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Who’s bothered by the fact that House of Cards tapes in Baltimore, not in D.C.? Let’s see. Folks who work at the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, for sure. Young aspirational residents of Capitol Hill, too, I’m betting. The D.C. art world? After last week, when Pussy Riot joined Kevin Spacey and company in Charm City, maybe so.
The Baltimore City Paper reported on Aug. 8 that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the notorious dissident artists jailed for hooliganism in Russia after staging a public-art performance under the name Pussy Riot, will appear in the third season of House of Cards. The same writer who broke the rumor, Baynard Woods, confirmed it three days later when he ran into Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina at a bar in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. This led Woods to observe that Station North suits Pussy Riot: Both of them are part of the “global cool underground” that “no longer felt underground at all.”
Fair enough, but let’s talk about underground for a minute. Had things gone a little differently, House of Cards would be taping its third season in D.C. Which leads me to wonder: Is there a place in the District that suits an art-punk outfit like Pussy Riot—even the Netflixed-down version?
Around the turn of the millenium, Washington’s art galleries exploded in number, square footage, and sheer inventiveness. Galleries like Fusebox and Hemphill Fine Arts helped to set the stage in 2001 and 2003, respectively, for the gentrification to come to Logan Circle. These were real white cube spaces, with all the politics incumbent on them. Around the corner, Transformer turned an alley space into a punk incubator, one that has gone on to partner with cultural institutions from Beijing, Berlin, and Mexico City, plus the National Mall. Art dealers who had hibernated for years in Georgetown ventured out, seeding new spaces in Dupont Circle, Bethesda, and beyond.
But in the past few years, some of that forward momentum has dissipated. Fusebox closed in 2006, to be replaced by Irvine Contemporary Art, which closed in 2011 and gave way to Contemporary Wing, a zombie gallery that operates in part of the space from time to time. Civilian Art Projects and G Fine Art both made moves to try to keep their doors open, deciding in April on splitting a space between the two of them in 16th Street Heights. Randall Scott Gallery, which has opened its doors as many times as any of them, may be closing shop on H Street NE to venture up to Baltimore.
ConnerSmith closed its doors last weekend, a little more than a year after Forbes published a Q&A that knighted gallery directors Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith for their ambitions. (Headline: “How ConnerSmith Gallery is Turning Washington, D.C. Into Capital of Contemporary Art [sic].”) The gallery had moved from a second-floor space in Dupont Circle to a 12,000-square-foot white cube in Trinidad—but this summer, its directors moved on. The signs were all there: The gallery had shed virtually all the D.C. artists it once represented, even recently shedding local girl-made-good Mia Feuer. For the time being, the dealers appear to be content hosting the (e)merge art fair. (They say they’re looking for a new brick-and-mortar space.)
While several dealers have either returned to Georgetown or found a new home there, including Cross MacKenzie Gallery and Neptune Fine Art, those galleries deal in more decorative or fashionable contemporary art (or the secondary market). D.C. galleries dealing in more adventuresome forms of contemporary art can be counted on two hands—principally, if not exclusively, Hemphill Fine Arts, the District of Columbia Arts Center, Transformer, Project 4, Hamiltonian Gallery, Adamson Gallery, Flashpoint, and G Fine Art/Civilian Art Projects. There may be more ramen joints in the District. Soon, there will be more movie theaters.
“While I believe galleries are important, they are not the only metric of a healthy art scene,” says Lisa Gold, director of the Washington Project for the Arts, a nonprofit membership organization that plans to open a new space on V Street NW by fall 2015. “I believe it’s easier—I’m not saying it’s-a-cakewalk-easy, just easier—for an artist to have his or her work seen by a curator or a collector or a consultant here than in New York or Miami.”
For sure, certain alternative models have flourished. DCAC, the old stalwart, isn’t a traditional commercial gallery, for example, though it’s been a reliable venue for aggressive art for 25 years. Through pop-up residencies at Studio 1469, dealer Andrea Pollan is keeping her Curator’s Office brand relevant, despite closing her 14th Street NW gallery space last summer. Independent curator Eames Armstrong hosts more art exhibitions than anyone else in Washington, mostly in the DIY performance vein—under the name Aether Art Projects at Hillyer Art Space and elsewhere. The Fridge and Pleasant Plains Workshop also show plenty of work. There are more house shows and one-off exhibits and apartment pop-ups than a single critic can track. But if the alternatives outnumber the mainstream models, are these outposts the cool fringe of the fine-art scene, or an entire half of it?
“My sense is the changes affecting Washington are the same as those affecting the national art scene and the international art market,” says George Hemphill. He says that auction houses have wildly distorted the market for art. Although those sales aren’t competing with galleries operating in D.C., the values trickle down, so to speak. Even in Washington, representing art and making it work means navigating a course between what the market values collectively and what a collector needs individually. “Local for us means an individual collector,” he says.
Another figure who has found success in D.C. rejects the question out of hand. “Civilian, G, Curator’s Office, and ConnerSmith are all still operating, they are just functioning in different spaces then they were originally in,” says Victoria Reis, director of Transformer, one of Washington’s most successful art programs (and a nonprofit, not a traditional gallery). “I don’t think the closing of the space an entity has been operating out of necessarily means that program is over. It’s just a change. Change happens. There can be vitality and opportunity in change.”
Reis is quick to point out that there may be as many alternative organizations and artist collectives in D.C. today as there were in the 1990s. I’ll take her word on that; I’d only add that there is probably as much art being sold today as back then, too (not terribly much). In any other sector, the difference between the D.C. of 1994 and the D.C. of 2014 is alarmingly vast. The jarring thing about the D.C. art scene—measured, I suppose, by a deeply unsexy and opaque points-of-sale metric—is its expansion and subsequent decline.
If anything, D.C. in 2014 looks a little like San Francisco in 2014. The problem may not be too little growth, but too much. Gallery strategies that worked out for decades may not fit the city now that there are few untapped commercial or warehouse districts where residents can’t find a $14 cocktail. In this city, residents and businesses are bound by Congress and the Height Act from building upward to satisfy demand for residential space, putting a premium on every neglected basement hovel that might otherwise be an artist’s studio. (San Francisco has the same problem, but it has no one to blame but itself.) Neither tech bros nor politicos are especially inclined toward putting their disposable income toward systemic support of the arts—not without encouragement, anyway.
That’s all fine, according to the people who are making it work in D.C. today. The District might not be fit to host Pussy Riot, or it might be just cool enough, depending on how you judge two women who decided they’re in no hurry to return to an east Siberian jail cell. The local art scene isn’t as lofty as people projected it would be back in 2003. But maybe D.C. has found a resilient core instead.
“I remembered when I arrived that people were concerned about the ‘loss’ of good artists to New York,” Gold says. “But then new artists arrived, and people started to see resident artists’ work develop, and I stopped hearing that so much. I think art, by nature, is generative, and it continues to grow.”