You can’t go home again, the saying goes, and for Jessica Dawson, that might be true. Earlier this month, the former Washington Post art critic penned a letter to her hometown for Vulture, New York magazine’s culture site, that ran under the headline, “Why Is Washington, D.C., an Art Desert?” Dawson’s a lifelong Wizards fan, but it’s time for her to pick the Knicks or the Nets. She has planted her flag in New York.
By this point, D.C. residents have had about enough of Christopher Columbus–ing journalists from New York who write as if they’d just discovered the place. (“In a Changing Washington, Lots of Stuff,” deadpanned a Washington City Paper headline two months back, after the last time the New York Times found restaurants in D.C. neighborhoods.) It’s either that, or New Yorkers write about the District as if the city extends no further than federal #ThisTown.
Dawson, who wrote for City Paper between 1998 and 2000 and for the Post for 10 years after that, ought to know better. Still, she does get some things right, despite the provincial posture. This year was harder than most for D.C., given the collapse of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the uncertainty that surrounds the newly minted Corcoran School of the Arts and Design going forward under George Washington University. Some of her points are rooted in old prejudices, however, based on trends that don’t hold true any more.
“You’ll hear it today, just as you heard it 10, 15, or even 20 years ago: The scene is changing, things are happening,” Dawson writes. Only this time, it’s finally true. The scene is changing; things are happening. For lots of reasons Dawson overlooks, one way or another, 2015 marks a turning point for the D.C. art scene.
First and foremost, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden may have finally put its house in order. New director Melissa Chiu debuts her first exhibition this spring. Assuming that Iranian cyberterrorists don’t shut it down before it opens, “Shirin Neshat: Facing History,” a survey of the Iranian-born artist’s photography and video art, will be a credit in the Hirshhorn’s ledger. The museum hasn’t had steady leadership since way back in 2003. In 2015, it starts with a clean slate.
True, with her first major hire, Chiu snubbed D.C.: As Dawson notes, she brought on the Swiss Institute’s Gianni Jetzer as a curator-at-large who will be based in New York. (Though, to be fair, every curator works “at large”: They live at festivals, fairs, and biennials.) Earlier in December, Chiu announced her selection for chief curator, Stéphane Aquin, who has served as curator of contemporary art for the Montreal Museum of Fine Art since 1998. Presumably, he’ll be putting down roots in the District.
No one knows yet what a new Hirshhorn will mean for locals. They may never see another National Mall liaison as devoted to D.C. as former Hirshhorn curator Kristen Hileman or former National Portrait Gallery curator Anne Collins Goodyear, both of whom were visible fixtures on the local art scene. It’s a good thing, then, that the Phillips Collection has stepped up locally. Since 2010, the museum has spotlighted a number of District artists or artists with D.C. ties with solo shows (Barbara Liotta, Jae Ko, Jean Meisel, Nicholas and Sheila Pye, Vesna Pavlovic´ and Linn Meyers). This year, the museum awarded the second annual Phillips Collection Emerging Artist Prize, a best-in-show selection from the (e)merge Art Fair.
By late 2015, the city’s biggest advocate for visual art will have a permanent presence. That’s the tentative opening set for a new space for the Washington Project for the Arts at 8th and V Streets NW. This is an institution that’s been wandering the desert (so to speak) for decades; the new location, which director Lisa Gold has secured through at least 2022, includes a dedicated gallery, offices, and a mixed-use space—even some room for retail artist books or art editions. Sure, one organization landing a fixed address isn’t exactly a sea change. But Gold (and her predecessors, Kim Ward and Annie Adjchavanich) righted the ship at the WPA after it sank in 1995. Alice Denney’s original vision for a service center for artists is still viable.
Local artists found an unexpected friend this year in D.C. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who announced at the (e)merge Art Fair in October the launch of Arts Action D.C.: part coalition, part lobbying platform, part seat at the table. Right now, the visual arts are terribly underrepresented among the list of Arts Action partners: Hamiltonian Gallery’s Angie Goerner and the Phillips Collection’s Dorothy Kosinski and Vesela Sretenovic stand alone among a roster weighted toward theater. D.C.’s got loads of self-declared arts administrators, and here’s a genuine way for them to get involved in arts administration in 2015. (Maybe it will come to nothing. But even back in 2012, when Grosso seemed like an outside shot, he was talking about how poorly the Council served artists. Now, he’s backing up his words.)
When Dawson writes about the Washington Color School (a nationally relevant style some 60 years ago), she’s talking about powerful forces that shaped D.C.’s past. When she writes about Mera Rubell (a Miami art collector who has invested recently in property here and in Baltimore), she’s talking about the city’s future (maybe). Same for when Dawson writes about yesterday’s plans for a temporary Bubble pavilion at the Hirshhorn, or tomorrow’s plans for an Institute for Contemporary Expression kunsthalle in the Franklin School downtown.
But right now—today—what’s shaping art is real estate, here and everywhere. In D.C., at least, that stands to shift in 2015. The crushing growth that has transformed the city over the past 15 years, for good and bad, has started to slow. The heady market for condos and conversions is cooling. That doesn’t mean housing will be any more affordable soon (sorry, everyone), but slightly slower growth opens the way for some settling and filtering in the market. Translation: D.C. galleries that have shuffled through three or four locations over the last decade might find permanent addresses.
If 2015 really does mark the turning of the tide for D.C., it will come too late for some artists who lost their patience with the city. I wonder about those artists who left for New York. Are they all better off than they were, or might have been?
It’s basic for New Yorkers to crow about how much more art there is in New York, the largest city in the country, by far. Of course there is—and any serious comparison is a bama move. But is the gulf between D.C.’s local art scene and the National Mall really larger than the chasm separating Bushwick artists and the Big Four mega-galleries in Chelsea (Pace, David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth)?
There are some data that help tease out the comparison. According to the most recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, employment in the District’s independent art industry, relative to all D.C. employment, is 30 percent below the national average. That means there might be a problem, or an opportunity. (The research compiles data from the 2005–2009 American Community Survey and the 2010 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.)
Unfortunately, the same data for independent artists working in New York don’t exist. But in Los Angeles—which mirrors New York for most every category outside of film and publishing—the concentration of employment for independent artists is more than five times the national average. New York’s concentration of artists is probably even higher: The city’s concentration of art dealers, for example, is almost three times the national average, while L.A.’s gallery concentration is just 20 percent over the national line. (There’s no concentration data for art dealers in D.C.)
No shocker here: New York is chock-a-block with artists. That makes it the glorious art capital of the world—and a tough place to hack it. In 2015, I’d tell young, aspiring artists to try their hands somewhere else first. Detroit, or Dallas, or maybe even the Desert of Columbia. Here, and in other major metro areas that aren’t New York, good artists stand to gain as much from curators, critics, and collectors as they would in the Big Apple. Maybe even a lot more.
Dawson’s story isn’t really a comparison between New York and D.C. (I think she’d find that laughable.) The District is not without its problems, but c’mon, it’s hardly the Island of Misfit Toys. (That’s Dawson’s favorite quip about D.C.: you know, from that claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer holiday special? Ho ho ho.) New York critics who ask too much of smaller cities, or just sneer at them, risk getting caught up in a kind of North Pole provincialism. There isn’t a present waiting in New York for every good boy and girl who wants one. Outcomes matter, and in 2015, D.C.’s emerging artists have reason for optimism.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery