Bricks and Courter: Paul So stands ready to bring artists under his roof.
Bricks and Courter: Paul So stands ready to bring artists under his roof. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Physics professor and gallerist Paul So has a sweet deal for local artists: two years of representation, exhibitions at the U Street space he plans to open next year, career-­development training, and a $2,000 stipend. Now all he needs is applicants. But So hasn’t received the avalanche of interest one might expect from such an enticing offer. To date, only five artists have applied to be one of 10 “So Hamiltonian Fellows,” and the program’s Jan. 15 application deadline is fast approaching. Apparently, gaining a foothold in D.C.’s close-knit arts community can be challenging, even for people with deep pockets.

For 10 years, So, 40, has taught physics at George Mason University, but he’s always been interested in art. When he was an undergraduate at Harvey Mudd College in the mid-’80s, he finished his physics requirements early, took a few painting classes, and eventually added a bachelor’s in studio art from Scripps College to his credentials. Now, in addition to his packed schedule at GMU, he continues to paint, exhibiting some of his work (acrylics on canvas and wood) at last spring’s Artomatic. He’d always hoped to merge his passions for art and education but wasn’t sure how to do it. Then, in 2004, he received a sizable inheritance and set out to create a space where he could invest in artists’ futures. “I want to use the money to create structure,” he says.

Last November, he paid $1.35 million for a long-vacant property at 1353 U St. NW. The building, named the Hamiltonian after its builder, Wes Hamilton, will house the Hamiltonian Gallery on the first floor, retail space on the second, and condominiums on the third and fourth. In addition to outside funding from private sources, charitable groups, and nonprofits, So plans to rent out the upper floors to defray gallery costs. The gallery, meanwhile, will serve as the base of operations for the fellowship program. “I want to pair up the regular gallery artists with the fellowship artists,” he says.

He also expects the gallery’s seven board members, composed of gallerists, artists, philanthropists, and George Mason University faculty, to pitch in. “They would learn how to put a portfolio together, how to promote themselves, how to market their artwork, and how to write a grant,” he says. “What I really want is like a school.” He calls it a “post-doc in art” and says the idea for the program came from his own post-doctoral experience at George Washington University and Children’s National Medical Center. “I want to bring that opportunity to new artists starting out,” he says.

So why aren’t artists banging down his door? He’s handed out postcards pointing to his Web site ( to scores of local artists, made presentations about the program to area art schools, and netted notice from newspapers and blogs. Plenty of people have inquired about the program, he says, adding that only a handful have applied. That could be because the deadline hasn’t arrived yet. “I don’t think it’s a problem,” he says. “The deadline is still two months away.” Or it might be because So’s entering a city with some arts-education infrastructure already in place. “There actually are a lot of opportunities here in town,” says artist Sondra Arkin. In addition to the Corcoran College of Art & Design and the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), there are several nonprofit arts spaces that have missions similar to So’s. Transformer Gallery, the District of Columbia Arts Center, Flashpoint, and the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) all seek to grow local artists. Last year, the commercial gallery Conner Contemporary Art also launched an arts-education component called Gogo Art Projects (Show & Tell, “H Is for Gentrification,” 8/24).

And because there are so many opportunities available, building a reputation takes time, says Leigh ­Conner, owner of Conner Contemporary Art. “It’s a getting-to-know-you process,” she says. “Time is money, and an artist is also looking for the best way to use their time.” Plus, Arkin says, while a $2,000 stipend is generous, it’s still not a lot. “The goal of these granting organizations is to alleviate the artists’ expenses for a year,” she says, and So’s fellowship comes with a lot of programming and a significant time commitment, which could be difficult for artists juggling other jobs. Fellows get monthly critiques of their work, attend seminars, lectures, and art shows, and help with the promotion of gallery shows, among other responsibilities. “There are a lot of expectations,” she says. “I think what Paul is doing is great and needed,” she says, “but folks might find it difficult to see the value proposition in an untested environment.”

So knows he’s in a city that’s already brimming with arts opportunities, and he realizes he’s asking a lot from students. But, he says, if artists find other opportunities while they’re in the program, he’d love to help them take advantage, and they’re welcome to leave after their first year. “It’s a career development program,” he says. He says he’s willing to build an institution from the ground up. In physics, the term “Hamiltonian” refers to the future evolution of a physical system, he says, and his project will also evolve. “I’m planning ahead,” he says. “I would like to see the artists grow, be nurtured, and be successful,” he says. “That’s really the ultimate goal.”

Field of (Crushed) Dreams

Psychiatrist Dr. Alen J. Salerian loved the sculpture garden he created outside his Friendship Heights office. It was a tribute to his mother, painter Kristin Saleri, he says, and he spent more than $30,000 purchasing a diverse array of items to decorate it. There were tall Chinese vases, small statuettes, two stone and ceramic fountains, flamingos, a giant giraffe, and a plaster sculpture of a couple making love. The objects were “priceless to me,” he says.

So when his landlord, property giant Grosvenor, and the building’s management company, KLNB, requested he dismantle the garden in late September, he contacted the D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition (TENAC) for help (Show & Tell, “Lawn and Order,” 10/24). At the time, Salerian said he was ready to fight for his garden. He didn’t have a chance. Sometime between Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, he says, “everything I had in my front yard disappeared. I don’t know what happened.” At first he suspected his landlord, but Grosvenor’s D.C.-based senior asset manager, Perry Reith, says the company was “disappointed” to learn of Salerian’s loss. “I can assure you no one associated with Grosvenor or KLNB had anything to do with the removal of his personal property,” he writes in an e-mail.

Salerian wonders whether the heist was “an inside job” and says whoever planned it knew what they were doing. “It would take four people to remove it,” he says. “It required coordination and trucks and efficiency.” The D.C. police department is investigating the theft.

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