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Next month, D.C.’s scrappiest art space, Transformer, passes a major milestone. The arts nonprofit turns 15 years old in June, an achievement that is almost unheard of in the world of contemporary art. It’s hard for a designer furniture boutique to stay open that long in trendy Logan Circle without getting the boot, much less a punk shoebox incubator for emerging artists, but Transformer has weathered it all.
So the gallery is throwing a party—a big one. On June 10—almost 15 years to the day from the opening of its first show in 2002—Transformer is hosting Shadow/Casters, a performance-art bash at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. That’s a big deal for a local art shop (although this will mark Transformer’s second collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution). The performances will coincide with the Hirshhorn’s late-night party series, After Hours, and Transformer is going into it with a witchy, full-moon, summer-solstice theme in mind for the evening. Artists inside the museum will perform in silhouette from the windows of the upper floors hanging over the courtyard. Guests will gather there, around the fountain, where other artists will also perform their work live.
The quinceañera also marks a big transition for Victoria Reis, the executive and artistic director of the cozy art gallery she co-founded in 2002 with Jayme McLellan. Reis and her husband, Brian Baker, a founding member of Minor Threat and guitarist for Bad Religion, are taking all their D.C. cred and moving to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Reis grew up. But Transformer isn’t going anywhere, she insists.
“We’re expanding our programming to include an Asbury [Park]–based summer residency and exhibition program for emerging artists,” Reis says. “Since I was a teenager I’ve thought, this place is just such an amazing place for an artist residency program. When I was 15, I thought, it’s going to get funded by Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Maybe it still will.”
Siren Arts, Transformer’s Asbury Park extension, will serve as an annual summer-long residency and exhibition program set in a storefront space on Bangs Avenue, just two blocks from the ocean. It’s not far from the house that Reis and her husband just purchased, a 1926 Dutch Colonial on a half-acre of land that she describes as her dream home. The two of them summer in Asbury Park every year; while they weren’t looking to move, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity when Baker spotted the house.
Siren Arts won’t be Transformer’s first foray in New Jersey. In 2014, Reis assembled 12 artists from across the East Coast—including two artists from D.C., Lisa Marie Thalhammer and Tang—for a boardwalk exhibit at Asbury Park’s 5th Avenue Pavilion. Promised Land was a one-off, week-long residency funded by the Warhol Initiative, a capacity-building program by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of Transformer’s longtime supporters. Siren Arts’ ongoing programming will be modeled after that show, which drew more than 15,000 visitors over the course of a six-week-long run.
In a way, it’s hardly surprising that Transformer would seek to expand. The incubator has always maintained a large curatorial footprint relative to its small physical stature. In 2008, Transformer brought a band of artists from Mexico City to show at the Mexican Cultural Institute; the following summer, the gallery took five artists from D.C. to D.F. Former Washington Ballet director Septime Webre and several dancers worked with Transformer artists Jessica Cebra and Zach Storm on Snow Globe, a balletic installation that graced the gallery in 2010. And in 2011, Transformer worked with the National Museum of the American Indian to arrange This Is Hawai‘i, a two-site show of work by four indigenous contemporary artists and one of the few efforts ever to bridge the vast gulf between the National Mall and local art institutions.
For Reis, the lure of Siren Arts is the shore itself. She describes her hometown’s history: In the 1880s, Asbury Park and neighboring Ocean Grove were founded as Christian retreats by “wealthy businessmen from New York who wanted to take the waters.” While Ocean Grove held onto its Methodist roots, Asbury Park built attractions; from there it evolved as a place for musicians, especially black musicians who weren’t allowed to book hotel space in New York when they played venues in the city. Reis loves the Beaux Arts architecture that is still the backdrop of Asbury Park. Also its musical pedigree: She recalls fondly the time when John Lydon spat on her behind a venue when Public Image Ltd played Asbury Park when she was a girl.
“[Asbury Park] is still in that pre–fully developed moment,” Reis says. “It realizes what it has. There are a lot of people like me who have very, very special childhood memories of this place who want to see it continue to be this artist-centered place.”
But Reis isn’t giving up on the District. Transformer’s board supported her decision to continue her role from abroad-ish. (As an international touring musician, Baker can rip solos with his ax from anywhere.) Reis says that she will continue to be a District resident and will maintain a pied-à-terre in the city. Transformer is staffing up: Reis just hired a program associate, Val Wiseman, and she recently promoted Georgie Payne to exhibitions and programming manager. Cara Leepson, as development and operations manager, is also taking on more leadership responsibilities. (Paid student interns from Monmouth University will hold down the fort at Siren Arts.)
“Honestly, I doubt you or most anyone will notice, except our immediate neighbors,” Reis says. “I’m not leaving D.C.”
By no means is Transformer giving up on its Logan Circle micro-gallery—despite the best efforts by some to dislodge it. The real estate team from JRINK, the D.C.–local organic fresh-pressed juicery, popped by the space with inquiries once when artists were installing a show. They later approached the property manager at 1404 P Street NW to discuss possibly taking over Transformer’s funky converted alley space. The gallery’s rent shot up as a result, but Transformer held onto its lease. (JRINK says that the company looked at spaces all around 14th and P, noting that “we are absolutely not looking to displace local businesses.”)
All of the artists who will appear at the Hirshhorn After Hours event showed their work previously at Transformer in Defy/Define, a show from last fall. Jason Barnes (Pussy Noir), Alexandra “Rex” Delafkaran, and Kunj Patel will each perform works in the museum courtyard. Baltimore’s Hoesy Corona will man the shadow-casting performance from inside the Hirshhorn’s window-ringed donut with Labbodies, the performance collective he co-directs. Transformer is working with the Hirshhorn’s time-based media specialist, Drew Doucette, and the museum’s new curator of media and performance, Mark Beasley, to sort out the challenge of turning the Hirshhorn into a zoetrope.
And the artists who will inaugurate Siren Arts this summer—that programming is already in place—will also be known to D.C. viewers. The first show, Summer of Radical Love, opens June 24 and pairs John Chaich, the curator behind the popular roving Queer Threads exhibit, with J. Morrison, a New York–based artist who showed a femme and feline installation called “HomoCats” at Transformer in February. Next on deck is D.C. brat-pack NoMüNoMü.
Transformer’s June 10 collaboration with the Hirshhorn bears all the signatures of a Transformer event: a bit of serendipity, internationalism, and hustle. Reis says that the museum’s deputy director, Elizabeth Duggal, pitched her on the prospect of a joint effort last summer. She and several artists had just returned from Rome on a program funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. While she was there, the city of Rome was celebrating its umpteenth-thousandth birthday.
“There was a huge celebration on the Tiber, and William Kentridge did this gorgeous mural project along the banks,” Reis says. “He basically did a stencil by doing a power wash of who knows how many years of dirt and debris [off the walls]. What was left behind were these images of Remus and Romulus—incredible.” She adds, “As part of the birthday celebration, there was this really goth processional of artists carrying lights and shadow projections along the banks of the Tiber”—which is where she got the idea for Transformer’s birthday party.
“Everyone soon or late comes round by Rome,” said Robert Browning. But fewer poets make a point of sailing between the District of Columbia and New Jersey. That’s Reis’ idea of living and, she hopes, a way of strengthening artist connections along the East Coast. Just as she’s done through Transformer over the last 15 years, but only more so.
“People are excited to go to Europe and here and there,” Reis says. “I’m excited to go to the Jersey Shore.”