The Washington Project for the Arts—one of D.C.’s oldest artist organizations—has found its new executive director: Peter Nesbett, who comes to the organization from Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, will take up the helm on Nov. 2. He’s looking at a challenge that some other former directors never faced. Nesbett will be responsible for steering the storied organization through something it hasn’t seen in quite a while: stability.
In November, the WPA will move into its new home in the Atlantic Plumbing development, the project rising over the 9:30 Club north of the U Street Corridor. This will mark the first time that the organization has had anything like a permanent space to call home in years—since 1996, arguably, when it merged with the Corcoran Gallery of Art to keep from dissolving.
The worst may finally be behind the WPA. Just in time for its 40th anniversary this year, the nonprofit secured a long-term lease for some 1,500 feet of storefront space under former director Lisa Gold, who was recruited by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in August. Gold’s WPA successor says that he senses the opportunity in front of him.
“I have a great respect for alternative spaces in this country, going back to that first wave in the 1970s, of which WPA was a part,” Nesbett says. “It’s a legendary organization. I jumped at it. Immediately.”
Even if the dog days are over for the WPA, which was launched in 1975 by Alice Denney—who today might still be the D.C. art scene’s greatest champion—the organization still has a lot of catching up to do. In recent years, the WPA has been forced to find space wherever it could in order to promote District artists, making for a pop-up model before pop-ups were cool.
Membership shows or curated invitationals at the old Staples store in Georgetown or the long-gone Warehouse space on 7th Street, among other temporary spaces, have been the rule of the day. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But nomadic life has made it hard for the WPA to make a stand.
And over the last decade, the fundamental logic for the WPA has shifted. For example, it still publishes an Artists’ Directory, a biannual, fully illustrated guide to artist-members working in D.C. The directory was once a major plank in the group’s mission, but today it’s about as useful as the Yellow Pages. Of course, the WPA built out an online directory; a static repository for thumbnails and artists’ statements. In any case, the group’s membership is growing: The WPA boasts more than 800 truly active members (though the group’s official membership roll is even larger).
Nesbett arrives at the WPA after a lengthy rebuilding. At least two directors, Gold and her predecessor, Kim Ward, focused on finding the financial footing to free the organization from the Corcoran in order to pursue its own programming and fundraising under a fully independent WPA board. Ward ended the 11-year Washington Project of the Arts/Corcoran partnership in 2007; Gold continued the push for greater legitimacy when she took over in 2009.
“Over the last decade, the organization has worked hard to stabilize itself,” Nesbett says. “The legacy Lisa left behind in terms of that, the board’s commitment, seems very, very real.”
Unlike other recent WPA directors, Nesbett will begin with a firm foundation. The WPA has a lease on its Morris Adjmi–designed storefront until at least 2022; the organization’s revenues jumped 50 percent between the fiscal years ending in 2013 and 2014. Hell, it even has a handsome new brand and website. Whatever Nesbett sees as the obvious next step, he isn’t saying—or rather, he isn’t committing to anything just yet.
Nesbett has only just this month moved to D.C. from Philly, so his first order of business here is meeting the city’s artists—literally. Nesbett is looking to get an audience with 100 artists over his first 100 days on the job. He has a ton of programming ideas, he says, but he doesn’t want to lead with any of them—not until he gauges what at least 100 artists want the WPA to be doing.
“It’s all got to come out of the artists,” Nesbett says.
Nevertheless, he has lots of opinions about where the WPA fits, historically, in the pantheon of alternative and nonprofit art spaces. He sounds like a crusty old-timer when he discusses the importance of the “Punk Art” festival that Denney, WPA’s founding director, hosted back in 1978. Or the time the organization wound its way into the art history books, when it saved a show of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe that the Corcoran, cowed by Congress, declined to exhibit in 1989.
Beyond the history of the Culture Wars, Nesbett knows the contemporary landscape of alternative and nonprofit art spaces, citing as potential models for the WPA an artist-run incubator in London (called Cubitt Artists) and a trans-European union of visual-art organizations (called Cluster).
These are just sketches of ideas, he says. However, Nesbett admits up front that the WPA could be better integrated with other arts organizations through partnerships, nationally and internationally. He may very well have the institutional experience to build those bridges.
At the Pew Center, Nesbett worked as a visual-arts specialist, overseeing $3 million for museums and galleries. He comes from the other side of grant-writing—the part that sees the applications and gives out the grants—and is used to working with much larger purses than the WPA typically receives. “I don’t want to arrive with a bag of tricks,” he says—but “a sharpened sense of resource development,” as he puts it, is hardly going to be unwelcome in D.C.
Since the downturn, the city has endured the failure of the Corcoran and Rosslyn’s Artisphere. Locally, commercial galleries have struggled. What used to be the epicenter of the art scene—14th Street NW—now serves as a barometer for how high cocktail prices are trending in the District.
The most visible local art-scene functions are the annual art auctions, which divide proceeds between the hosts and artists (WPA does better than most with a 50/50 split). These auctions depend on artists donating artworks to be sold (in order to fund the organizations that in turn support the artists). Nesbett really does have his work cut out for him: With the WPA, he has the structure in place to harness a sense of conviction that the art scene’s been lacking. And maybe even find ways to introduce that scene to the city.
In the past, the WPA has worked to stage shows across the city (in part because it had to, for lack of a true home). Programs like the “Options” biennial, which has venue-surfed for years, won’t necessarily be staged at the WPA’s brick-and-mortar storefront. Those ventures may continue to be far flung. Nesbett says he’d like to complement these ongoing programs with something like a publishing opportunity for artists—a concept a little broader than a single-artist exhibit or a group show. Not necessarily a print journal, or even a website, but something else. It might wind up looking like The Thing Quarterly, a San Francisco “publication” that commissions artists to create and distribute special works on a quarterly basis. (“We publish objects,” reads the group’s tagline.) That could be a start.
“I almost have my blinders on,” Nesbett says. He isn’t spilling any specifics about what he has in store before he has those conversations. The WPA has programming in place from winter into the summer of 2016. “So that buys me some time to gauge the temperature of the city,” he says, “and how much it’s willing and wants to dream.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
This article originally stated that Lisa Gold left for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in September; she left in August. This article also original stated that the WPA would be moving into its new building in December; they’re moving in November.