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It’s an accident, Ora Nwabueze insists, that both of his venues happen to be on top of other establishments. The Dunes, the gallery-cum-show space that the former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer opened last May, sits above The Getaway in Columbia Heights. And his new venture—-VeraCruz, which opens next month—-is right above Duffy’s Irish Pub at 2108 Vermont Ave. NW. “I’m not doing this on purpose, it just became vacant,” Nwabueze says of the new space. “There’s only two so I can’t say [the business model] is statistically credible.”
Nwabueze is billing VeraCruz as “D.C.’s only and one of the world’s very few art galleries dedicated exclusively to interior murals”—-every six to eight weeks, exhibiting artists will repaint the walls of the art gallery and bar. Nwabueze hopes to open the new venue in mid-June.
Some of the programming at The Dunes has been palatably outre—-indie rock, forward-thinking jazz, North Korean dissident kitsch art—-but its interior is clean-cut and almost habitat-like, thanks to a wall of glass facing 14th Street NW. “This will be a much more rustic, much more distressed-looking place,” Nwabueze says of VeraCruz. “This will be pretty in a different way.” VeraCruz’s space is about 1,600 square feet.
Nwabueze has hired as the gallery’s director Peter Chang, an artist whose No Kings Collective has a knack for generating buzz for vacant spaces by plastering them with the work of muralists and graffiti artists, and then turning on the art party. (See Submerge and the Water St. Project.) Unlike most murals—-the outdoor kind—-the ones at VeraCruz will be for sale. Artists will be able to paint on canvas stretched across the walls, or on the walls themselves. If gallery-goers wants to purchase a piece of a mural, in some cases the gallery will simply remove that portion of the drywall. The artists on display will include local, national, and international artists, Nwabueze promises.
All of which positions VeraCruz as a bridge between the city’s contemporary art galleries and the local pop-ups and galleries that often feature street art, like The Fridge and Art Whino. When I use that particularly loaded term, Nwabueze demurs: “I don’t consider the murals to be street art. They literally won’t be.” And while the artists will use paint—-provided by a sponsor—-it won’t be the kind you spray.
Artists will be happy to know that Nwabueze’s business model doesn’t involve making money from the art. That’s what the bar, food, and ticketed events—-performing arts, storytelling, private bookings—-are for. And Nwabueze says the exhibitions will function as residencies, with the gallery providing workspace at another (as yet undetermined) location.
Nwabueze is calling the first exhibition—-a collaboration with the style site ReadysetDC—-“For the Love of Shaw.” (Never mind that the intersection of Vermont and Florida is just north of the neighborhood.) The first artists to paint VeraCruz’s interior are TBA; Nwabueze is also promising programming related to restaurants and businesses in Shaw and events that will benefit nonprofits based in the neighborhood.
As the name suggests, VeraCruz will have a Latin flavor: It’ll serve Latin American beers and “pan-Latino” food, the latter in concert with a local restaurant or caterer, Nwabueze says. His inspiration for the concept—-other than the Mexican state of Veracruz, obviously—-is the area of Panama City called Casco Viejo, where some ruinous buildings have been rehabbed as bars and restaurants, but with their graffiti intact. “There’s so much creativity in the way they laid out those spaces,” says Nwabueze.
Nwabueze traveled to Latin America when he lived in California, and he’s returning to the West Coast this month—-to L.A., where he hopes to open another VeraCruz outpost later this year.