“Proliferating ‘Alternative’ Art Presentation Venues: Heading Beyond Traditional Museum or Permanent Gallery Spaces”
They have become so omnipresent that one almost does not think about them, which is one of the main reasons why I think it is important to. If “in the old days” we used to go to a museum or specialized commercial gallery to look at even Contemporary art, this is quickly becoming by-and-large no longer the case. It seems to be virtually everywhere now, and the “art exhibition” has taken on so many different forms as well as locales that it seems worthwhile to “catalogue” these, considering this widespread phenomenon’s causations and implications. While on the face of it, economic considerations might appear the accurate answer to the question of “why,” avoiding or minimizing financial overhead can be suggested to be not the sole reason. And that response certainly does not entirely cover what systemic shifts underlie such changes, nor their ramifications.
Of course, this phenomenon has a history, but still something seems to have fundamentally changed with these new developments. To begin at the very beginning, obviously even Medieval and Renaissance art was seen by its viewers in the contexts of churches, monasteries, public buildings, books, palaces or residences for which it was commissioned. The art museum was a late “invention” of the seventeenth century, initially royal collections which were not even open to the public until the eighteenth; and although they existed then, the private art gallery did not really come into its own until the nineteenth century. This means the “white cube” exhibition spaces we use here as a comparative “standard” have only relatively recently become that, historically speaking.
And certainly by at least the nineteenth century’s latter half, there were already precedents for “alternative” (to museum or gallery) art exhibition venues. One thinks, for example, of the infamous Café Volpini on the grounds of the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris: where the “Impressionist and Synthetist” group of artists that included Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard hung their works so visitors to that larger public event might perhaps pass through. Before that, the iconic first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 took place in the recently-vacated studio of the early society photographer Nadar, its glass front wall facing on the Parisian boulevard des Capucines to allow enough light to enter for lengthy exposures. During the same period, work by avant-garde artists was also shown in the shops where they (at times) bartered them for their supplies: like Paul Cezanne at Pere Tanguy’s, with paint and canvas merchant functioning almost like an art dealer.
Such “end runs” around traditional art exhibition settings by those who wanted to call that system into question, formulate other approaches to presenting their new kinds of works to the public, or were not (yet) able to gain access to the established ones was definitely a characteristic of “progressive” art movements in the twentieth century. Two pronounced illustrations of a tendency to meld art and the everyday can be cited from the late 1950s and early 60s respectively: the first the Situationist International, conceived by politically oppositional Marxists and involving “interventions” of various kinds in the urban fabric; and the second being events like Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” (in America) and Wolf Vostell’s “street art” (in Europe), that integrated their artistic performances into “real life.”
So granted, utilization of non-traditional or rejection of art-specialized contexts in which to exhibit works does possess a past, but this (at least in the Washington metropolitan area) most recent “alternative venues” trend seems to be different, or (at least in some cases) to have to do with other impulses. For part of what we are seeing here are alterations in how art objects are thought about or the kind of role(s) they play in our lives, in addition to a re-structuring of cultural production-and-consumption systems that can be seen elsewhere (outside the visual arts) also. Such venues observably have to do with specific characteristics or qualities: a greater “temporality” (they are more temporary), the blurring of boundaries between the marketing of art and other commodities (or activities), a dissolution of centralized and/or fixed “distribution sources,” greater absorption into a public sphere, and what can be referred to as “virtualization” (or de-materialization).
If we look more closely at the at least a dozen shapes or forms a-traditional “alternative venues” take at the moment in and around the city, these somewhat-abstract qualities will become more concrete. To begin with that emphasis on “temporality,” relevant phenomena include: existing musical performance locales where Contemporary art is shown as a “one-time” feature (or an artist’s works provide “décor” for one-night disco parties); so-called “pop-ups,” or exhibitions which involve utilization of either other spaces than a gallery’s main location, or planned for abandoned or not-yet-occupied (non-art) buildings; and such events as art fairs or like the infamous itinerant Artomatic which only occur periodically.
Secondly, with respect to the aforementioned “blurring of boundaries” between showing or marketing art and that of other commodities or activities, one thinks of: high-end home furnishing and design stores which show art along with their furniture (selling it, too); restaurants, bars and cafes that hang Contemporary art on their walls (with information about it available from the staff); and curated or programmatic installations in businesses’ offices or companies commissioning it. Regarding the third characteristic of some “alternative venues,” dissolution of an intermediary or fixed distribution system: in particular artists’ marketing their own artistic production inside their studios, “art walks” or collaborative studio visit arrangements are convincing instances, if not entirely novel ones historically.
Perhaps seeming equally based in an historical tradition would be the fourth “category” of alternative art venue: what I am terming “absorption into the public sphere,” although in the context of today’s gallery and museum scene this comes to seem indeed “alternative” to them, rather than being simply “public sculpture.” For these arrangements or manifestations are often either (again) temporarily appearing, or produced by the public for itself, instead of being fixed monuments built. Yet finally the most typically of-our-time-seeming mode of alternative venue is the final category cited: that of “virtualized” or dematerialized art forms, such as those online; or if organized by itinerant consultants and/or independent curators. Let us take a look at revealing illustrations of each to see what they might mean.
