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A garage door? A concrete floor? Not amenities for which you’d normally break out the Veuve Clicquot. Except that at Numark Gallery’s new location at 625-627 E St. NW, the Chelsea-style door and stark gray floor suggest that commercial-gallery design in Washington may finally be shedding the old-town-house look that, for many local art types, simply screams provincialism.
“We did tours of Chelsea galleries, and we also did London and Los Angeles,” says Robert Cox, principal architect and director of interiors for HOK, which designed the space for gallery owner Cheryl Numark. “There’s now a basic style that has become a necessity. Cheryl sees herself as a player in the national and international realm, and a lot of [such a design] is driven by what artists expectthey don’t want something quaint or provincial.”
The new Numark Gallery, steps away from both the Lansburgh Theatre and the MCI Center, inhabits the first-floor shell of two conjoined town houses that used to be the Insect Club. It sports high ceilings and a 40-foot-by-21-foot main exhibition space, as well as a smaller second room that, with its movable walls and pocket doors, can be enclosed for a separate show or projected video. “Each time you come,” says Numark, “there will be subtle ways in which the space will differ.”
But it’s that aluminum-and-glass garage door with optional scrim and that dyed-concrete floorcolored a “light-medium” gray, says Numark, who made several research trips to Manhattan before settling on that particular shadethat are aimed at making artists and art cognoscenti feel comfortable. The features certainly afford practical and aesthetic benefitsthe door, for instance, is smack in the middle of the façade and will both allow large pieces to be moved in and out easily and control ambient lighting.
But these details’ value as statement is equally important to Numark, whose stable of artists includes such high-profile, high-concept locals as sculptor Dan Steinhilber and photographer Chan Chao. “The garage door, the floor, the walls set off in relief, the high ceilings and the exposed beamswe’re creating a language familiar to people who travel the art circuit internationally,” Numark says. “There’s a certain language…that’s familiar to those people.”
Prominent figures in the D.C. art scene seem to agree. “I think she’s answered that ambition very well,” says Jonathan Binstock, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “It continues that New York feel that has been so important to Fusebox’s success.” Artist Jim Sanborn, whose “Penetrating Radiation” show is currently inaugurating the Numark space, concurs: “It’s time we left [behind] the living-room gallery in Washington.”
But the internationalist rhetoric can’t obscure the fact that Numark is still in competition with other local galleries. With warehouse-style gallery space so uncommon in the District, comparisons between Numark Gallery and 14th Street NW’s similarly styled Fusebox are already being made by the principals.
“We feel that we raised the bar here in terms of gallery-space presentation, and I’m happy to see Cheryl step it up, too,” says Patrick Murcia, Fusebox’s co-owner. Numark, however, contends that she’s offering something unique. “No one [here] is going to have a garage door, and no one will have the street presence I have,” she says. “No other gallery in the city has a 40-foot-long wall.”
Still, Numark isn’t happy about everything in her new space. “I wanted [the floor] hand-troweled, and the concrete guy tried a new technique that created these semicircular arcs,” she saysadding matter-of-factly that if grinding the surface down doesn’t solve the problem, she might just have to replace the whole thing. Robert Lalasz