When D.C. gallerist Leigh Conner bought an auto body shop in Trinidad in 2007 for $1.4 million, she admitted that the beat-up, 12,000-square-foot building wasn’t “sexy-looking.” “Every day I go over there, I’m excited and nauseated by the process we’re going through,” she told the Post of her plans to gut and remake the building into the home of one of D.C.’s most prominent contemporary-art galleries.
Seven years later, the Post reports tonight, Connersmith is preparing to sell the building at 1358 Florida Ave. NE to Capital Fringe, the scrappy arts festival that for three weeks each summer takes over much of Mount Vernon Square with its slate of lo-fi, anything-goes theater and performance. And it’s doubtful the building’s incoming owners are feeling nauseous over the prospect; they’re probably salivating.
After all, in Connersmith Capital Fringe will get exactly what founder Julianne Brienza has said she wants in a new hub for the festival: more than 10,000 square feet, surely enough for several black-box theaters and other amenities; a proven destination (the building is only blocks from H Street NE); and a property title, not a lease. According to the Post, Fringe paid a $350,000 deposit on June 20 and will pay another $1.65 million by Oct. 1; the full tab, which Fringe did not disclose, is due in September 2017.
The festival, which begins its ninth summer next month, has been headquartered in Fort Fringe, its 21,000-square-foot campus on New York Avenue NW, since 2008, and is planning to leave the space sometime after this year’s festivities. That property, a former Italian restaurant rented to Fringe by Douglas Development, contains several performance venues, a box office, and Fringe’s offices—-not to mention the outdoor Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, where Fringe performers and attendees and what can sometimes seem like D.C.’s entire theater scene convene each day and night of the festival. Meanwhile, many of the 100-plus Fringe shows have taken place in nearby storefronts, churches, and traditional theater spaces.
Bar sales make up a robust portion of Fringe’s earned income each year, and at Connersmith, Fringe will be able to transform an enclosed outdoor space into a beer garden. “I want to make a space similar to the Fort where people can actually communicate to each other about live performance and what it’s about,” Brienza told me in March. “Or maybe they just go to the bar because they saw an ad about it.”
In addition to the first-floor art gallery and office used by Conner, the building has a capacious second-floor space that was formerly occupied by contemporary-design gallery Industry. Adapting the building for a performance festival will cost $2.7 million, Fringe Chief Operating Officer Peter Korbel tells the Post, which reports that the project’s overall cost is projected to be $9.2 million. That figure includes construction, the purchase of the property, and a reserve fund for operation.
Already the festival has its eye on H Street: This year’s schedule includes three of the performance spaces within the Atlas Performing Arts Center. And while much of the 2014 programming is in the Gallery Place and Mount Vernon Square areas, as in recent years the festival is also present in other parts of the city, with venues as far-flung as Brookland, Park View, and Barracks Row. Among other changes this year: The festival has added a “site-specific” category year highlighting the city’s ascendent performance-art scene. (Unlike the rest of the festival, for which any applicant meeting the requirements will likely be accepted as a Fringe performer, the “site-specific” performances are curated.)
As for Connersmith, the gallery will now search for a smaller brick-and-mortar space in D.C. while continuing to exhibit at commercial art fairs and run the (e)merge art fair at the Capitol Skyline Hotel each fall. Their exit from Florida Avenue marks the end for what once seemed like D.C.’s best cluster of art galleries. Industry has left; so has Connersmith’s former next-door neighbor, G Fine Art, which is now sharing a space in 16th Street Heights with Civilian Art Projects.
But for arts consumers, the biggest adjustment may be getting used to a downtown area that’s quickly running out of weird. The work spaces and DIY venues that made up Gold Leaf Studios on I Street NW have been replaced with pricey apartments; nearby, Gallery Place hasn’t deserved its name in at least 10 years.
The news that Fringe’s time would soon be up isn’t a surprise, of course: Brienza and her staff has known for years about Douglas’ plans to develop their block of New York Avenue, designs that will also mean the end of the rarely used Warehouse Theatre. Another Fringe neighbor, the old-school, leather-daddy-friendly gay bar DC Eagle, shut down in January and is moving to a large building in Ward 7.
On H Street, the already-frenzied bar scene should benefit from a three-week boost during Fringe, but the bigger win is for the arts. A venue like the H Street Playhouse may have been priced out of the area, but Brienza has said she envisions Fringe’s next home as a place where Fringe-like companies could perform all year. “There are very few spaces for midlevel, amateur theater in D.C.,” she told me in March. “And I feel like there’s more to do. People need more.”
First, she’ll need the money. Until now, Fringe hasn’t employed a full-time development staffer, although according to the Post, it’s brought on former Atlas head Sam Sweet to lead a capital campaign.
Last May, in a discussion at Fort Fringe on the future of the festival, Brienza laid out her ambitions for a new headquarters. I don’t want a new space,” she said. “That’s not our scene.” Still, the question of how Fringe ought to mature caused at least some participants to worry that, like Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company before it, Fringe could graduate from its rough-and-tumble space to something more polished. “They lost that thing,” said Steve McWilliams of the troupe Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Revue. “Don’t lose that vibe.”
At the very least, you can’t say a former body shop lacks vibe.