The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protest art covered shuttered businesses for months at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Now it has a new home.

A prized panel from Black Lives Matter Plaza is wheeled into the former Aveda Institute as an artist collective begins to display works from the area. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Months spent in the sun and rain has warped the wooden works of art. They’ve been tagged and scrawled on, disassembled and pulled down from the windows that sat boarded up for months.

But as the painted pieces appeared last week, rolled on dollies into the empty showroom where they will soon be displayed, it felt to the artists who created them as if virtually no time had passed.

“Oh man, look at that,” artist Dez Zambrano said, his voice hushed in wonder. “I can almost hear the chanting.”

All at once, he said, memories came flooding back. Of the summer heat on his face as he painted the plywood canvas. Of the chanting crowds, marching through the square with their fists raised, signs lifted, their hands held up in surrender.

Activists remove and save art on fence near Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C.

After more than six months of acting as shields over windows in and around Black Lives Matter Plaza, the plywood pieces were transported Thursday to a vacant storefront — formerly the site of an Aveda Institute training facility near the Gallery Place Metro station. The works will serve as a centerpiece for an unfolding gallery space created by a unique partnership between a real estate giant and community nonprofit that officials hope will revitalize a commercial district decimated by the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

Oxford Properties, a multinational corporation that manages more than 100 million square feet of property space across four continents, has rented out 16,000 feet of space to the PAINTS Institute, a community nonprofit that seeks to provide education, training and job opportunities to at-risk youths and seniors in D.C.

The price tag? Zero dollars.

Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, for-lease signs and papered-over and vacant storefronts line the street. Big brand names, like Chipotle, have been shuttered, the block letters that once hung from the building’s facade plucked from their place.

The movie theater is closed. The Clyde’s restaurant is bringing in a fraction of its normal business. Capital One Arena has largely been shut down for months with no end in sight. Foot traffic along the once-bustling corridor has slowed to a trickle.

“It’s difficult. Many of these restaurants are closing, and they won’t reopen,” said Oxford Properties General Manager Josh Turnbull. “Realistically, we don’t know how long the recovery will take. If this can help us get some foot traffic and channel business into some of the places, restaurants that are really hurting, that’s worth it to me.”

As he spoke, the occasional passerby paused to peer inside the empty building at its bare white walls and stripped wood floor.

To some, like Turnbull, the vacant space initially didn’t look like much. He imagined having to tear down walls to make the space marketable to a new tenant, he said. But to John Chis­holm, executive director of the PAINTS Institute, the space is filled with potential.

“I want this to be an emotional space for people,” Chisholm said. “This is about community stewardship, about doing good while trying to support local art and local artists.”

What once were classrooms could be transformed into studio space for up-and-coming artists, Chisholm said. The tall streetside windows and glass-paneled walls would allow onlookers to catch a glimpse of artists and their work while maintaining safe pandemic protocols. Large looming portraits of cosmetic models could be transformed into larger-than-life displays, visible from great distances.

There could be pop-ups and retail on the horizon — ways to provide on-the-job training to at-risk youths, Chisholm said — or virtual residency programs and apprenticeship opportunities for artists.

D.C. is becoming a protest battleground. In a polarized nation, experts say that’s unlikely to change.

The gallery’s first display will be created by Demont Pinder, an artist known for his portraits of the famous — Prince, Aretha Franklin, John Lewis — as well as his work memorializing Black people killed by law enforcement and youths who died in senseless violence.

He’s painted live onstage during hip-hop concerts and produced a portrait of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. He’s painted those whose name recognition came only after their deaths: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark.

He’s also painted people whose names are not nationally recognized, such as young D.C. residents killed by gun violence. There was Steve Slaughter, a 14-year-old killed by a would-be robber as he returned from buying snacks with his friends; Makiyah Wilson, a 10-year-old gunned down as she walked toward an ice cream truck; and Maurice Scott, a 15-year-old killed blocks from his school.

This month, Pinder said, he will transform the downstairs of the studio into a baseball stadium to showcase Black history past and present — an art piece that draws a line from Jackie Robinson’s history-making debut in the major leagues in 1947 to the Washington Nationals of today.

“This is how we celebrate art and Black history in a covid-safe environment until we can open up the doors again,” Pinder said. “I hope we can create something that gets everyone to leave inspired and forces them to look at blank, empty spaces differently — because we have so much of that in the times we’re living in right now.”

Upstairs, Pinder’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that hung for months outside the National Building Museum will be displayed alongside artists’ renderings of street medics and countless demonstrators who marched for months in the nation’s capital demanding criminal justice reform and racial equality.

The murals came down last month, as D.C. officials and members of the media gathered around Black Lives Matter Plaza to watch the rebirth of a street that has been paralyzed by months of protests, civil unrest, a public health crisis, a suffering economy and, most recently, a heavily patrolled downtown militarized zone that followed a siege at the U.S. Capitol.

Plywood comes down around businesses in downtown D.C. as officials declare city ‘open for business’

Removing the plywood boards — and the paintings on them that have come to define the area around the plaza — was a step in the right direction for businesses there, officials said, but they worried about losing pieces of history, artifacts that for months overlooked the heart of D.C.’s protest scene.

Turnbull had space to offer. The Aveda Institute announced that it was vacating the downtown D.C. studio space before the pandemic hit, he said, and with retail stores struggling to keep the lights on, he doubted he could fill the space with a new tenant.

The arrangement, he said, is technically month-to-month. But, he added, he expects the art will be able to remain in the space for most of 2021 — if not longer.

Already, Chisholm has plans for the summer.

Near the first anniversary of the racial justice uprisings that followed the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, Chisholm said, he envisions re-creating the experience through art, sound, multimedia displays and the murals plucked from door frames and windows in Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Maybe by then, he said, people will be able to walk through the space safely, to fully immerse themselves in the not-so-distant past.

Maybe by then, Zambrano said, he’ll really be able to relive the chanting. Maybe through art, he said, everyone will.

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D.C. is becoming a protest battleground. In a polarized nation, experts say that’s unlikely to change.