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When Transformer marks its 10th anniversary this Friday, some of D.C.’s best artists will be among the revelers. And so will some of its worst.
That’s the way it should be. The art organization’s annual silent art auction has for nearly a decade served as an informal art prom, where artists, dealers, and collectors—with and without gallery representation, spaces, and profiles in luxury magazines—come together to drink and dance and maybe exchange some art. It’s not quite a be-seen party on the level of, say, the Corcoran’s annual ball. There aren’t too many have-nots at that gala.
Transformer started out as more of a ’zine than a gallery, showing artworks, mostly through group shows, that didn’t have a home anywhere else in the city. When it opened in 2002, its storefront near the intersection of 14th and P streets NW was one of the first spaces that augured Logan Circle’s march toward gentrification. Ten years in, Transformer appears a little out of place among the luxury-furniture retailers and pork-belly eateries that followed some of the other, now-closed art spaces that opened there around the same time. But while Transformer is no longer transforming Logan Circle, it has transformed itself, in ways that are welcome and in ways that are not.
Over the years, the scrappy arts organization has undergone a spit-shine. Consider Transformer’s deepening alliances with international arts organizations. This weekend’s 10th anniversary party and 9th annual silent auction—held, yes, at the Corcoran—shows work by artists participating in Spain Red, the Spanish cultural association that has in the last couple of years ramped up Spain’s artistic presence in Washington. Four years ago, Transformer brought a show of Mexico City artists to D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute, and the following summer, it took D.C. artists Holly Bass, Breck Brunson, Nilay Lawson, Solomon Sanchez, and Tang to a gallery in Mexico City. Transformer has exhibited emerging artists from Japan and sent a drawing show to London, Berlin, and Cape Town. It reached across the Pacific to bring indigenous Hawaiian artists to the continental U.S.—and bridged an even bigger gulf by collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to show them.
But the high-water mark for the alternative art nonprofit—don’t call it a gallery, even if its shoebox storefront space is one of the few remaining g-words in Logan Circle—came from a far less warm-and-fuzzy interaction with the Smithsonian. In 2010, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered a video artwork by David Wojnarowicz removed from “Hide/Seek,” an exhibit of queer portrait art at the National Portrait Gallery. Transformer Executive and Artistic Director Victoria Reis, a protégé of Visual AIDS founder Patrick O’Connell (who created the red AIDS ribbon), quickly swooped in, posting the banished video in Transformer’s storefront window and helping to usher in a nationwide museum protest movement.
For her effort, Reis earned a small role in the history of the affair, one that burned brightly in Washington and national art circles in the winter of 2010. What seemed in that instant like the culminating moment in the career of a punk nonprofit looks like, in retrospect, a return to roots for an organization that has focused in recent years on boosting its visibility.
But while Transformer may have arrived at a cushier place in the D.C. art scene, it isn’t necessarily a comfortable one. Since its launch by Reis and former co-director Jayme McLellan in 2002, Transformer has depended largely on grants, foundation support, and board development, taking in comparatively little money on arts sales. Even in those shows featuring more sellable works such as prints and paintings (as opposed to graffiti or video installations), Transformer still typically splits the proceeds 70-30, with the bigger cut going to the artist. (McLellan chose to pursue art-as-activism by a different means, kicking up the for-profit Civilian Art Projects in 2006.)
Some of Transformer’s best shows wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial gallery circuit. Take its support of dancers Ginger Wagg and Jane Jerardi, whose work is, obviously, not purchasable. Then there’s “Summer Camp,” which opened in the spring of 2009 with a series of talks, performances, and other odd happenings that blurred the distinction between art and life years before Creative Time mounted its monumental and critically acclaimed “Living as Form” series. The artwork on offer at “Summer Camp” included lectures and meals: again, hardly collectable commodities. “Here & Now”—which Transformer mounted in the 14th Street NW warehouse space that is now Room & Board—remains one of the best sculpture shows in recent memory, for the several days it was open before fire marshals shut it down. It was an installation show whose work seemed the furthest thing from living-room-ready.
Transformer took smart chances on newly minted artists, such as Geoffrey Aldridge, and gave established artists including Molly Springfield a forum for side projects. (Transformer’s former Gallery Manager and Program Coordinator Marissa Long deserves credit for some of this programming.) Transformer was one of the first spaces to introduce Mia Feuer to D.C. audiences, with “Suspended Landscape” in 2010. Many more Transformer shows featured groups of artists experimenting. None of that happened easily, and none of it made much money.
But at the same time, in the last few years a number of curators—let’s call them people with plans—have stepped in to fill the role that Transformer has always pledged to occupy. Eames Armstrong has turned Dupont Circle’s stodgy Hillyer Art Space gallery into D.C.’s most punk art venue with Soapbox, a series that shows nothing but performance art. Characters like Peter Chang appear to take the punk out of DIY art shows by hosting sponsored, glitzy, multinight street- art and performance-art extravaganzas, such as November’s second annual Submerge. By comparison, Transformer’s recent programming seems steadier—but also less ambitious.
Meanwhile, it’s tough to get too excited about one of Transformer’s biggest initiatives for 2013, the digitization of its FlatFile series. The series is more or less a stash of smaller works—mainly prints, drawings, and photographs—that are priced very affordably. Reis and her team plan to put the whole thing online in 2013, opening up sales to a significantly larger market. That’s a worthy goal, especially if it generates some much-needed revenue, but it would be a shame if it distracted Transformer from doing what, traditionally, it has done best: spotlight weird art. The larger art world, including younger artists whose work industry reps co-opted for Rihanna’s most recent performance on Saturday Night Live, is moving toward a distribution model that doesn’t get worked up over sales or editions whatsoever. It’s called the Internet—and neither Reis nor anyone else is doing much to showcase D.C.’s digital natives.
Despite that, Transformer still excels where D.C. curators and dealers have lagged behind. Its strength for the last 10 years hasn’t been selling objects, no; but it deserves praise for its uncompromising dedication to sniffing out new, under-represented, and irreverent art. It’s embraced the dirty work—and that counts for a whole lot, especially when the only real beneficiary is the viewer.
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Transformer’s fiscal health. It originally said that Transformer operates at a loss “year after year.” Its costs did exceed its revenues between fiscal years 2009-2011, but since then, Transformer’s revenues have improved, according to records provided by the organization. Also, from 2005 to 2008, the organization ended each year with a net gain. City Paper does yet not have access to Transformer’s tax records before 2005.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery