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A few weeks ago, the head honchos of the six galleries that cluster around 14th and P Streets NW sat down for lunch at their neighborhood joint, the swanky Viridian. But discussing the latest grads of Goldsmiths or the Corcoran was not part of the agenda. Instead, the gallerists had gathered to brainstorm about how they might all work together to start actively promoting the 14th Street NW area as a destination for art lovers.

As it stands now, the Art Dealers Association of Greater Washington is the only organization on the books through which local gallerists and dealers can communally advance their chosen cause. That group, which has been around since the early ’90s, still has a working Web site. The association, however, has been defunct for two years and, in the interim, no similar organization has stepped up to fill the void and promote the visual arts in a town where said visual arts often get—and complain, vocally, about getting—the short end of the PR stick.

The association, says George Hemphill, owner of Hemphill Fine Arts and a board member of the Art Dealers Association, “represents an older organization that didn’t necessarily inspire the imagination of the newer galleries.”

Now that Hemphill Fine Arts, Adamson Gallery, Transformer Gallery, Gallery Plan B, Irvine Contemporary, and G Fine Art have all moved into a three-block area around 14th Street NW within the past five years, there’s a new arts ’hood in D.C. And if they’re living together, why not work together, too? Indeed, with the Viridian lunch began the rumblings of a new dealers association in the works. “Now we have so many newer galleries that are as different as contemporary art is different from one period to another,” says Hemphill. “[We’re] doing this so that we can have a real sense of energy and point out the dynamic that’s happening with the [14th Street] galleries.”

Thus far, there’s nothing on paper: There are no dues, no rules, and no name. The six galleries are more an alliance than a trade group, but the early planning has yielded a plan for joint openings for most of the galleries on Sept. 16 and the intent to produce joint promotional material.

Victoria Reis, executive director of Transformer Gallery, says there is little sense of competition among the 14th Street gallerists. To the contrary, she says, having multiple outlets in one place is an asset because then they are able to promote the location as a destination spot.

“My hope,” says Hemphill, “is that it will happen and that then we can take on projects that act for the benefit of all artists and galleries in Washington, but I don’t think that we’re quite there yet. The match has not quite hit the fuse on the dynamite.”

Singing on the Brain

The singer was standing by the jukebox, holding a microphone and crooning to the patrons of Don Juan’s Restaurant with a recorded soundtrack as his backup band. He was dressed in a brown mariachi suit, and the approximately 40 diners and drinkers in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood joint were chatting over the entertainment.

Yet someone thought this singer had stepped over the line. The offended party complained to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage and Regulation Administration (ABRA), saying that the singer and the recorded soundtrack violated the terms of the voluntary agreement the restaurant had signed with the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA). This agreement prohibited the restaurant from hosting live music. Never mind that the singer was the owner’s brother, visiting from El Salvador, and that he didn’t charge anything for his impromptu vocal stylings.

Was it live music? Or was it karaoke? Is karaoke classified as “live music”? Or is it considered “live entertainment”? The incident occurred a year ago, and in the end, none of these questions mattered: when Don Juan’s liquor license came up for renewal a few months later, the neighborhood alliance insisted on adding a “voluntary agreement” clause that would cover “live entertainment” among its many prohibitions, in case of future confusion.

Voluntary agreements are conditions attached to liquor licenses that result from negotiations between neighborhoods and business owners (“Raising the Bar,” 5/2/03). There aren’t sunset clauses on the agreements, so they can’t be officially challenged until a liquor-license renewal or new application comes in front of ABRA. Five or more neighborhood members can band together and—for the stated goal of neighborhood peace and quiet—make demands on the restaurant owner through the agreements. Mount Pleasant advisory neighborhood commissioner and anti-agreement crusader Jack McKay says that the problem with voluntary agreements is that “you can always find five extremists out of 12,000 without any problem.”

Once banded together, neighbors can request restrictions on noise levels, the sale of alcohol, or live music. Mount Pleasant is known for having among the most tyrannical voluntary agreements in the District, generally pushed through by the MPNA: No live music, no DJs, no karaoke, no dancing.

“It’s all about how many people would be drawn to Mount Pleasant,” explains McKay. “They don’t want crowds to come.”

“But then, what’s the definition of a crowd?” asks Mount Pleasant musician and co-commissioner Wayne Kahn.

McKay and Kahn have been vocally opposed to the agreements for a couple of years now, letting their sentiments be known to the ABRA folks every so often. This time around, though, they hope to actually get their message heard and get what they want: just a little live music, please.

McKay and Kahn say they don’t want the scenario that so frightens the MPNA NIMBYs—namely, a quiet neighborhood morphing into the jungle that is Adams Morgan on a Saturday night, with clubs and drunks and fights filling the sidewalks.

The pro-music faction, and the neighbors supporting them, think there’s a happy medium. For example, in a more moderate world, voluntary agreements would put caps on decibel levels, hours, or days of the week, rather than prohibit everything all the time. In mid-July, McKay passed a resolution through the Mount Pleasant advisory neighborhood commission saying as much.

“The Mount Pleasant commercial strip is all too quiet at night,” says the resolution, “so quiet that people returning home late at night from the bus stop or the Metro station, are concerned about having to walk nearly deserted streets. Doing away with the absolute ban should bring more patrons to Mt. Pleasant Street. In addition, elimination of the absolute ban will allow for a fair, case by case review of license applications.”

“Too much peace and quiet creates crime.” Kahn translates the issue simply.

No licenses are up for consideration until the fall at the earliest. However, McKay and his ilk passed the resolution this summer because they want the ABRA folks to be plenty aware ahead of time that they’re going to be pushing the issue extra hard.

A concerted effort will be necessary. In the past, the Alcoholic Beverage Control board has simply rubber-stamped the voluntary agreements that make the Mount Pleasant strip a quiet spot. McKay has his theories as to why music gets no hearing at the board: MPNA President Laurie Collins used to serve on the ABC board, and McKay worries that she is a bit too cozy with current members.

What’s different this time? McKay says he’s got enough neighbors—hundreds, he estimates—to drown out the protests of the MPNA.

Neither Collins nor any other MPNA representative returned S&T’s requests for an interview.—Nell Boeschenstein

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