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When art dealer George Hemphill opened his gallery in 1993, real estate was flat. Storefronts in Georgetown were empty. He didn’t have any credit to his name beyond his work with the formidable Middendorf Gallery, which had bottomed out during the art market crash a couple years prior. He more or less bluffed his way into a lease for a space on 33rd Street NW. A story about the new gallery, Hemphill Fine Arts, appeared in the Washington Post under the headline “Crash Landing.”
When Hemphill Fine Arts moved to 14th Street NW in 2004, the storefronts were once again boarded up. Former automotive showrooms along the corridor proved to be perfect templates for white-cube galleries by the likes of Fusebox and Irvine Contemporary. And Hemphill had an ideal landlord in Giorgio Furioso, who gave him and the other art dealers in the building a break on the rent for years. In this space, Hemphill Fine Arts has assembled dozens of exhibits from artists in his stable, including Renée Stout and Julie Wolfe, while also showcasing select works by Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, and other local (and national) legends.
But after 15 years on 14th Street NW, Hemphill is moving again. At the end of November, he’s closing the last of the art spaces at 1515 14th St. NW, a building that still bears “Galleries” in relief over its entrance. His former neighbors there (Annie Gawlak, Andrea Pollan, and Laurie Adamson) have all closed their shops and slowed their activity. At 68, Hemphill has ample reason to retire, too—but no desire to quit. Instead, he’s taking another big bet on art in D.C.
“In one sense you could characterize me as the dog, and the dog’s always going to go to the bed,” Hemphill says, in his characteristic Carolina drawl. “I get up and I drive to the gallery. It’s a habit of my life.”
In January, Hemphill Fine Arts will reopen in a new storefront gallery in Mount Vernon Square. This time around, vacant storefronts are far harder to find in the District. The gallery will be a new anchor for a mixed-use development in a neighborhood chockablock with mid-rise construction projects. It will be a new type of venture for Hemphill, who has lived and worked in the city since 1979. If the past is prologue, his move may point to the future for galleries in D.C.—one in which dealers work hand-in-hand with developers to carve out space for art.
Hemphill’s new digs at 434 K St. NW will be bright and industrial. Unlike his current third-floor gallery, an austere black box theater for painting, sculpture, and photography, the new storefront gallery will be open to the street. The space won’t put up any walls between viewers and the people running the show. That’s an about-face from the current set up, where the offices for Hemphill and staff—director Mary Early, associate director Olivia Zvara, and preparator Joe Shetler—are all hidden from view.
“You were never being observed observing an artwork,” Hemphill says of his 14th Street NW gallery. He says that he isn’t just changing his address. He’s rethinking how he sells art, and building a new space to reflect a different outlook.
In the early 2000s, a wave of fine art dealers, Hemphill among them, followed Studio Theatre and Whole Foods to the 14th Street corridor. Almost no new art galleries have opened in the city since then. Rather, newcomers and established galleries alike have shuttered, an extraordinary exodus prompted by soaring real estate values across the city. Yet recently—very recently—green shoots have been popping up around town, thanks in part to developers.
In February, a New York City dealer named Todd von Ammon opened a space in Georgetown, not terribly far from the gallery that Hemphill once inhabited. His first opening, a frenetic series of video installations by Tabor Robak, earned national press (including a review in Artforum by this writer). An alumnus of the long-tenured and widely admired Team Gallery in New York, von Ammon says that D.C. offers some inherent advantages for dealers.
“While New York is teeming with art collectors, a dealer needs to employ a battery of various acid tests to decide to whom to place artwork,” von Ammon says. “This is not the case in D.C. While they are few, the majority of collectors here are affiliated with museums or major nonprofit organizations, and almost nobody engages in speculation. Most small galleries depend on the patronage of a small group of loyal buyers, and this is something that I’ve been able to access very quickly in D.C.”
