Creative convergence: Washington’s new gallery scene
By Lavanya Ramanathan and Stephanie Merry,
Sometimes a gallery is not just a gallery.
In the case of new art spaces around town, a gallery might also be a concert hall and clothing store, a pulsing dance floor or peaceful bookshop. Taking a recession-era tip from portfolio managers, the theme seems to be: diversify.
Unlike “pop-ups” — the newish term to describe ephemeral art events, shops and restaurants that briefly appear in vacant retail space — art spaces such as Lamont Bishop and the Dunes are staying put: Leases are signed, permits are secured. At these spaces, only the exhibitions are gone after a week or two, as well-connected entrepreneurs make room for the next art show, poetry event or concert, frequently organized with other artistic tastemakers, from blogs to would-be curators.
“It’s kind of a business signal to what’s happening in the artistic world,” says Sheldon Scott of ESL Management, which runs one such space, Montserrat House. “If there is to be any real sustainable creative community in D.C., we’re going to have to break down those walls in between media. Performance artists have to talk to musicians have to talk to visual artists have to talk to the writers.”
“The gallery system is still the tippy-top ideal in some ways,” adds D.C. Arts and Humanities commissioner Philippa Hughes, noting that a handful of conventional galleries have also opened in the past year. But Hughes, whose own first art events in Washington were the definition of pop-up parties, says she sees these art spaces — only one of which calls itself a gallery — as evidence of the broadening scene: Thanks to technology and social media, she says, the gatekeepers are transforming considerably, to include those with little formal art training but plenty of ambition. “We don’t have to wait for a gallery to anoint us anymore,” she says.
Here are four of these eclectic new art spaces and what you’ll see in coming months.
Washington’s coolest house party
2016 Ninth St. NW. www.montserrathouse.com
There’s something undeniably homey about Montserrat House. Maybe it’s the easy-to-miss facade or the exposed brick; it could be that the venue across from the 9:30 Club sits in what was once two rowhouses; or maybe it’s because when you order a drink at the cash-only bar — say a vodka and Sprite — the bartender looks through the bottles before responding, “How about vodka and ginger ale?”
It all seems to make sense as the latest venture from ESL Management (the brainchild of Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton), responsible for the popular any-night-of-the-week neighborhood spots Blackbyrd Warehouse and Marvin, among a growing list of others.
“Sometimes spaces are created and it’s like, ‘We need to get as many people as we can in here as quickly as we can’ and, you know, ‘bottom line, bottom line, bottom line,’ ” says ESL Management’s Sheldon Scott. “It becomes like any place in the world, and you don’t want to go there. You want to go to a place where the experience is unique, the people are unique and the energy and the vibe that you get is unique.”
If singularity is the goal, Montserrat is racking up the points. Since September, the locale has hosted the cast of the musical “Fela!” and offered a stage for folky London-based trio Peggy Sue. But Montserrat also focuses on local collaborations, teaming up with the recently shuttered Govinda Gallery and hosting Irvine Contemporary’s exhibition of photography by musician Moby. You might think of it as curatorial couch-surfing; it can be freeing to let someone else take hosting duties, according to Martin Irvine, who operated a gallery on 14th Street NW for eight years before closing up shop last August.
“It’ll allow me to focus on the artists, the art shows, doing creative events and being more entrepreneurial and taking more risks than you can if you have to make sure you’re making rent every month,” Irvine says.
And while Washington’s art venues, bars and restaurants often get branded based on the crowd they attract, Scott says the scene at Montserrat changes to reflect the name on the bill.
The chill crowd during the recent AM & Shawn Lee show was a far cry from the energetic festivities when the band from “Fela!” took the stage. The group took a break from the refined crowds and pristine setting of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall to pay a visit to Montserrat.
“The cast came in, and they were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Scott says. “It’s like this really raw space, and they were right at floor level with everybody, and people were right up in their face and into the show.”
In a word? “Epic,” which made Scott proud to call Washington home.
“Everybody all around was thoroughly pleased,” he says. “And it’s something that people in D.C. remember, and it’s something that the cast and crew can take back to New York or London or wherever they travel the show internationally and be like, ‘Nobody did it like they did it in D.C.’ ”
What to see: Trio Old Tapes performs the catchy songs from its new EP, “This Is Goodbye” (including a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”), on Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. Expect a dose of mellow, sweet vocals courtesy of Lisa Kribs over synth beats. $20.
Room with a view (of a higher cause)
1402 Meridian Pl. NW. 202-436-9118
Even in their spare time, Washingtonians have a tendency toward overachieving and multi-tasking. Exhibit A: Ora Nwabueze, the lawyer whose side project, the Dunes, showcases art, music and more.
Since opening in May, the airy third-story space, which touts massive windows overlooking the bright lights of 14th Street in Columbia Heights, has hosted a slew of events, from an interactive storytelling night to a Discovery Channel-themed photo exhibition to a panel discussion with local art fixtures. What makes these gatherings unique is where the proceeds have gone — Horton’s Kids, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and local artsy literary magazine the Folly.
“The Dunes is all about giving back to the community, so roughly half of our events are nonprofit fundraisers,” says managing director Deidree Bennett.
And maybe that explains, in part, why the events have been so well attended.
“There are so many driven people in D.C. who are trying to make the world better,” Bennett says. “And so we seek to do it in every spare moment we have.”