Within the first group of phenomena mentioned above, exhibitions of art which possess greater temporality or are more temporal (time-bound or especially “fleeting”) in nature, we can single out both (for example) Contemporary visual art presented at musical performance locales; and such work appearing periodically, or in changing or “spinoff” locations. Doubtless best known within the DC Metro area’s practitioners of the former presentational mode or medium is Christopher Murray of Govinda Gallery, who formerly ran an exhibition space in Georgetown; and now operates out of offices on MacArthur Boulevard, which are used as an address that clients can visit by appointment, but from which Murray and his assistant Anna Jacoby primarily “plan and organize exhibitions and work on various fine art publications, most recently Bob Dylan NY 1961-1964 (Rizzoli).”
But Murray/Govinda has become an “alternative venue” on multiple levels: for it also offers photographs to viewers via e-mailings online gratis, intended as “ads” for the art photography he still sells as well as exhibitions and books he puts together. Then there is his use of music performance locales, such as Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown, a nightclub with a “display space” programmed by Murray: where for instance William Adair’s (originally titled) The Golden Doors to Infinity were installed in March 2014 (viewer participation prompted by providing graffiti markers), accompanied by a show of musician Walter Egan’s The Martyrs of Rock photographs. While the former was planned to ultimately disintegrate in the desert, and Mark Jenkins wrote the latter would appeal more to rock fans than connoisseurs, Murray’s utilization of inter-related strategies seems ingenious.
Of course, Govinda’s specific choice of “alternative venues” seems especially apropos given the artworks in questions’ themes are frequently music and the star culture around it, while at the same time calling to mind “synesthesia” (or the conflation of vision and sound). Such inventive cleverness in constructing or organizing “alternatives” in presenting or producing art now is also employed by those in my second subsection under “increased temporality”: four prominent instances in which Contemporary art appears in “spin-off” locales other than (or even replacing) a traditional permanent central “mission control.” While “pop-ups” has become generic for this kind of phenomenon: somehow that term seems to trivialize, or even denigrate such significant new complex structures. Let us prove this assertion by surveying these well-known examples seeming to support it.
The pre-eminent embodiment of this “pop-up” and/or organization of projects separate from yet linked to a central “command post” which must be profiled is Washington Project for the Arts, a crucial institution on the DC scene since 1975. When founded by Alice Denney, it was in fact part of an initial “grassroots” move in the direction of “alternative artist spaces;” now “the largest visual-arts based membership organization in the DC area” (website). The author had the honor of being the final person to interview its Executive Director Lisa Gold before she moved on to the Hirshhorn Museum; WPA’s current offices in the Skyline Hotel in SW were previously located downtown, then were affiliated with the former Corcoran Gallery of Art until 2008, when it separated and moved to space in a basement at Dupont Circle (one barely large enough for exhibitions).
This non-profit organization already had a long history of collaboration as well as working in other or public domains; they have initiated a video art program in the hotel’s spaces, reminding one of the annual (e)merge art fairs. Their endeavors have taken many forms, including performance work (given financial depression easiest to finance) dependent upon their contextual settings; and “out-sourced” exhibitions such as “Rebel Effect” (2002) at the Museum of Art of the Americas as well as undertakings like “5 X 5” (where that many participants were invited by that number of independent curators to create their own projects within the community). “Partnering” with other organizations, institutions and businesses not ordinarily involved in arts sponsorship have been WPA hallmarks: making possible sharing audiences, resources and networks to “spread the word.”
One awaits their upcoming move to 8th & V Streets NW, where WPA will head after a new Director’s appointment; but as its previous one argues: non-traditional spaces (where not expected), temporality, and a vagabond nature affects a public’s experience of art positively—changing their perception of it, or causing them to question if it is art—in a “healthy” way. The same might also be said of the second now-become-institution in D.C. needing to be included in this category of “spin-off” from its main directorial locale: the (e)merge art fair having occurred three years in a row, organized by Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith of CONNERSMITH. There will not be a 2015 fair, due to preoccupation with their new (if in this context old-fashioned) permanent gallery-to-be at 10th & O NW.
Apparently this dynamic duo are also seeking a less-cramped space for their (e)merge art fair, which to some of us may seem sad: as the uncanny setting of (once again) the Capitol Skyline hotel previously worked as the fair’s setting to what seemed its surrealistic “alternative venue” advantage. Yet since our previous Alternative Focus#8 article of 2013 reviewed that year’s manifestation as well as alluding to its first appearance, we will not focus at length on (e)merge here except to note its status as a “spin-off” venue from CONNERSMITH’s primary converted industrial location (at that time on Florida Avenue NE). Since our mapping of “alternatives” will include their venture into the online-art domain in conclusion, it seems sufficient to point out that these dealers have employed or are now trying out almost every possible fashion in which art can be presented.
