Alternatives for Art

Hill Businesses Double as Galleries

Posted June 9, 2004 at 2:37pm

The opening of Delila Katzka’s new art exhibit, “Lemonade,” on Capitol Hill last Friday was a cosmopolitan affair.

Local art connoisseurs sipped wine and gathered around charcoal figure drawings and red-and-pink acrylic still-lifes hung on the gallery walls. Katzka circulated through the crowd, mingling with fellow artists and eventually selling almost half of her 20 paintings by the end of the evening, before jetting off to Italy to attend a drawing seminar.

If you guessed that this scene unfolded in any traditional art gallery in Washington, you’d be mistaken.

Katzka’s opening took place on the second floor of a sandwich shop.

For the next month, her “Lemonade” exhibit will show at Cosi on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast — part of a growing network of area businesses that are using their floor space as both a base of operations as well as an art gallery for local painters, draftsmen, sculptors and photographers to regularly display their work.

Such makeshift galleries abound on Capitol Hill. Tunnicliff’s Tavern, on Seventh Street Southeast near Eastern Market, currently displays abstracts by Hill painter Michele Hoben. And Results the Gym in Southeast recently opened a Studio Artist Gallery Collaborative exhibit featuring sculptures and oil and acrylic paintings by 14 Washington-area artists.

“There are so many more talented people in the metropolitan area than there are traditional places in which to display their work,” says Gary Fisher, a painter who lives in Adams Morgan and art director of the gallery at Results. “[Our art] may not be in the Whitney in New York, but it certainly gets seen by a lot of people.”

Unconventional venues have been a godsend for many local artists, who are eager for exposure but feel overshadowed by the opulent shows and nationally renowned galleries in Washington. Federal landmarks, like the National Gallery, and private collections, like the Phillips, are closed to the works of all but the most reputed artists in the world. And even smaller, traditional galleries in the city are highly selective, often charging artists monthly fees for wall and floor space.

As a result, hundreds of D.C. artists have turned to the inexpensive, highly visible arena of “alternative space” — bars, restaurants, office building lobbies, furniture stores, even abandoned storefronts. These display spaces are usually free, and artists only need to foot the bill for their own advertising and promotion. In return, they gain wide public exposure, drawing both art aficionados and the regular clientele of the business that features them.

Open and accessible to the public, these alternative galleries appeal to a broad range of Hillites interested in art but often too busy during the week to seek it out, says Katzka. “Art is really an everyday thing and should be in an everyday place,” she says. “When people know they can just swing by on their lunch break instead of, say, making the trek to a gallery, I think they’re much more inclined to go. It’s much easier to just enter a multipurpose space, maybe order a cup of coffee, and just take the art in.”

Businesses housing these galleries also benefit, Fisher says. Owners pay nothing for exhibit upkeep, often receive a small portion of the revenue from art sales, and bring in more customers than normal by “cross-pollinating” with the artists’ clientele.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Lance Cook, manager of Tunnicliff’s Tavern. Artists “gain by having free wall space, and we gain by having 40 or 50 of their friends come in to see the art at the opening, and then stay to chat, have a beer, and eat some food. … So, really, everybody gets what they want.”

Some owners also say they appreciate having a rotating exhibit that adds color to their workspace — at least most of the time. “By and large, we see great work here, but honestly, sometimes, the art is just awful,” Cook says. “But we take it all.”

The occasional piece of kitsch notwithstanding, visual art on the Hill has thrived through these artist-owner collaborations, according to Fisher. In the two-and-a-half years since opening, the Results gallery has displayed more than 230 pieces by local talent, far exceeding the success that owners and gallery creator Fisher had ever expected. Today, paintings and drawings canvas the walls of exercise rooms, dance studios, hallways, stairwells, even locker rooms, all of which are open for public viewing.

“We’ve seen an interesting change here in the last year or so,” Fisher says. “The painters who originally got passed up by the galleries are now getting some recognition from them. And now, we have the major galleries coming to us, wanting to display their artists in our spaces.”

For some, alternative space on the Hill has been a springboard for mainstream success. David Richardson, a Marine Corps major currently stationed in Yemen, originally took up painting only as a hobby. Not until his girlfriend convinced him that his work was good enough for public display did he finally show his work at Results, where it caught the eye of a professional curator. Now, Fisher says Richardson is contracted with Zenith Galleries on Seventh Street Northwest to open a full exhibit of his art when he returns from active duty early next year.

Meanwhile, Katzka and other Hill artists continue seeking greater recognition in unlikely venues. Even if this recognition never comes, however, Katzka says she’s happy having most people see her work during their daily routine or in their leisure time, rather than a “stuffy” gallery.

“These spaces are perfect for artists like me,” she says. “Our paintings have become part of the overall look of the neighborhood, which is a great place for this kind of thing. We’ve got plenty of art and culture, and people don’t have to go too far to find it.”