News & Politics

On the Edge: A Guide to Washington’s Art Galleries

The area's contemporary-art galleries, many with bold spring shows, feature some of the brightest work on today's art scene.

It’s not Chelsea. It isn’t Culver City. But Washington is no art-world backwater. In almost any part of the region, you can find art galleries exhibiting the brightest entries from local, national, and international artist communities. Curators from around the country look to commercial galleries and nonprofits here to find new talent. Taken with museums like the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, and the National Gallery of Art, the area’s galleries represent a significant art destination.

The local art community is different from those in cities like San Francisco or Chicago. The galleries and artist communities are spread across DC, Virginia, and Maryland with no true center. You need to cover a lot more ground to see the top shows in any given month. What follows is a survey of the area’s galleries that deal in contemporary art, often cutting-edge art. You may not find a quiet still life to hang over your fireplace, but you’re sure to see mixed-media work and the latest trends in the art being made today. Here’s a look at five gallery “precincts” across the area with notes on must-see events for the spring—and places to refuel with coffee, cocoa, or cocktails.

DC's 14th Street | Dupont, Penn Quarter, and Beyond | Arlington | Bethesda | Alexandria and Beyond
View Larger MapGallery Central: DC’s 14th Street

It’s long past time that art watchers stopped calling 14th Street an “emerging” arts corridor. It is definitely here—emerged and full-grown. It got its start in 2001, when Sarah Finlay and Patrick Murcia opened Fusebox at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, Northwest. Crackerjack and competent, the storefront white cube featured a stable of the most talented local artists of a younger generation. Fusebox was one of a number of institutions—like the popular Café Saint-Ex up the road and the Studio Theatre across the street—that paved the way for the arts corridor, one that has since embraced boutiques and luxury lofts.

By the time Finlay and Murcia closed Fusebox in 2006 and moved to San Francisco, a number of the city’s galleries had followed them to 14th Street. Four galleries that firmly established the neighborhood’s art-district status are housed at 1515 14th Street: Adamson Gallery (202-232-0707), Curator’s Office (202-387-1008), G Fine Art (202-462-1601), and Hemphill Fine Arts (202-234-5601). Irvine Contemporary (1412 14th St., NW; 202-332-8767) eventually shifted its operations from Dupont Circle to the Fusebox space.

In the last two years, another wave of galleries has opened along 14th Street and nearby, further cementing the neighborhood’s reputation as a center for contemporary art. Project 4 (903 U St., NW; 202-232-4340) established a space in early 2006, emphasizing emerging artists from the local and national arenas.

Project 4 has forged a strong relationship with artists from Margaret Boozer’s Red Dirt Studios, a sculpture collective and workshop in Mount Rainier, that promotes new work in an old medium—ceramics. Project 4 represents the work of Laurel Lukaszewski, a superlative young artist whose porcelain squiggles graced a wonderful debut in 2006, as well as J.J. McCracken, whose ceramics projects have taken on a conceptual edge through performances. The gallery also represents Boozer.

Project 4 has shown artists working in a variety of other media, in particular several promising painters who cross the boundaries between abstract and figurative work—New York’s Beau Chamberlain and Richmond’s Christine Gray among them. Running through mid-April, “Pilgrim,” a drawing and sculpture installation by Patrick Holderfield, features abstract 2-D and 3-D elements drawn from landscape imagery. In the latter half of April, the gallery will open “Spring Thaw,” a show of abstract still-life paintings by Gray, a painting instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Disclosure: I wrote an essay to accompany Gray’s show.)

Another space that opened in 2006 is Randall Scott Gallery (1326 14th St., NW; 202-332-0806), an expansive second-story walkup. The artists shown here don’t share a Zip code, but they do tend to work in one medium: photography. Randall Scott has established his space as a reliable source for young and emerging photographers. This spring, the gallery bucks its photographic norm. Through April 12, the gallery shows new paintings by Baltimore artist Cara Ober, who uses texts and atmospheres to examine adolescence and femininity. Later in April, the gallery will exhibit delicate drawings and paintings by artist Lu Zhang.

Supermodel Kate Moss makes frequent appearances at Adamson Gallery—at least indirectly. The gallery space, which is associated with master printer David Adamson’s print shop, exhibits new prints by Chuck Close, the artist who helped invent photorealism. Close frequently photographs Moss. The artist also shows holograms and tapestries at Adamson in his efforts to expand the vocabulary of photorealism.