However, perhaps most revolutionary and moveable of all is the Artomatic show and its supporting social substructure, which warrant consideration in this part of our “alternative venue” survey of temporary presentations of Contemporary art, as it re-conceived how that process has traditionally functioned. Although now including a large group of networked artists who have literally taken the exhibition of their work into their own hands, this institution-without-a-home was initially the brainchild of its “Chair Emeritus and Founder” George C. Koch (who, despite his title seeming to place him in the organization’s past, appears to be still vitally involved in its operations). Having come to Washington to work in the Office on Economic Opportunity’s Poverty Program, it was not until 1970 he decided to become re-involved in arts, morphing from ceramicist to painter seeking studio.
Artomatic was originally born of that effort to find studio space, which became of necessity a collective venture in order to divide up large areas and pay the rent, evolving into an artists’ cooperative, A. Salon, Ltd. A self-conscious alternative to the gallery model coming out of the late 60s, as it developed Artomatic served to connect artists with one another: driven to build an audience for their art, and control its marketing themselves (in that sense “political”). But it also synched with real estate development’s needs, making use of temporarily vacant space in buildings about to be torn down or rehabbed, or not yet occupied by their tenants. Such “operating in a real estate gap” also brought and still brings this exhibition’s viewers into properties or an area they are thus made familiar with in conjunction with a positive experience; this “quasi-advertising” function benefits both parties.
There having been 7 “editions” of Artomatic (a moniker coined as a result of its first “alternative venue” having been the former Manhattan Laundry on Florida Avenue), a total of 76,000 people visited its most recent manifestation in 2012, in Crystal City. Its funding comes from four sources: each artist pays $100 in order to participate (also agreeing to donate time to mounting and running the event), sponsoring businesses and organizations contribute, there is no charge to visit it but a donations box stands at the entrance, and there are online contributions. Thus although Artomatic was given a D.C. Council on the Arts and Humanities grant (without applying for one), it could operate on its own financially; and as the range of kinds of events taking place in its course continues to expand (dance, music, professional-training panels), this entity takes on a “Happening” quality.
Or, quite in keeping with some of the avant-garde art historical lineage cited in our lead-in, as well as demonstrating an affiliation with aspects of a 1960s counter-cultural movement Artomatic seemingly shares with both WPA and Govinda’s activities. It should also not be ignored that the foremost has begun to “franchise” itself, as (remaining non-profit, no charge for this) groups from the “mother” organization in Washington have ventured as far as Jefferson County, West Virginia to engender further Artomatics, kick-starting local officials and public. While our final if not least illustration of a “spin-off” phenomenon (or here several “alternative venues” attached to a traditional one), may not seem related to the preceding examples, actually it is: for as George Hemphill puts it about his gallery “Here we do business;” its two other locales are “about” something else.
Yet upon entering Hemphill’s main “traditional” exhibition space on 14th Street NW, the tangible sense of awe generated by its careful construction so as to “elevate” the viewer (figuratively as well as literally, since its floor rises 3” towards the elegant tall glass door) makes one uncertain that even this location has solely to do with commerce. Further imbued with what one might call a “ceremonial” quality by its containing a solo William Christenberry show at the time the dealer was interviewed, he spoke of his own past as a young artist in the 1970s and beginning (in Atlanta) to himself make use of “alternative” spaces in which to exhibit along with colleagues. Hence it did not seem inappropriate to talk about his gallery’s two if-very-different “spin-off” operations: Carroll Square, and 1700 L Street NW (the former programmed by contract, the latter more experimental).
They thus serve different “functions,” with Carroll Square devoted to group shows of more “traditional” painting and sculpture of work by younger artists, mandated for the building housing it, equally open to its residents and the general public. It is Hemphill’s 1700 L Street branch location, with its employment of a space visually open to a passing audience of an estimated several thousand daily, that attempts to interact with its social context in another more exploratory way. This was presaged by the gallery’s previous “extension” into installations at 7th and D Streets NW, in Cady’s Alley when it was located in Georgetown, and on H Street NE. Most recently, Hemphill’s L Street artistic “laboratory” was inhabited by Steve Kushner, as the architecture’s dimensions allowed him to produce paintings not permitted by his studio; and then by Workingman’s Collective’s piece Satellite.
While Kushner’s “acting out” of a Contemporary artist’s “heroic” confrontation with giant canvases, passers-by being able to follow their evolution day-by-day and thereby in a sense participate in or be exposed to a creative process (which was thus made into the installation’s “content”); Workingman Collective’s clever members obviously took the very notion of a “satellite” exhibition location and humorously ran with it. They constructed a “life-size” model of the first Early Bird satellite meticulously out of plywood: critiquing all those technological objects out there now which hands seem never to have touched. Since this structure cannot leave its expositional “home” without being dismantled, it implicitly reminds us of the time-bound nature of things, as do Christenberry’s elegiac photographs. That 1700 L will next take on “environmental” issues seems in keeping with its nature.
