The Washington Post

D.C. Fringe Festival finds its new home in Connersmith gallery

Julianne Brienza is the founder of Capital Fringe. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Capital Fringe, the rowdy summertime performance festival that has been headquartered a block from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center since 2008, has signed a contract to purchase the building owned and operated by Connersmith, the contemporary art gallery at 1358 Florida Ave. NE.

Fringe’s rented base in the New York Avenue block between Sixth and Seventh streets NW has long been targeted for redevelopment. For several years, Fringe has been seeking a new central site for its multi-venue operation, anchored by the annual three-week Capital Fringe Festival. This deal seems to have cemented quickly since a Fringe visit to Connersmith a few months ago.

“Honestly, when they walked into the building, it wasn’t for sale,” says Leigh Conner, who co-owns the gallery with Jamie Smith.

“The space is perfect,” says Fringe founder and president Julianne Brienza.

Fringe, now in its ninth year, put down a nonrefundable $350,000 deposit on Friday, thanks to a gift covering the amount. A payment of $1.65 million is due Oct. 1, with the remainder of the undisclosed purchase price due by September 2017. The entire project is forecast to cost $9.2 million, including purchase price, new construction costs and an operating reserve.

A major Fringe calling card has been carving performance venues out of small, rough spaces — storefronts and found rooms in and around the large (and largely derelict) building at 607 New York Ave. NW. To accommodate its 100-plus acts each July, Fringe has partnered with conventional companies such as Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth and Source, as well as with nearby local organizations such as the Goethe Institut, the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church and art galleries.

Most of that will change next year with the shift to Florida Avenue, a block north of the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H St. NE.

Connersmith bought its two-story 1927 building, formerly an auto garage, for $1.4 million in 2007. It is among the largest private galleries in the city and one of the most highly regarded.

“Conner deserves its reputation as Washington’s best (or at least most popular) contemporary art space,” critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post in 2011.

Conner and Smith will seek a smaller space in Washington and, in the meantime, will continue operations in an art world that increasingly relies on art fairs and digital interactions. The gallery has already exhibited artists elsewhere in the United States and Europe. A smaller physical footprint, Conner says, “gives us the nimbleness to continue to do that.”

For Fringe, the move represents more substantial control of its future and an opportunity to increase its presence year-round.

Early plans for the new building include small performance venues, plus an outdoor space with a beer garden to replicate Fringe’s popular food-
drink-performance Baldacchino Tent. Brienza and Fringe chief operating officer Peter Korbel say that converting the building for Fringe’s purposes will cost $2.7 million.

Fringe has already begun to drift eastward: The Atlas will host 30 performances once this summer’s festival begins July 10. Sam Sweet, who stepped down in March after three seasons as executive director of the Atlas, has been hired by Fringe to help spearhead the capital campaign. Sweet’s previous jobs include managing director of both Signature Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

“We need to get money from the person who never thought they’d donate to us,” says Brienza, who signed a five-year contract extension with Fringe. “If people want a space like this, this is the time.”

Correction: A sentence about the Capital Fringe Festival inadvertently suggested that Fringe is purchasing Connersmith art gallery. Fringe is buying the building currently owned and occupied by Connersmith, which will continue operations elsewhere.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.



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