art gallery is a white cube. Just as white: The art on its walls. A recent analysis of 2012 Census Bureau data revealed that a disproportionate amount of working artists in America — 83 percent — are white. This isn’t due to lack of talent or interest, but rather, money: An art education is expensive. As Wonkblog’s Roberto Ferdman pointed out in a recent story, white households have a net worth 17.5 times that of black households. The high cost of art school may help explain why more than 80 percent of art students are white.
A new pop-up gallery is trying to change those statistics for Washington. Quota, a project of filmmaker Dawne Langford and photographer Avi Gupta, pledges to showcase the work of artists of color — especially those who aren’t primarily focused on identity or otherness, themes that are all too often associated with this demographic.
“Generally, when you see minority representation of artists, they’re in shows all together, and those shows seem to be about their identity, specifically,” Langford said. “So we want to get away from that. Even though we are showcasing artists of color, we want the subject matter to expand beyond just our reflection of how we are perceived in society.”
Langford and Gupta want their artists to have the freedom to explore any facet of culture, whether it pertains to race or not. Their gallery does not feature minority artists, but simply artists, full stop.
“We were looking for artists who were making good work,” Gupta says, “and who, at the same time, weren’t necessarily dealing with their own identity in a kind of trivial way, or a way that just helps push the norms of what culturally exists already.”
Featuring the work of nine artists, the inaugural exhibition is set in a raw, first-floor space in Petworth’s Murrell Building, where the crumbling walls will soon contain Slim’s Diner, a restaurant from entrepreneur Paul Ruppert (whose Crane and Turtle, Petworth Citizen and Upshur Street Books are nearby). The works examine diverse topics — some racial, some less so. Sculptor Nara Park’s stacks of plastic boxes, resembling stones, explore the tension between the natural and the man-made. Adrienne Gaither’s abstract paintings, part hieroglyph and part Tetris cube, utilize the visual language of typography. And in Mazin Abdelhameid’s photographic series “Cause of Death,” the artist juxtaposes Christian funerary statues with phrases related to American consumer culture. A statue of the Holy Family, for instance, stands before a label that reads “Value Family Pack.”
Still, the show doesn’t entirely ignore questions of identity. On opening night, performance artist Kunj Patel presented “Loaded” in the makeshift gallery’s Georgia Avenue storefront window. Wearing a workingman’s stiff white button-down shirt, the artist ate fistfuls of rice, which he said was a symbol of his Indian heritage: “Rice was grown by my ancestors, and I can just walk into a store and buy it, so it’s [about] accessibility and abundance of materials and almost relating to gentrification as well.” The window, he said, encouraged him to think about “people of color being on display.”
Although Patel says that his art transcends questions of identity, he acknowledges that the theme is inseparable from his work as a performance artist. “Obviously, I’m using myself in it, so there’s no escaping identity when you’re doing performance art,” he said. “It’s just the way that I figure things out.”
Beyond Quota’s focus on artists of color, Gupta said that the organization has a second, parallel goal. For the last few years, as District galleries have closed, he has lamented the fact that some of the remaining art venues in the city seem more focused on renting out their chic spaces for parties than on supporting artists.
“I don’t feel like an art show is necessarily something that I pose in front of for my Facebook photos,” Gupta says. Langford adds that those spaces — which smooth the path for neighborhood gentrification, often fostering inequality — can indirectly contribute to the art world’s diversity problem.
“It’s sort of paving the way for making neighborhoods seem more culturally viable and then commercializing those particular spaces,” she said. “Art should be not about making something more commercially viable.”
Through Nov. 28 at the Murrell Building,
4201 Georgia Ave. NW. www.quota-art.com.
On Nov. 24, the exhibition will be open to the public from 6 to 9 p.m.
Otherwise, viewings are by appointment. To schedule a viewing, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Free.