If such “spin-off” locales relate to their surroundings and the potential viewers passing through them, who choose to look or not (as Hemphill points out) as they will, in a different way than choosing to go to a traditional art gallery or museum: this is even more strikingly the case with our third category or type of “alternative venue.” For these involve, as you may recall, the blurring of boundaries between art and other commodities or activities: something which can be observed taking place in at least three kinds of settings—high-end design and home-furnishing stores; restaurants, bars and cafes (with the works for sale); and institutions or businesses in which art is displayed in its otherwise-employed spaces or offices. These presentation situations thus all involve having art in one’s presence while engaged primarily with something else: what might that do to experiencing it?
Seeking an answer to this question, we can consider a well-known example of each “venue” and a pair of the lattermost, which are both quite different from one another. Unfortunately, perhaps the best or most self-conscious illustrations of design and furniture stores which focused a considerable amount of attention on their exhibition of for-sale works of fine art have recently closed their doors: Vastu on 14th Street NW near the U Street corridor (which also had local artists’ studios downstairs in their basement-level store space), ceased to operate in Nov. 2014; and Archer on 33rd Street NW near the C & O Canal, whose large display window often had at least one artwork in it and which organized a whole program of events about designers as well as artists (in one case collaborating with GWU, and holding a book-signing of the volume Washington Art Matters).
Yet definitely still in business not far from the latter (which closed in June 2015) is JANUS et Cie on M Street NW, which markets classy outdoor furniture and has recently developed a partnership arrangement with the Zenith Gallery art dealer Margery Goldberg (whose Gallery Salon will be evoked below). Although an ongoing collaboration remains to be negotiated with the store’s central Board, according to its Sales Manager Kati Pope (who is responsible for this mutually-beneficial collaboration together with Ms. Goldberg), meanwhile carefully chosen pieces of outdoor sculpture harmonizing with the display’s color scheme look quite at home among its wares. Apparently one striking metal piece has a bidder while passers-by frequently take pictures of smaller sculptures in their display window: the works are part of a commercial mise-en-scene or Gesamtkunstwerk.
When we turned our attention to the category of “alternative venue” involving artworks installed in a restaurant: there was little question the “example” of greatest relevance to this investigation would be Busboys and Poets, a creation of its owner, expatriate Iraqi Anas “Andy” Shallal. There are five locales of this (in part) eating establishment, their number continually growing, with the flagship at 14th and V Streets and the most recent in Takoma Park; and this author had the pleasure of speaking with its Curator in Residence of two years, Carol Dyson. It perhaps best characterizes this undertaking’s mission to quote: “…a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted… a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide… [by means of which] we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.” (website)
This is obviously not about “decorating walls,” but rather explicitly programmatic in its intentions: not only did the near-legendary Shallal (one facet of his previous incarnation being an artist) himself paint the murals which adorn each locale’s meeting-room devoted to cultural and political events. But as Dyson, herself possessing impressively diverse qualifications, explained: Busboys and Poets enacts “democratization” of the artistic field, enabled by her virtually single-handed organization of biennially rotating installations of “edgy” as well as materially interesting artworks “locally sourced” as much as possible from the community surrounding each locale. She characterized it as a “rogue” activity, involving assisting the “99%” who may never achieve the status of a museum-vindicated “1%” seeking to find their own voices,” and a “place to be, culturally.”
The artworks in question are for sale, with prices ranging from “$120 to $1000s,” and the mechanics are handled by their creators themselves, who net 100% of the proceeds; while Dyson admits purchases have been not been major, often diners email her or call a restaurant afterward to ask about pieces they noticed. Finally, to conclude this section devoted to “alternative venues” in which Modern and especially Contemporary art is presented in a-traditional contexts where the primary activity taking place is something else: although it may seem a long leap to our last two “illustrations” of this phenomenon, really in terms of structure (so to speak) it is not. For in a city radically altering itself at warp speed, it need not surprise us that the Federal Reserve Board and Coldwell Banker Dupont real estate brokerage also display a desire to have art around them while they work.
Among institutional curated presentations, the Fine Arts Program of the Federal Reserve Board, founded in 1975 by its former Chairman Arthur F. Burns “in response to a [Nixon] White House directive encouraging federal partnership with the arts,” bears note for the high quality of its holdings. Comprised of over 1,000 works given or purchased with donated funds, impeccably re-installed twice annually by its Director Stephen Phillips in the remarkable interior of the Marriner S. Eccles Building, their collection serves as both a sophisticated part of its embellishment and an educational resource-en-passant for the federal agency’s employees as well as reported 35,000 people who pass through each year. With emphases on art having to do with regions of the U.S., citizens at work and (of course) currency, Phillips views it as playing a role analogous to a museum’s.
Yet given its governmental agency status, granted it is necessary to make an appointment and wait 5 days for security clearance to view the Fed’s artworks as a member of the general public (or apparently press), while the offices of real estate brokerage firm Coldwell Banker Dupont are quite a bit more accessible. Its “Art 17 Dupont” program began 13 years ago, when VP Kevin McDuffie (born into a real estate family but with a BFA from MICA in Baltimore) decided it would be an excellent idea to exhibit the work of his many artist friends in the firm’s offices on 17th Street NW. Thus generated out of his experience bartering art with fellow students, McDuffie feels there is a synergistic harmony between it and real estate: those buying property will be all the more likely to fill it with art. But it is also for him and his staff, enlivening their working space with changing vibes.
