News & Politics

The Tiny DC Art Space With a 20-Year History

Transformer is still shaking up the DC art scene.

An installation by Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian. Photograph by Transformer.

In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution pulled a David Wojnarowicz video installation from the National Portrait Gallery after conservatives complained about its content. But the piece quickly found another DC home when an art space near Logan Circle called Transformer put the video on display in its window. Museums and galleries around the country followed Transformer’s lead, protesting the Smithsonian’s decision by also showing the video on a loop.

That controversy was short-lived, but it points to this nonprofit’s outsize influence. At 250 square feet, Transformer is so tight that viewers often take in performances and installations from the sidewalk. But since it launched 20 years ago, the place’s impact has been significant. Transformer has put on compelling shows by then-emerging art stars such as Misaki Kawai, Jennifer Wen Ma, and the collaborative My Barbarian. But more than that, its broader boundary-pushing spirit has made it a welcome alternative to a gallery landscape that isn’t always recognized for hosting challenging work.

Victoria Reis. Photograph by Sara Stadtmiller, SRS Photography.

Founded by Victoria Reis—who’d been involved with the local art scene for years—and curator Jayme McLellan, Transformer was inspired by local punk venues. (Reis is married to former Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker.) Back then, Reis was frustrated to see so many artists leaving for other cities. “Selfishly, I saw a lot of friends moving away,” she says, so Reis hoped to build a hub for artists with an adventurous spirit. “There was a fearless, naive energy,” Reis recalls of those early days. (McLellan departed in 2006.). “It was so passion-fueled. Every moment was exciting.” Transformer has now put on more than 500 exhibitions and programs.

These days, Reis splits time between DC and Asbury Park, New Jersey, where she runs the performance series Siren Arts. But Transformer is still going strong—and looking forward. Plans include a book on its first 20 years and a retrospective at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in November. And there will be lots more art, of course: Reis intends to keep going as long as Transformer is having an impact. The community it’s built, she says, “still feels vital and exciting.”

This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washingtonian.