Visitors to the Porch Projects gallery sometimes look confused when Mariah Anne Johnson opens the front door of her Capitol Hill rowhouse: Are they in the right place? Johnson — hostess, artist, curator, innovator — assures them that yes, they’ve made it, just step past the living room, head up the stairs and slip through the office to get to the tiny gallery in the enclosed, second-floor porch. But please, only four at a time — as viewers quickly discover, quarters up there are on the tight side.
Call it a domestic gallery, home gallery, apartment gallery or micro-gallery. The names vary but the concept is simple: use do-it-yourself brio to transform a basement, living room, porch or another nook into a miniature alternative to mainstream galleries. Given the vagaries of the art market, artists need to think entrepreneurially, home gallerists say, and their spaces come with a built-in underground cool factor and a freedom to experiment that artists can’t find elsewhere.
“As artists, we may not have a lot of other resources, but we do have space we can offer to each other,” Johnson said. Though she appreciates traditional art spaces and shows her own work in them, she also sympathizes with artists who are frustrated by inaccessible galleries and a choosy press. “They need to do it themselves and not depend on curators who don’t see supporting the local community as part of their mission,” she said.
Johnson, 32, was introduced to apartment galleries while living in Chicago and then Los Angeles, where domestic art enterprises are flourishing. She rattled off half a dozen, from popular longstanding galleries to the empty medicine cabinet one artist offered.
Abigail Satinsky of threewalls, a Chicago-based organization that publishes a national guide to alternative art spaces, said its upcoming edition, “Phonebook 3,” lists around 200 domestic galleries. Cities with cheaper housing (Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia) have bigger clusters, but Los Angeles is a hot spot, too, and the phenomenon is taking off all over, she said.
“Galleries are open to fewer and fewer people, and funding is harder to come by,” she said. “People have to think of another way to have rich cultural experiences.”
Baltimore has its fair share of domestic galleries, and even Washington — where high real estate prices can crush artists’ dreams of extra space — now boasts several under-the-radar, art-viewing spots.
Ray Hennessy, a self-described “connoisseur of the creative community” is always looking for new places to experience art and music. When he didn’t see the next cool thing on the horizon, he started holding one-night art events in the unfinished basement of his home in the District’s Trinidad neighborhood. Close to 100 people — alerted through Twitter and word of mouth — showed up for an event in July, a show of works by an artist who goes by the name ORCON and is currently incarcerated. The exhibit featured about 15 mixed-media photographs of such diverse subjects as drone aircraft, California landscapes and roadkill.
“We’re not trying to make money. It’s more about artists who do something and are passionate about it and want people to see it immediately,” said Hennessy, 35, who works for the Defense Department by day. One of his few requirements is that artists who show in his basement avoid promotional pushes.
“I’m trying to instill a little surprise and discovery into going into an exhibit. Since most contemporary art galleries have promotions a month in advance, you know exactly what you’re getting into when you walk in. To me, that’s kind of boring. I like the idea of being surprised or revolted — depending on your taste,” he said.
Artist Judy Byron also finds traditional art spaces isolating and limiting, a conviction she’s held since the 1970s, when she decided to move beyond what she viewed as an exclusive, unwelcoming gallery culture. In search of a more diverse audience, she pursued community projects and public art commissions and in 2005, she opened a home gallery. Now when she finishes a project, she installs her work in the living room of her Mount Pleasant rowhouse. She typically invites viewers to a series of Sunday afternoon salons, hosts a couple evenings of conversation — sometimes over dinner — and throws a closing party.
“Perfect Girls,” her current show, uses a combination of audio recordings and drawings to reflect on the expectations placed on girls and women.
“I don’t have a gallery; no one called and said, ‘Gee, I’d love to represent you,’” said Byron, 64. “Just because someone didn’t choose me, you can’t stop the music.”
Other local artists have put their own spin on the domestic gallery concept. Kristina Bilonick opened Pleasant Plains Workshop in a storefront near Howard University in 2010. She lives upstairs, uses the downstairs studio for screen printing and other projects and has dedicated the window and front portion of the studio to mounting small exhibitions.
Bilonick, 34, has been trying to spread the gospel, encouraging artists to look at commercial space or form collectives or find other ways to “do something renegade.”
“D.C. needs more little spaces,” she said. “There’s such a thirst.”
Johnson, a painter and installation artist, has 700 pounds of bedsheets, which she uses in her trademark sculptural pieces, in her basement. (Her work will be featured this fall in two D.C. shows at Flashpoint and Harmon Art Lab.) She worked as an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and helped organize some shows in graduate school, but Porch Projects represents her first formal foray into curation. The idea took shape at a panel discussion she attended in 2010, soon after she had moved to the District. Many of the artists at the event expressed exasperation with the lack of local recognition. “It made a light bulb go off in my head,” said Johnson, who hosted the latest Porch Projects opening this weekend.
The previous exhibit, a minimalist collaboration between the artists Patrick McDonough and Matias was cause for some low-grade controversy. The two spray-painted the walls with the message “If you wanted us to do something you should have gotten a bigger space” and “me too.” Several viewers saw the piece as a mocking rejection of Johnson’s generosity, but she was unfazed. If anything, she was pleased people were talking—the informality of domestic galleries can stir up conversation in a way that viewing art in a sterile, white box might not, she said.
“I’m just giving artists space to experiment,” she said. “The more artists I can encourage to think outside of their practice or try something new the better. That means it’s been a success.”
For more information about Porch Projects go to porchprojectsdc.blogspot.com.
Ray Hennessy can be reached at
Judy Bryon can be found at www.judybyron.com.
Find more information about Pleasant Plains Workshop at pleasantplainsworkshop.blogspot.com.