The opportunity for expanding this in-house but outward-facing, community-oriented presentation of art and fostering its further evolution is part of McDuffie and Marketing manager Zachary Zedd’s enthusiasm bound up with the office’s moving to a new location at 14th and Corcoran Streets NW. For there will be display windows in which to show video and a patio to situate sculpture, with the whole space on one level so art on display can be seen from the street; while the still-in-construction building offers an “open” plan in keeping with current trends in office organization, with more flexible common spaces versus closed rooms. This fosters exhibition of additional art and its “consumption” by a mobile cadre of agents with their clients, at the same time as providing appropriate settings for the firm’s fund-raising and charitable events, plus much-attended vernissages.
Everyone benefits, seen from these viewpoints, from art’s being experienced in venues “heading beyond” its traditional museum or commercial gallery “isolation.” That even-if-implicitly-held view is certainly shared by those included in our third type of “alternative venue,” one characterized by the dissolution of a fixed system of distribution: either one distinct from the artists themselves, or separate from the actual living space of the art dealer (in both cases, the “gallery” per se is no more). Two instances of the former, in which artists are essentially marketing their own work, one new and the other more established, readily come to mind: ARTSWALK at Monroe Street Market (716 Monroe Street NE), near Brookland Metro; while the second is Mid-City Artists’ biannual group “Open Studios,” where each Spring and Fall, maps take visitors from one member’s space to another.
Since Alternative Focus #6 took a (long) sociological look at the MCA as an important “Network in the Neighborhood” when it turned 10 years old in 2013, we need not dwell upon that quite-established “self-branding” mutual support system except to note: how it permits dialogue with artists about their work, often proffers not only a handy way for those interested to “get a sense of the scene,” but even provides the opportunity to pick up artworks at a reasonable price. But having not yet experienced Brookland’s ARTSWALK, we got on the Red Line to take a look: guided by the complex’s apparent “point man,” painter Cedric Baker (Studio #23). This colony of artists’ and crafts-persons’ studios, with glass-window fronts and signs numbered so one can find each, is the ground-level of a new residential complex (not far from Busboys & Poets’ locale), which I was told is now about 85% filled.
There are 27 art spaces in total, with the plaza they face on sometimes being the setting for a farmers market or special events; and studios have a Third Thursday every month when they are open late (6-8 pm, reminiscent of similar common gallery events of yore). These can be and are used in each individual’s own fashion: not only to create and sell their own work, but they also do shows of other artists and teach art classes. While on this particular weekday afternoon not a large number of people seemed to be taking advantage of the opportunity to “see artists in their natural habitats” (as the large card with a layout of spaces and list of names or entities puts it), we got a sense of how it works and feels to be a denizen of this “creative village” by speaking with Baker and neighboring sculptress Maroulla (narrating their stories, surrounded by their productions).
It was the developer of this complex, Bozzuto, which wanted to bring artists into the living-space mix to create a sense of community, Baker says; he admits that to work in a studio open to the public makes one into a “performance artist” in a sense, but feels that he does have more of an impact on those (especially young people) who see his art and can speak to him than it would in a regular gallery. As he puts it, there must be some balance between the creative forces in an urban area and the development which is “gentrifying” it; he himself commutes from Virginia to his workspace there at ARTSWALK, but other artists among its creative population are from the local neighborhood and he feels part of it when he can have an “educational” impact on the visitors to his studio. Maroulla, just nearby, seemed at home too: proffering tea, explaining stone carving techniques.
This dissolution of a fixed distribution system previously separate from the artists themselves can “face in the other direction” too: where now instead of dealers running an independent gallery, some have collapsed exhibition space into their own living quarters. While Alternative Focus #7 was devoted to Charles Krause Reporting/Fine Art and its concentration on political art, it can be stressed he employs his own condo (where he also lives) as a gallery, having even fought a lawsuit with its governing Board to be able to maintain it. But without question the most remarkable manifestation of this category is Zenith Art Salon on Iris Street NW: where Margery Goldberg’s house has been transformed into its own “world,” centered around her own work and that of other artists she has been selling for years, but now literally lives with. One cannot miss it, walking down that street.
Goldberg’s hyper-competent assistant Ella Dorsey (who says she wears clothing which goes with each current exhibition) gave me an encyclopedic tour, prior to my speaking with the dealer-literally-in-residence: an experience which can only be described as mind-blowing. That is because of the sheer number of artworks on display, knowing their installation changes at least once a month (if not more often), the considered complexity of visual inter-relations between works, and (not least) that their themes are keyed to the parts of the house (for instance, pieces having to do with food grouped in the kitchen and dining-room). Seeming slightly hesitant to admit this amazing amassment of art constitutes an overall “assemblage piece” on Goldberg’s part, having herself even done the kitchen cabinets’ woodworking, both women acknowledge its “artwork-like” uniqueness.