For his program, the gallerist has tapped his network of artists from New York and beyond, making his space, von ammon co., a distant outpost of the bleeding-edge contemporary art scene in Chelsea. (He recently hosted a show by Helmut Lang, the now-retired designer, who purged his fashion archive by mashing remnants of his studio into compact columns.) Von Ammon says that the support of the landlord was critical in turning out the former furniture showroom.
“The developer of Cady’s Alley, Eastbanc, from whom I rent the space, is also preternaturally supportive of the endeavor, which is a wonderful change of pace from New York,” von Ammon says. “They have real conviction about the value of contemporary art in the city and have thrown a lot of weight behind me.”
Developers used to follow the lead of artists and galleries moving into gentrifying neighborhoods. That relationship has flipped. Competition among developers building new mixed-use projects has led them to look to unique retail experiences to distinguish their offerings. STABLE, a center for artist studios that opened last month in Eckington, has a favorable lease with Boundary Companies, a developer that is pursuing residential projects in the neighborhood, including buildings with JBG and Foulger-Pratt. Back in 2014, the Washington Project for the Arts signed a long-term lease in the Atlantic Plumbing mixed-use development, a JBG property. Hemphill’s new gallery will be the cultural tenant for a project by Quadrangle Development and The Wilkes Co., developers who have steered much of the construction in Mount Vernon Square; Hemphill says he’s known chairman Sandy Wilkes for decades.
Ryan Dattilo, an attorney and art collector who moved to D.C. five years ago, says that he misses the New York gallery circuit. He wanted a space where he could introduce art to new friends and colleagues who don’t collect art or even necessarily know where to find it—so he decided to open his own shop.
“Edens has been great,” Dattilo says, referring to the developer behind Union Market, where Dattilo opened De Novo Gallery in August. “They’ve been supportive of keeping it open. They’ve been supportive about promoting the show. I think the area is a perfect environment for that. It has a ton of energy, and Edens, through Union Market, has put on a ton of programming, with events and concerts.”
While it was initially planned as a pop-up, De Novo has a longer-term hold on the space now. Dattilo is planning shows with Amanda Jirón-Murphy, former gallery director of Hamiltonian Gallery, to showcase emerging artists. “It’s a new, fresh energy,” Dattilo says of the Union Market area. “It invites people who want to explore more. Those are the people who would want to explore art. I hope that it stays that way.”
Dattilo is under no illusion that any developer will preserve a lease for a scrappy gallery forever. There’s a word for the practice in real estate of inviting the arts in when demand is low or a project is premature, only to show them to the door when the outlook improves: artwashing. In D.C., at least, the Washington Project for the Arts and STABLE have managed to secure the kind of long-term commercial leases usually reserved for more profitable ventures. Now, art dealers are making a go of it.
Hemphill says that he could have held onto his 14th Street NW location. But he wanted a space better suited to a more mobile practice, with a greater emphasis on events, dialogue, and studio visits. A gallery space represents a way of communicating with the public, he says, and after 25 years working as a dealer in D.C., he decided it was time to change his model—so he’s flipping his store inside out. (Skyrocketing rents were of course a concern.)
For his first show at the new K Street NW gallery, he’s going with Linling Lu, a painter whose bright concentric rings of color can be seen hanging in clusters inside two condo lobbies at CityCenterDC. Hemphill has represented Lu for seven years, and during that time, he’s sold nearly every painting that she’s produced. That’s something any artist dreams about hearing. Developers love to see it, too, Hemphill says. More of the city’s would-be gallerists and free-range consultants ought to consider how valuable even a trickle of art sales over time looks to landlords, he says.
“A couple more spaces like mine would have a logarithmic impact on the contemporary art community,” von Ammon says. “The city has all the ingredients to support a community of intrepid young dealers, so I hope more people like me decide to give it a try.”
Thinking forward, Hemphill says he hopes the gallery has space for new artists he hasn’t met yet. With every new venture, he has tried to shake up who he shows and how he shows. Looking back over his 40 years in the District, Hemphill says he doesn’t have any regrets, although he’s parted with pieces he wishes he could get back.
“It should always feel like, ‘I should have never let go of that,’” Hemphill says.