Of course, for all the good they do, the soirees are still meant to be nights to kick back and an opportunity to get a bit of culture while taking advantage of the gallery’s liquor license.
“We want everything all in one place when it comes to entertainment,” Bennett says of Washingtonians. “We don’t want to just see music. We want to have our cocktail at the same time, and we want to talk to our friends and catch up. We’re very efficient.”
The Dunes has played host to a number of collectives, from the storytellers of SpeakeasyDC to local fashion designers and boutique owners, and the crowd has fluctuated accordingly. The only major commonality Bennett has noticed, aside from a preponderance of young professionals, is an appetite for novel experiences.
“Not everyone’s a hipster; not everyone’s a lawyer,” she says. “There are a lot of different cultures coming through, people from all walks of life, but what everyone has in common is just this passion to experience the world and suck up every minute of life.”
What to see: While the monthly Art Crimes exhibition will focus on local artists, the current exhibition features two French artists, sculptor Ferama Wobken, who specializes in the lost wax method, and Antoine Josse, whose paintings bear the influence of Alberto Giacometti’s stylized figures. Through Dec. 7. Free.
The gateway gallery
Lamont Bishop Gallery
1314 Ninth St. NW. www.lamontbishop.com .
If this new wave of art spaces is providing a venue for young talent on the gallery walls, one certainly can’t ignore the talent blossoming in the back office.
Erwin John and Stevenson Dunn, the owners of Lamont Bishop Gallery, are just that sort of up-and-comers — 20-somethings who hail from Brooklyn and, while looking to open a lounge or bar in Washington, ended up with an art space and a growing passion for art.
“The art world seems like this high-on-the-hog, turn-up-your-nose world where you have to speak the lingo and look the look in order to legitimately be a part of it,” says Dunn. He goes on to explain why the pair, who have no art background, fell into the gallery scene. “There’s a whole group of people out there who appreciate art. . . . That’s our perspective: We’re young, professional, coming of age, but we didn’t grow up learning about art acquisition.”
Finding ways to show art accessibly has become their forte. For the opening of “Document the Fresh” earlier this month, Lamont Bishop was decked out with framed images of the likes of Amy Winehouse, Matt and Kim, and Usher by budding photographer Vickey Ford. In the back room lay an edgier offering: a multi-photo installation by artist Dafna Steinberg, whose snapshots, arranged salon-style without frames, chronicled backstage scenes, the summer rooftop parties at the Beacon Hotel and a virtual series on the myriad ways in which to rock a rope chain. It’s a whir of color, a chronicle of street life — and the most divisive work of the night.
“It looks like someone’s bedroom wall,” one naysayer noted. It also happened to look a little like the willfully haphazard installations of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans at the Hirshhorn Museum.
But here’s what’s important, say Dunn and Gerald Watson, the curator of “Document the Fresh”: The crowd was fresh, packed with young urbanites rocking proud ’fros, shaggy fur vests and artfully wrapped scarves, swaying a little as the DJ spun A Tribe Called Quest, Black Star, Biggie. And they were talking about art.
Since opening in March, the swanky Ninth Street space — decorated with a chandelier and other vintage touches, including a DJ booth crafted from an old fireplace mantle — has been the spot for an eclectic mix of events such as a pop-up boutique with Readyset DC and a painting event with ArtJamz and, in the spring, will host a Polaroid retrospective exhibition.
“It’s not all about art sales,” says John. “We display a lot of emerging artists. It’s about exposing the artists.”
What to see: “Flyy on the Wall,” an exhibition and pop-up fashion shop with streetwear from the label Original David, opening Dec. 10 from 7 to 10 p.m.
The pop factory
Pleasant Plains Workshop
2608 Georgia Ave. NW.
Printmaker Kristina Bilonick was looking for a new apartment and studio last year, not necessarily a quirky business venture, when she stumbled upon the perfect space near Howard University. It had just one interesting, um, architectural feature: a glass storefront.
The “apartment” was actually a store.
A true creative, Bilonick — who was among the finalists for The Post’s Real Art D.C. competition last fall — embraced the challenge, devising a way to live, work and even use that storefront to her advantage.
The narrow 450-square-foot nook known as Pleasant Plains Workshop opened in November 2010 and hosts a mix of exhibitions and events as cheerfully eclectic as Bilonick herself: The last exhibition featured neon, studded fabric-based pieces by artist Steven Frost, a friend; her studio mate, Anthony Dihle, another well-known local artist, helped organize a show of artists who hailed from the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design. Bilonick’s only rule: The artist won’t show her own work at Pleasant Plains. (“The place,” she explains, “would seem like a vanity hour.”) There are also artist critiques, for which she teams up with the Web journal the Studio Visit; a rack of vintage clothing that she’ll regularly restock; a handful of her hand-printed neckties; and open shelving displaying books and several indie zines, handmade notecards by a neighborhood artist and other crafty bijoux for sale. In this economy, Bilonick says, “I didn’t want to commit to it being a gallery or a store.” And, she points out, the clothes and books “give people an entry point to come in. There’s not so much pressure to look at the art and understand it, if that’s not your bag.”
“It’s not an anti-gallery model,” Bilonick says. “It’s a gallery model with an insurance policy.”
What to see: “Present Day,” an artistic holiday gift shop featuring locally made works priced between $5 and $100; the show runs Friday-Dec.21, with an opening reception and shopping event Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m.