Unlike other more “traditional” galleries, the staff walks visitors through; and suggests to potential clients how individual pieces might “work” for them in their own residences—also providing such “hands-on” assistance as packing and shipping, assistance with installation, and arranging commissions should the work on display by a given artist not meet a buyer’s specific needs. The relatively small house is situated on a double lot, permitting an outdoor “sculpture garden” which extends even to the empty backyard pool: also filled with 3D works, some of which relate to an aquatic setting but could be (Ella argues) readily adapted to another context. Goldberg also exhibits work by the many artists she represents in multiple other venues (12th & Penn Ave, outdoor furnishings store Janus et Cie [above], restaurants including Kincaids). It is all a remarkable tour de force.
While Zenith’s high-energy “animatress” and her able team apparently have no problem with labeling what they are involved in (both at the Iris Street “Salon” and in these other locations Goldberg also curates) as “alternative venues,” neither in the end do the three founders of the now-well-known Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial. This event, founded in 2007 by the neighborhood’s Foggy Bottom Association, is spearheaded by enthusiastic arts supporters and friends Jackie Lemire, Jill Nevius and Mary Kay Shaw: the latter two of whom this author was fortunate enough to interview in late July. The event first took place in 2008, it generally runs from late Spring through early Fall, and will next “appear” in 2016; its curators change, as they are commissioned to undertake the project, with 15 artists each time creating their sculptures primarily on private property.
This is a quiet historically-protected area, if abutting GWU’s campus; yet some residents have become so attached to individual works they end up purchasing them, either by themselves or as a neighborly collaboration (so their urban landscape there is still dotted with five popular items). A lamp-post crowned by a bunch of curved round surveillance mirrors by Graham Caldwell (2014), an object that seemingly sprouted from the ground with “eyes,” watches from nearby. This Biennial, supported by the neighborhood’s Association as well as local sponsors plus contributions mandated from businesses developing there, has an Advisory Board and won the Mayor’s Award for Innovation in the Arts in 2009. Initially inspired by a co-founders’ seeing a self-initiated installation of one sculptor’s works on Capitol Hill, it now boasts tours and ancillary events in multiple media.
Powered by each of its three collaborators’ possessing different needed skills (connections with graphic artists, an ability to find funding, and the knowledge accumulated from being on numerous museum boards), the Biennial has evolved artistically over its four occurrences: beginning in a more formalist abstract mode, then morphing to become more involved with and even playful about its setting. Themes (cf. “Sculpted: History Revealed”) have replaced what were individual curators’ viewpoints or “stables” of artists; and while its three collaborators may not necessarily be in agreement with Deborah Dietsch’s observation in The Washington Post Magazine (26 June 2014), that the city’s being replete with public sculpture due to its ceremonial national role might well foster such a more “local” neighborhood-defining response, it does seem potentially relevant here.
However, our other example illustrating Contemporary artworks’ absorption into the public sphere is both less temporary and more “official” or bureaucratic rather than privately-generated in nature: the “Artwalls” program sponsoring sculpture on public property throughout Crystal City, interestingly also “launched” in 2008. As the city’s website puts it, “Crystal City is a gallery and the area’s walls serve as its canvases.”—making the evolutionary transition from permanent brick-and-mortar traditional art spaces to suburban outdoors as “alternative venue” explicit. There is also a map showing the 27 sites of works total in the area, ranging from hotels and streets to highway environs, with large-scale painting-formats handled for the most part abstractly. The whole is funded by Crystal City’s BID (Business and Industrial Development), generally a public/private partnership arrangement.
A fourth kind of art’s absorption into a public sphere (if a privately-owned space can be considered “public” when it functions as such) even employs a traditional exhibition context in what can be called an “alternative venue” fashion: The Phillips Collection’s “Intersections” series, organized by the museum’s articulate Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Vesela Sretenovic. Braving that day’s hot weather to sit on the café’s outdoor terrace to speak with me recently, concurrently with a show about it titled “Intersections @ 5” (because the series is now five years old) inside, she honestly discussed the inevitable challenges of staging “interventional” works of Contemporary art in an institutional setting. We agreed it was something of an ironic paradox “temporary” works (and if some by proxy since not those pieces) thus ended up comprising a traditional exhibition.
Yet given the Phillips’ remarkable collection and its unique yet quite-different spaces, the 21 artists who have participated (they are invited to take advantage of its art or architecture to conceive temporary “installations” interacting with it) had quite an opportunity. Both local as well as from different parts of the U.S. and abroad, their selection and formulation of works is perceived by “Intersection”’s curator as a “dialogue” between she and the artist, and the latter with their chosen mise-en-scene. Each a “process piece,” intended to “reach out” to a visiting public that may not yet be familiar with or expecting to see Contemporary art there, Sretenovic refers back to founder Duncan Phillips’ engagement with “the art of his time”: his wife an artist, himself an amateur painter, initially a studio school at the museum. Thus here present meets past, literally and figuratively.