Adamson Gallery is the best place in town to see work by photographers and video artists who have national recognition. Through April 26, the gallery is showing work by a photographer known around the world—although his work is more often seen on a Web browser than in a fine-art gallery. Scott Schuman, a former director at Bergdorf Goodman and the blogger better known as the Sartorialist, shoots fashion as he finds it on the streets of Milan, Paris, and New York.

The other stalwarts of 1515 14th Street are G Fine Art, a gallery with a strong presence that gobbled up a number of good artists when Fusebox moved away; Hemphill Fine Arts, emphasizing folk art as well as contemporary art and representing some of the region’s notable artists such as William Christenberry; and Curator’s Office, a micro-gallery run by dealer and independent curator Andrea Pollan, whose tastes are mercurial yet consistently interesting. Curator’s Office is featuring a solo show by Arlington photographer Jason Horowitz April 12 through May 24. In previous shows, Horowitz has shown close-cropped and exquisitely detailed photographs—portraits that don’t reveal their subjects and, in fact, distill them into component concerns of texture and composition.

The 14th Street corridor is reaching beyond the immediate vicinity of the 1515 building, where opening nights draw the same crowds that fill the Hirshhorn’s After Hours party series. George Mason University theoretical physicist Paul So is organizing a new nonprofit space, Hamiltonian Gallery (1353 U St., NW; 202-374-9794), expected to open in early summer.

That will put Hamiltonian in the same neighborhood as another nonprofit, Transformer (1404 P St., NW; 202-483-1102). One of the first-wave spaces on 14th Street, the Warhol Foundation–endowed organization boosts young artists who typically don’t have gallery representation. Hatnim Lee is a typical artist. Fresh from the Corcoran College of Art + Design and an internship with fashion and editorial photographer David LaChapelle, Lee is an as-yet-untested art photographer who shoots friends, family, and the world around her. Her show, which runs through April, will be one of her first in a gallery setting. Transformer has served as a launch pad for a number of DC artists including photographer and video artist Jason Zimmerman and pop artist D. Billy.

Grab a bite: The latest gallery to arrive on 14th is unique: ACKC (1529-C 14th St., NW; 202-387-2626), a “cocoa gallery,” has become the city’s top spot for chocoholics craving cups of warm cocoa and handcrafted candies from local confectioners. An offshoot of Artfully Chocolate and Kingsbury Chocolates, Alexandria shops whose owners collaborated to bring artisanal cocoa to the District, ACKC gives a nod to the galleries that have given the corridor such presence. Its walls—and dishes—feature artwork by Eric Nelson, one of the owners.

Also new on the scene is Cork (1720 14th St, NW; 202-265-2675), a tiny, brick-walled wine bar that has quickly become a nighttime hit.

The opening-night crowd at Dupont Circle’s Meat Market Gallery checks out a multimedia installation, “Meet Me at the Mason Dixon,” by Washington artist Lisa Blas. Photography by Patrick Ryan.

Still a Scene: Dupont, Penn Quarter, and Beyond

Though the 14th Street corridor has captured the title of top arts district, other neighborhoods have not surrendered. In areas such as Dupont Circle and downtown DC, many galleries still go on, with a few new blue-chips.

What prompted several art dealers to leave Dupont Circle and Georgetown had less to do with buyer base or market pressure than with the big, attractive spaces 14th Street could offer. R Street rowhouses, however quaint or established, can’t compare to an empty warehouse with a storefront view. The same sort of space repurposing that revitalized 14th has benefited Dupont—especially in the form of one scrappy gallery called Meat Market (1636 17th St., NW; 202-328-6328).

Opened in late 2006, the project space is central to a scene of younger artists, many of them recent Corcoran grads. Meat Market struck oil when it signed Benjamin Jurgensen, an artist who is only now completing his bachelor’s degree at the Corcoran but is gaining attention as a droll pop sculptor. His witty pieces, made from wood and fiberboard, are painted in primary colors. The artist has also exhibited print work done in the same primary, Sol LeWitt–inspired palette. His solo show will be at Meat Market May 2 through 31.

Marsha Mateyka (2012 R St., NW; 202-328-0088), one of those R Street rowhouse galleries, may not field the crowds that head to Meat Market on opening nights. But Mateyka still represents some heavyweight artists, including Sam Gilliam and the estate of prominent Washington Color School painter Gene Davis. One of Mateyka’s artists is among the city’s best sculptors: Jae Ko, who treats and rolls inked paper into tight coils that hang from the wall or are installed on the floor. Local favorite Christopher French, whose paintings feature both dots and Braille, as well as art-world veteran William Wiley, known for his erratic drawings on canvas, show new work here.

