When the cooperative Ruthless Grip Art Project opened in 1994, its arrival on U Street NW signaled what was supposed to be the arrival of a wave of contemporary galleries that would help breathe new life into the historic corridor and bolster the area’s would-be hipster credibility.
Ruthless Grip founder Ann Wallace rounded up a core of artists to run the place and give it an unmistakable identity. One of her more remarkable early finds was Mark Wallace (no relation), a steadfast champion of avant-garde poetry. He first read at the gallery in September 1995 and was subsequently recruited to curate its monthly Ruthless Grip Poetry Series. “The gallery started out as a co-op, but it quickly became Ann’s project,” says Wallace, lamenting the space’s recent closure. “Ruthless Grip was a very sort of U Street gallery—it had a certain kind of edginess to it.”
Mark Wallace’s wildly experimental notions about poetry jibed well with Ann Wallace’s perspective on art, and the two collaborated for the next four years. The tide of galleries never quite materialized, but the hipsters came all the same, and Ruthless Grip and its Second Saturday poetry nights became a focal point in the hype surrounding the “New U.”
That the gallery and its highest-profile tenant, Atticus Books, no longer remained on U Street as of last month says a lot about the bewildering transformation the neighborhood has undergone in the past five years. But while the gallery owners have called it quits, Wallace is keeping his poetry series intact. In homage, he jokes, he’s not letting go of Ruthless Grip: “We’re keeping the name.” The Ruthless Grip fall series debuted last month at its new location, the Washington Printmakers Gallery in Dupont Circle, and will continue there on the second Saturday of each month.
“I think D.C. may have about the third-largest audience for avant-garde poetry in the country, after New York and San Francisco,” says Wallace. September’s event drew about 30 people, a near-capacity crowd for the intimate gallery space. “The various poetry series here routinely get 30 to 70 people a night for readings,” he says. “If you think about it, how many people come out for any kind of poetry reading anywhere anymore? Who’s counting?”—Colin Bane
The next Ruthless Grip Poetry Series reading takes place Saturday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Washington Printmakers Gallery, 1732
Connecticut Ave. NW, Second floor. For more information, call