If the curator of “Intersections” views that series as representative of her “duty” and social responsibility to “push art out into the public,” making it available or “going to people with it rather than expecting them to come to you” (a populist attitude she admits is in keeping with her Eastern European origin), our final example of Contemporary art’s absorption into the public sphere also implies a privately-owned environment can in a sense constitute a “public space.” That place is Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, in Towson: which it seems can be characterized as such since members of the public are both treated there, and can visit one part. For this institution houses three groups of art: The Collection of Sheppard Pratt, The Marvin S. Schapiro Collection, and a series of 12 Mandalas.
The first of these, open to the (external) general public, is composed of more than 100 works, all “created entirely by professional artists who have been impacted by mental illness/addiction,” and it was financed by a “leadership gift in memory of Donald S. Levinson by his wife, Bernice Levinson” (quoting Sheppard Pratt Health Service’s responses to my emailed “interview”). The second’s complete title is “The Marvin S. Schapiro Collection for Therapeutic Settings,” its initial funding provided “by Mark Schapiro in honor of his father,” Baltimore businessman Marvin S. Schapiro; this and other “philanthropic gifts” have been used to purchase art installed in treatment units and areas of the hospital. Finally, 12 Mandalas line “the corridor through which patients who are being admitted” come, their circular form interpreted by some as referencing “the human psyche.”
It is moving visual art is still considered to possess such “healing powers” and provide solace in relation to psychiatric patients, in these ways; a fact apparently partly due to a tradition of employing art therapy in that setting, “involving the encouragement of self-expression through painting, drawing or modeling.” Therein art “is used both as a remedial activity and as an aid to diagnosis,” permitting expression of impulses which cannot be articulated solely verbally; while the visual art installed in treatment units is intended to “enhance the milieu” for patients. A third group of Sheppard Pratt artworks, its Mandala series, created by almost 500 hospital employees under the direction of art therapists, used techniques developed by Roberta Schumacher-Beal and Joan Kellogg. These Mandalas now function as the hospital’s departments’ logos.
This instance of an “alternative venue” for the exhibition (and here utilization) of Contemporary art was not placed in the previous section blurring boundaries with other commodities characterizing spaces in which people were primarily doing something else (selling furnishings, eating, managing our nation’s economy, or marketing real estate), because here it obviously plays a role inherent to what is centrally going on. This statement is not made to demean those other contexts, but rather to draw boundary lines between these “alternative venue” categories; the last of which might be considered within absorption into the public sphere would of course be private collections made accessible to a larger audience. Perhaps most notable of these is Glenstone in Potomac: founded in 2006, with holdings of “post-WWII and contemporary art” in a Charles Gwathmey building.
Yet that seems, again, to be an institution-in-the-making (particularly with its apparent plans for expansion), or a private museum rather than any “alternative” to a traditional one. In any case, there is no question that the final tendency we will discuss here—involving what can be called Contemporary art’s virtualization or dematerialization, with a web-based “revolution” in communications’ impact—constitutes perhaps the most radical of “alternative venues” we have considered. Two instances of this suffice to understand its essential nature and implications: the first being artline, established by long-time doyenne of the Washington arts scene. Jane Haslem, who for nearly 50 years ran one of the city’s top-notch brick-and-mortar galleries, decided to establish that resource as “the” go-to web-based source for art dealing (with premonition, but as a “sideline”) now 20 years ago.
Pointing out that since then most of her gallery’s sales of art have been in one fashion or another via the internet, she proudly notes its internationality and that the online percentage of buyers has increased over time. Haslem is CEO of artline, which is getting a whole new Board of Directors and involves a “team” of younger specialists in each relevant area of operations. Every two months a recipient-tailored newsletter goes out to a mailing list of 35,000 (plus gallery’s mailing list), called a “targeted email,” which artline can tell “in real time” who is reading what parts of and how long they devote to it. (One cannot help wonder if all of them know this!) Now having finally closed up real-world “shop” on Hillyer Place NW end of last year, Haslem kindly sat down in mid-July to speak with me about major changes she sees in how the artworld operates: the web is crucial.
“Galleries are ‘covered wagons,’ and we are [now] in a different period of art, and I’ve lived long enough to know that,” she says emphatically. Otherwise “coverage of what is going on in the artworld has moved so far away in the direction of hype;” and a younger generation now “takes everything with them” (mobile devices, that is), so artline is designed for such “i-watching.” Haslem knew Steve Jobs in CA coming out with these new devices, and decided to go with that trend: as potential clients in 120 countries are watching artline, she works with museum people as well as dealers all over the U.S., pointing out most permanent gallery spaces in the major urban areas are dying out. Yet one thinks how it might be a circular phenomenon—the internet gradually replacing a more traditional, hands-on interaction which had previously been part of art dealing?
