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A. Salon’s galleries prepare for a gracious exit from 7th Street.
Behind a fence on a once-grassy knoll now overtaken by short clover and mock strawberry weeds, a monument to Daguerre in front of the temporarily shuttered National Portrait Gallery pays homage to the spirit of art in the Gallery Place area. Supported by a black pedestal and the patinaed figure of a muse, a bust of the man who invented the first widely used method of photography stares across 7th Street NW toward a sight he could scarcely have imagined: the MCI Center.
Over the last decade, development along D.C.’s rapidly changing 7th Street corridor has often followed two different trajectories at once. On 7th from Pennsylvania Avenue through F Street NW, development was fueled, until 1996, by the now-defunct Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. and its vision of a lively downtown filled with residents, retail, and arts venues. That goal is still being encouraged by the city planners in the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and, in the early to mid-’90s, it drew many artists’ studios and galleries to 7th. But from F through I Streets, recent private-developer-led changes have been oriented toward catering to the hordes of MCI Center customersmany of whom aren’t city residentslooking for places to eat or play, rather than toward developing a livable downtown neighborhood.
Come July, the face-off between artists drawn downtown by the earlier vision of development and developers hoping to capitalize on MCI Center-fueled enthusiasm for the neighborhood will take an unusual turntoward amicable settlement.
In March, CarrAmerica Urban Development LLC purchased the old, dilapidated former Hecht’s department store at 7th and F Streetsand the rest of the city block from F to E Streets and from 6th to 7th Streets, save for the AARP headquarters at 6th and E Streets and Douglas Jemal’s building mid-block on 7th, which houses the District ChopHouse and the Venturehouse Group high-tech incubator.
By July, all current tenants in the properties, purchased from Greenbaum & Rose, will have to make way for a massive residential and office complex, which will have an as-yet-undecided number of art and retail venues on the ground floor. The four galleries and one small dance studio now housed on the properties will disappear.
The Wilson Center Gallery, Gallery 505, the KanKouran African Dance Studio, and 629 e. Arts were all given notice in late February and will shut down by mid-July. The WPA/Corcoran projectspace gallery on E Street closed in early March, when CarrAmerica decided it needed to do preliminary explorations of the structural integrity of the space. And the more than 20 artists who rented studios above projectspace lost their space that month, too.
Now, A. Salon Ltd., the nonprofit artists’ cooperative that manages the Wilson Center and all the block’s other arts venues, is planning to do something almost unheard of in a situation pitting upscale development against low-rent artists: leave graciously.
That’s because A. Salon has sought out and tenanted only spaces that are, according to the group’s founder, George Koch, “in a development hiatus.”
“We knew that that property was going to get developed,” says Koch. “That was always our plan. Every property we’ve gone into, we’ve gone into with the objective that we were going to move.”
A. Salon was founded in 1978 with the goal of providing affordable exhibition and studio space to unknown and emerging artists. In New York, artists have flocked to declining industrial zones and rehabilitated unused warehouse and factory spaces, turning former hat factories into loft apartments, massive studios, and high-ceilinged galleries. That kind of development hasn’t been a viable option in D.C., says Koch. “Washington has never had an industrial base, and not having had an industrial base means we are unable to find large warehouse space that artists can convert to studios,” he explains. “It’s hard in D.C.: You need to go out and find other spaces that can be reprogrammed to be used in the arts.”
What D.C. did have was unused schools. In the late ’70s, A. Salon developed artists’ studios at the disused Jackson School in Georgetown in a partnership with the Corcoran School of Art and D.C. Public Schools. It was one of the first school-to-arts-center conversions in the city, and the Jackson School Arts Center is still open, more than 20 years later. Though the Corcoran pulled out of the partnership nine years in, there are no signs that the building’s owners want the space back any time soon. Two years ago, A. Salon signed a 15-year lease on the building.
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“That property is an example of where we’ve been able to take a space and turn it around and make it a viable space for the community,” says Koch, who in recent years has helped sponsor the annual Art-O-Matic festival. A. Salon doesn’t pay rent on the Jackson School, but it does pay all utilities, including the salary for a Class-6 boiler operator. Artists, in turn, pay small rents for the tudiosfunds used to pay the utility bills.
In the mid-’80s, A. Salon expanded into its second property: an old printing plant for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Review and Herald on Willow Street NW in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood. Over the years, A. Salon has converted 35,000 square feet of unused space at the warehouse into the Takoma Metro Arts Center and has seen the property go through four different owners.