Civilian Art Projects (406 Seventh St., NW; 202-347-0022) is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the area. Opened by former Transformer Gallery codirector Jayme McLellan, the gallery shows art that tends toward social and political commentary. Through April 26, Civilian will show work drawn from or inspired by artists who use the online network Craigslist. Featuring work by strong artists such as John and Joseph Dumbacher, formerly of Fusebox fame, Jason Horowitz, and Jason Zimmerman, it promises to be more than a one-off gimmick. Also on display are new photographs by Kate MacDonnell.

For a time, it seemed that downtown DC might play counterpoint to the galleries on 14th as a second must-visit area on opening nights. Few galleries could boast the roster that Cheryl Numark had at her location on E Street. But Numark gave up her gallery in 2006.

The Gallery at Flashpoint (916 G St., NW; 202-315-1310) has picked up some of the slack with strong shows. More project space than commercial gallery, Flashpoint admits exhibiting artists on a project-by-project basis; its programming runs from experimental and not commercially viable (the sort of work that nonprofits support) to solo exhibits by established artists. Corcoran instructor Lucy Hogg fits the latter profile, and her portraiture show, “Floating Faces,” will be at Flashpoint April 4 through May 17.

Temporarily gone but not forgotten is Conner Contemporary Art (1358-60 Florida Ave., NE; 202-588-8750). When Leigh Conner uprooted her Connecticut Avenue second-floor gallery to build a new one in a vast space on H Street in Northeast, she took one of the city’s most prominent art venues off the calendar. When Conner Contemporary returns later this year, likely in time for the fall season, it will be the city’s largest commercial art gallery and the only major commercial gallery in Northeast DC.

Other DC galleries and shows worth checking out include Addison Ripley (1670 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-5180): abstract paintings by local artist Kevin Kepple, mid-May through June; Carol Square Gallery (975 F St., NW; 202-234-5601): “Great American Pastime,” a group show, through May; District Fine Arts (1639 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-3545): photographs by Gene Markowski, April 12 through May 31; Fine Art & Artists (2920 M St., NW; 202-965-0780): new works by Washington mixed-media artist Jason Wright, through May 3; Hillyer Art Space (9 Hillyer Ct., NW; 202-338-0680): a group show of Brazilian contemporary printmakers and new work by local artist Don Kimes, through April 25; Honfleur Gallery (1241 Good Hope Rd., SE; 202-580-5972): “Into the Light,” a group show, March 29 through May 3; Kathleen Ewing Gallery (1767 P St., NW; 202-328-0955): “Flora + Fauna,” a group show, through April 26; and Zenith Gallery (413 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-2963): “Trees of Life,” mixed-media 30th-anniversary show, through April 27.

Grab a bite: Before or after an opening in downtown DC’s Penn Quarter, art patrons can find creative Mexican small plates and everything from fresh guacamole to grasshopper tacos at Oyamel (401 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-1005). For a dressed-down, pull-up-a-stool experience, there’s just one game in town: Rocket Bar (714 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7665), a basement spot that features darts, shuffleboard, pool, a jukebox, even old board games.

Also in Penn Quarter—and in Dupont Circle—is Teaism (400 Eighth St., NW, 202-638-6010; 2009 R St., NW, 202-667-3827). Rest your feet over cups of Silver Needle white tea and one of Teaism’s famed salty oat cookies or the newer chocolate variety.

Sense of Community: Arlington

There’s probably not a better spring afternoon to be spent in Arlington than checking out the community galleries that give the county its artistic identity. There are very few good commercial galleries in Arlington. Duality Contemporary Art (2401 S. 26th Rd.; 703-920-2121) recently showed some decent abstract fare by McLean painter Lucy Herrman; otherwise, the commercial venues for good contemporary art are light on the ground. But the area makes up for it with public and nonprofit galleries where you can see and buy contemporary art by regional artists.

The Ellipse Arts Center (4350 N. Fairfax Dr.; 703-228-7710)—around for nearly 20 years and managed by the county’s cultural-affairs office—offers rotating exhibits and group shows. The Ellipse is currently hosting its annual show of regional photographers, through April 12. A juried exhibit, “Photo 08” considers work by artists living or working in Virginia, Maryland, DC, or West Virginia.

At the beginning of May, Ellipse will open a spring/summer show that examines an important thread in contemporary art: fabric arts. Judging by the artists included in the exhibition, curator Cynthia Connolly has taken a broad approach to “The Thread as the Line: Contemporary Sewn Art.” Much recent work in fabric arts has concerned feminism. But Steve Frost, whose multimedia work is included in the show, employs textile as well as video, performance, and paint in works that expand the boundaries of what is still a new conversation about women and art.

