On May 23, I listened to the Kojo Nnamdi show. The subject was “Washington Arts” The participants were, Sam Gilliam, B. Stanley, and Ethelbert Miller.
It was an interesting discussion about the fact that few local artists have found success in DC. They outlined the influence of the “Washington Color School” and gave a succinct clarification of how that group of artists developed into movement in the 1960’s. But they failed to mention the impact of other groups whose contributions were influenced by the civil rights movement and the women’s artists movement in Washington DC in the 1970’s. Alternative” galleries began to pop up spurred by Alice Denney who rented space for the newly created WPA for $1.00 per year from the City of Washington.
Groups, such as Gallery 10, Ltd., and The Washington Women’s Arts Center, galvanized women artists to explore and expand their influence.
In looking over the archival material of Gallery 10, which has recently closed after 36 years in Dupont Circle, I was struck at the enthusiastic and numerous reviews it received from critics such as Benjamin Forgey and Jo Ann Lewis. This gallery featured many of those who became “well known” (both men & women).
Twelve months a year, the Gallery 10 artists put on terrific shows which included Installation Art, (now the big thing) and exchange shows with many European countries as well as cities in this country.
The WWAC offended some of the critics for being a “women’s organization.” The center had gallery exhibitions, poetry readings (including Ethelbert Miller), and photography groups. It housed the Washington Slide Registry and was an umbrella for a fledgling theater group. All of this, including painting classes, brown bag talks, critiques etc, occurred in the basement of a townhouse on Q Street. In other words it was a hub- for information, support, professionalism, the level of expertise extraordinary- so many people with advanced degrees and experience- had studied all over the world, had groups for all art forms, created an art workforce skilled in pr, presentation. Membership swelled to 600 by the late 1970’s.
One of the series of shows was called, “The Eye of…” , included Yvonne Pickering Carter, Miriam Shapiro, Anne Truitt, Alice Neal who along with their work curated shows. The Edith Blum Lecture Series. The series featured both local and visiting artists and art historians.Guests included, Lois Maillou Jones, Ntozake Shange, Elizabeth Swados, among others.
The biggest reviews of exhibitions came when the WWAC showed “erotic art” or were dropped from NEA during the Reagan Administration because their catalogue included a tiny sponsorship from a local erotic store.
The Women’s Center had an outreach program and organized shows that included the Women’s Prison, Pride, The Women’s Bank as well as other venues in the city.
As the economy expanded in the 1980’s, space that had been cheap to rent, started to creep up. Larger percentages of sales went to the galleries and in order to support their work, the artists became more isolated as they looked to other ways of earning a living.
In the 90’ s ““Local artists” and “Artist Run” galleries became pejorative monikers. Critics were focused on being the next H.L. Menken.
Most cities take pride in their “local” artists. That is how you create a culture of an educated, art -loving public. If you go to any European country, they cherish their artists. In Latin America, I was struck at how many politicians were also artists, poets etc. Some local artists may be nationally or internationally known but they still work and give to their communities-yes even enhance those communities so that they are priced out of studios, galleries etc.! DC artists also include those that come from Maryland and Virginia and are an integral part of the group.
When the critics won’t mention certain galleries in reviews-brush them off as not cutting edge and favor those who move to this or that part of the city as being “hip”, we have lost something. When the focus is on making it in NYC, the Washington DC art scene is diminished.
I know that the poetry and drama scene has developed very well in the last number of years, although I still feel that too much emphasis by the critics is on NY.
The audience for that kind of enthusiasm is here. More education and dare I say “boosterism” is needed to make our local arts scene better known and understood.
-Lucy J. Blankstein
Invaluable contributions by Lila Snow & Claudia Vess