The group’s next property renovation effort was on 7th Street. Seven years ago, A. Salon negotiated a deal with then-owner Equitable Life Assurance Corp. of North America to take over a former bank office at 7th and E Streets NW for a monthly rent of $25. Equitable’s property manager wanted to put an art gallery in the corner space and was looking for an organization that already had liability insurance. That space became the Wilson Center Gallery. A smaller space next door became 629 e. Arts, an African art emporium. A. Salon paid the costs of restructuring the spaces and took on responsibility for any needed repairs to the buildings, from putting in new windows to patching the roof.
When the Insect Clubnext door on E Streetclosed in 1996, A. Salon made a pitch for that Equitable property, too, eventually turning it into the Projectspace gallery. Above projectspace and 629 e. Arts were studio spaces, renting for $6.50 per square foot per yearabout $270 per month for a 500-square-foot space. Those rents help foot a yearly utility bill that can reach $8,000.
And when a neighboring shoe store on the 7th Street side closed, A. Salon converted it into Gallery 505, a space whose shows are curated by a different group each month. The Equitable-owned, A. Salon-managed space at 511 7th St. became a dance studio. Plans to develop arts venues in the old Hecht’s building were consideredbut were dropped because the capital needed for structural alterations exceeded what A. Salon could reasonably invest there.
“In my way of looking at the world, we’ve done fairly well,” says Koch. “We went into Wilson with the idea that we were going to be in there for a year. That was seven years ago.”
The Wilson Center Gallery is looking a bit the worse for wear on a Tuesday in late May. A stone kicked up by a passing dump truck knocked into one window a few weeks ago, sending a shock wave through the windows on the E Street side of the corner space and shattering several of them. Particleboard has been placed over the broken panes, which will not be replaced.
The artworks inside are the usual eclectic mix of paintings, photos, and sculpture, some quite compelling, some less appealing, and some decidedly amateurish. A. Salon members and members of Artists Equity Association Inc. submit works to the open, but juried, shows at the Wilson Center in what remains a fairly democratic process. The final show will be called “Intermission: Until we meet again” and close July 19, to be followed by a gala benefit ball at the Wilson Center for A. Salon.
Though Koch may be sanguine about the demise of the Wilson Center, many A. Salon members who’ve come to love the place are not so upbeat about its impending closure.
“We have our Kleenex out for the demise of the gallery,” says Arra Ann Mazor, a middle-aged Virginia artist who specializes in monotypes and has served as a gallery coordinator for the past year. Then she gets wistful and a little cynical about what the A. Salon gallery closures mean. “I was thinking, crossing the bridge, how Washington, D.C., has no beautiful bridges. Maybe we don’t need beauty and culture. We’re a government city.”
“The 7th Street corridor is losing 25 percent of their artists and exhibition space with this building,” adds Jim Tretick, a bearded photographer who has worked with Mazor as a gallery coordinator since January. “We’re disappointed. It’s very sad. This is a nice place….You get spoiled. You get this corner locationanything else is less, even if it’s twice the space.”
With the closing of the A. Salon spaces, only one street-level gallery remains on 7th Street’s gallery row: The 23-year-old Zenith Gallery, which has been at its current address for 15 years. Zenith is about as far away from the Wilson Center in spirit as any exhibition space in the neighborhood. It’s a successful, money-making, exclusive enterprise that works with established artists or discovers new artists and develops them. In short, it’ a traditional art gallery.
“They’re a cooperative. They’re the guerrilla galleries,” says Zenith Gallery Director Margery Eleme Goldberg of A. Salon. “They’re a real estate hold.
“For any gallery to exist anywhere, you need to have a sympathetic landlord,” she adds. “But we give character to a neighborhoodespecially to a downtown that has so many offices.”
The other galleries in the areaif you don’t count the Bead Museum on D Street at 7thare concentrated on two floors of one building: 406 7th St. All the gallery owners and managers interviewed for this story said they were thrilled by the idea of more housing downtown and the revival of 7th Street. Some hope that the art and design influence on lower 7th Street may also affect the area above F Street. A month ago, Vega, a new high-end design store, opened at 819 7th St.two blocks north of the MCI Center.
But several gallery owners also expressed worries that the sort of tacky chain restaurantssuch as Fuddruckers and Ruby Tuesdaythat Jemal has stocked his properties with farther up 7th Street may well take up residence on the first floor of the revitalized CarrAmerica property.
“My fear would be more chain stores, larger department stores that would just economically push the rest of us out of here,” says Jeneen Piccuirro, a painter and the manager of the Artists’ Museum, a gallery at 406 7th St. “We thought [the MCI Center] would have more of an impact down here, a bit more street traffic. But the people who come down here for sporting events aren’t really the same kind of people looking for a painting for their living room.” CP