Although a private nonprofit, Arlington Arts Center (3550 Wilson Blvd.; 703-248-6800) is similar to the Ellipse in several ways: It’s a longstanding venue—established in 1976—accessible to local artists and collectors alike. Recently, AAC hosted a show that invited a handful of area art collectors, such as Heather and Tony Podesta, each to curate a gallery within the center.

Often the AAC organizes shows around this “federalist” framework: Smaller mini-exhibits set up under a broader concept. Each spring and fall, the AAC invites artists to take over those same galleries for solo exhibits. “Spring Solos 2008,” which launches April 8 and runs through May 31, features solo shows by Mid-Atlantic area artists Jacklyn Brickman, Jeremy Drummond, Jennifer Fleming, Jennifer Mattingly, Erin Williams, and Laure Drogoul. Drogoul, a winner of the Baltimore-based Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize, has thrown everything at the viewer—from setting up olfactory installations to performing cabaret.

Other Arlington galleries and shows worth a trip include Lac Viet Gallery (5179 Lee Hwy.): work by Vietnamese artists (call for schedule and appointment); and Metropolitan Gallery (2420 Wilson Blvd.; 703-358-9449): new work by local artist Bobbi Pratte, April 6 through May.

Grab a bite: In a strip mall on Lee Highway, you’ll find the charming Café Parisien Express (4520 Lee Hwy.; 703-525-3332), with lovely croissants and café au lait. Closer to the Arlington Arts Center is EatBar (2761 Washington Blvd.; 703-778-9951), a wine-centric hangout with a chef who cures his own flavored bacons and offers house-made hot dogs and sausage-of-the-week specials.

Art Walks and Fairs: Bethesda

Is Bethesda a bona fide arts district? It certainly has the galleries. There’s even a Bethesda Art Blog devoted solely to tracking gallery happenings in Bethesda. The scene is just beginning to add an element of hip to its happenings. And the suburb’s close cluster of galleries more often plays host to art walks and craft fairs than to late-night openings for the gallery-going set.

Heineman Myers Contemporary Art (4728 Hampden La.; 301-951-7900), for one, is trying to change that. In late February, the two-year-old gallery hosted the coolest event Bethesda has seen in recent memory. From 10 pm to 10 am one Saturday to Sunday, graffiti artist Tim Conlon and his collaborators painted a 16-by-7-foot surface in a courtyard outside the gallery.

In April, Heineman Myers will show a group exhibit called “Stimulating Consumption,” a show investigating consumer culture. Artist Jonathan Stein will show inedible “cakes” parodying public figures from Barack Obama to Britney Spears. Another artist in that show is Elizabeth Lundberg Morisette, whose impressive sculptures involve massing colorful common materials—from zippers to magnetic alphabet letters to twisty ties—into larger sculptures.

Heineman Myers isn’t the first to bring street art to the suburbs. Fraser Gallery (7700 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-718-9651) has shown work by Mark Jenkins, a popular artist who frequently uses packing tape in his public projects. Jenkins is one of a new generation of street artists who are growing up in gallery spaces, but that hasn’t prevented him from receiving attention from groups such as the Wooster Collective, which recognize the best in urban vernacular art.

The Fraser Gallery will show new work by John Winslow April 11 through May 31. Winslow’s paintings skirt the real and the surreal; he paints realistic representations of unlikely or impossible scenes, which often appear to take place on a stage. Some elements look quite lifelike—people or settings within the scene—while some appear to be apparitions superimposed upon the scene.

Founded by Elyse Harrison five years ago, Gallery Neptune (4901 Cordell Ave.; 301-718-0809) shows artists almost exclusively from the Mid-Atlantic region. The comically cartoonish paintings of Lisa Montag Brotman, on display May 7 through June 7, combine a Warner Brothers–illustrative aesthetic with naive depictions of nudes and other flat figures. The work is reminiscent of some paintings by David Hockney. The gallery’s flat file is always available to browse; included are small-to-medium-size works by artists such as Marie Ringwald, who is showing at the gallery through April 5. The other show running in April highlights black-and-white photography by Beatrice Hamblett.

Outside Bethesda, the near Maryland suburbs don’t have the galleries that Virginia’s suburbs do. The great exception is Pyramid Atlantic (8230 Georgia Ave.; 301-608-9101) in Silver Spring, a nonprofit contemporary-arts center that hosts artist residencies, temporary exhibits, classes, and other activities. Charles Cohan’s architectural prints will be the subject of an exhibition at Pyramid Atlantic through April 20; the artist’s work is showing at Curator’s Office through April 5.