For there was a time, especially in the 1980s, when people really did buy art by visiting galleries—she recalls when Paul Richards used to write a review in The Post, and next morning when one opened the gallery doors people would be standing in line on the street waiting—Haslem sees the 2008 financial crash as having changed things in a fundamental way from which they never recovered. Since prominent directors have died, closed or moved elsewhere; she thinks their “educational function” was for a time filled by the “mushrooming” of art fairs “but now artists rather than their dealers pay for the booths.” Even when her gallery was on 7th Street NW often only one person came in a day; but she still feels the “personal touch” is maintained with her long-term clients, many of them in CA who retain contact (via email). Yet there is a moment, when she walks me out.
We paused in front of a large drawing mounted on mahogany panels by Tom Edwards, an homage to his father suffering from Alzheimers titled Seven Angels Arrive to Witness the Fall of the Last Leaf (2013-14), and opened it (very much a non-virtual physical activity). Trees with butterflies adorned its outside (“angels”), while inside seemed to be Winter, one green leaf falling at the lower right; though referencing his specific personal situation in a statement, at that moment (with its considerable physical presence) this object seemed to allude to something more. I thought I saw tears glimmer briefly in Haslem’s eyes; for we all do deal with fundamental changes in our lives, and if those years are embedded in art, then its inevitable alteration can feel like loss. She spoke of “looking 50 years ahead”: with artline intended for art dealing’s future, and survival of artworks to trade in.
It seems apropos to conclude with the seemingly ever-present CONNERSMITH’s “new online initiative” to now “feature a series of time-based media, performance videos, and group exhibitions” on their gallery’s website. In other words, it would be possible to simply show these artworks (some of them particularly suited to it) on the internet without having actual physical exhibitions of them; yet this would admittedly not explain why Conner and Smith have just invested in a new (literal) gallery space in the Shaw District near Logan Circle, slated to open in early 2016. However, without question, the former effort’s first installment—Frederico Solmi’s American Circus (2014), puncturing the upcoming presidential race using video gaming technology to animate acrylic on Plexiglas and gold and silver leaf images—signals a potentially politicized “venue” worth keeping an eye on.
What can be said in conclusion, in response to what seem, when viewed in their profusion, to constitute a massive shift in the way art is presented, thought about and employed within (at least metro Washington DC’s) culture? Several things appear obvious: some neutral observations, some lauding the sheer creative genius involved, some quasi-critical or historically contextualizing, and some simply aware of many contradictions or that artworks live on, yet have been emphatically redefined. First, in many ways these changes follow trends in “today’s world” and so are in that sense not surprising; hence they can only be “judged” or critiqued inasmuch as parallel developments in the rest of society (as embedded in them) can be. Second, it may even be positively interpreted such developments suggest art has in many ways become more “a part of our lives.”
However, third, seen from the other side: in integrating itself or being integrated into “the rest of the world” in this fashion also means that art has to some extent “climbed down from its pedestal” (or ivory tower), and no longer plays a unique role having significance unto itself. That would simultaneously, fourth, potentially remove artistic activity from its previous location as somewhat-“external” relative to society, from which it has been capable of “commenting” upon those other socio-economic and political systems that seem now to have commandeered it, to some extent. Finally, none of this should surprise us, as these alterations were not only presaged by 1960s art historical impulses and movements referred to in our introduction; but they seem concomitant with a (final?) stage in the evolution of so-called Post-Modernism, a familiar term needing specific application here.
Many a word has been spilled in this definitional debate (by Peter Buerger, Juergen Habermas, Frederic Jameson, Brian Wallis et al with respect to visual art); yet it obviously has direct significance as far as our topic is concerned. I chose Andreas Huyssen as he seems most overt: enumerating four points in his essay “Mapping the Postmodern” (The Great Divide, 1986) which differentiate what has been happening since the 1960s but particularly starting in the 70s (with the U.S. having its own “version”). First, it is characterized by “a temporal imagination which displayed a powerful sense of the future and of new frontiers, of rupture and discontinuity;” secondly, it is “an iconoclastic attack” on “the institution art” (specifically “the ways in which art’s role in society is perceived and defined… in which art is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed”).
“Thirdly” Huyssen writes how “many of the early advocates of postmodernism shared the technological optimism of segments of the 1920s avant-garde,” with that “enthusiasm for the new media” leading him to “the fourth trend”: “There emerged a vigorous, though again largely uncritical attempt to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon of high art, modernist or traditional.” (191-4) While such observations have been iterated and manipulated many times, it is impossible not to recognize their outlines beneath what we have just surveyed under the rubric of “alternative venues” (vs. “traditional” ones). For better or worse, nonetheless with inevitable fascination, we move forward into artistic territory whose early phases have indeed been “mapped,” but whose future evolutionary configurations await beyond our GPSs’ current navigational range.
Julia Bernard, Editorial Consultant
I dedicate this article to the numerous remarkable people who so generously gave of their time to speak with me, in person or via email interviews; and/or kindly provided me with further information, and illustration images. I also want to thank this publication’s Editor, Reid Baron, for his enthusiastic ongoing support of my writing an Alternative Focus article on this topic; finally, this is for my mother.