Other Bethesda galleries to check out include Osuna Art (7200 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-654-4500): sculpture by Joan Danziger, April 12 through May 31; and Waverly Street Gallery (4600 East-West Hwy.; 301-951-9441): photographs of Italy by Richard Lasner and new works by gallery artists, April 8 through May 3.

Grab a bite: Cornucopia (8102 Norfolk Ave.; 301-652-1625), an Italian gourmet shop and cafe in downtown Bethesda, is the place for fabulous sandwiches on crusty mini-baguettes (try the versions with paper-thin prosciutto or with hot or sweet soppresatsa). Then graze the tiered platters of buttery cookies and elegant biscotti.

Regional Art: Alexandria and Beyond

As in Arlington, the best galleries in Alexandria and beyond are nonprofits established to promote local artists as well as to expose local audiences to contemporary art from elsewhere.

Both McLean and Reston have their own contemporary-art hub. The McLean Project for the Arts (1234 Ingleside Ave.; 703-790-1953), a nonprofit founded in 1962, is host to one of the better biannual shows in the area, “Strictly Painting,” an all-area, all-painting show. For years the show has been juried by figures such as former Corcoran curator of contemporary art Jonathan Binstock and current Hirshhorn Museum curator Kristen Hileman, with cash prizes. (The next installment of “Strictly Painting” is set for 2009.) The center also annually shows work by area students in its Ramp Gallery.

April 17 through early June, the McLean Project for the Arts will feature “The Divas and Iron Chefs of Encaustic.” The exhibit, focusing on a painting method in which pigment is suspended in hot wax and then applied, is curated by Reni Gower of Virginia Commonwealth University.

A little farther down the Dulles Toll Road from McLean, the Greater Reston Arts Center, or Grace (12001 Market St.; 703-471-9242), hosts the annual Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival, a juried street festival and celebration with crafts, food, and entertainment. Organizers and exhibitors will be hoping for good weather May 17 and 18 because as many as 50,000 people are expected at Reston Town Center for the two-day fair. In June, the focus will be on the contemporary, as Grace mounts an annual juried exhibition in collaboration with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. This year the show will be selected by Ragan Cole-Cunningham, director of exhibitions and education at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach.

Alexandria’s massive Torpedo Factory Art Center (105 N. Union St.; 703-838-4199), along the Potomac River waterfront in Alexandria, is home to a number of workshops and exhibition spaces. Drawing nearly 700,000 visitors a year, it’s easily the city’s biggest attraction. The Target Gallery is its national exhibition space. On May 7, the Target Gallery will open “Led by Thread,” an exhibit on the fashionable topic of fiber arts. Featuring national and international artists, the show will be selected by New York artist Yasmin Spiro. Visit the Target Gallery before April 6 and you can still catch a whiff/glance/feel/taste/sound of “The Five Senses,” an exhibit, curated by former DC gallery owner F. Lennox Campello, whose title says it all.

One Alexandria art space is unlike the rest. It’s a little bit offensive—or at least promotes art that might ruffle feathers in a family town. Art Whino (717 N. St. Asaph St.; 703-462-4135), which opened in 2007, shows work by younger artists who promote the West Coast–oriented “lowbrow” style. Associated with a particular do-it-yourself ethic, these works eschew art-historical trends in favor of a new kind of portraiture in which all of the characters have the same pale skin and big doe eyes. Art Whino is probably the only gallery in Alexandria catering to a MySpace demographic.

On April 1, it will bring its Pop Surrealist schedule to the National Harbor in Prince George’s County, where it’s opening a second location. On April 5, the gallery’s National Harbor location will launch a solo show by David and Jessica Foox, two young Texas artists who left careers in psychology and the law, respectively, to focus on street-style painting.

Also in Alexandria: The Art League Gallery (105 N. Union St.; 703-683-1780): “Interplay, Humanity, and Nature,” a group show juried by Rosemary Luckett, April 9 through May 4; and Blueberry Art Gallery (3112-A Mount Vernon Ave.; 703-894-8854); call for exhibit schedule.

Grab a bite: Hank’s Oyster Bar (1026 King St.; 703-739-4265), a Dupont Circle seafood shack gone upscale, recently opened a location in the heart of Old Town. There might be a wait for one of the smattering of tables, but the oyster po’ boys, peel-and-eat and popcorn shrimp, and Gouda mac and cheese are worth it. Hank’s doesn’t serve dessert, but you can find the best cupcakes around (plus Illy coffee and good sandwiches) just outside of Old Town at the bakery/dessert lounge Buzz (901 Slaters La.; 703-600-2899).

For our arts & events and nightlife blog, click here.

For our guide to Washington's museums, click here.