WASHINGTON, DC — ’Tis the season to celebrate, and the Washington Project for the Arts has much to toast. After decades of pop-up transience, the organization opened its first exhibition, Washington Produced Artists, in its trendy new space. This isn’t just a relaunch, however — WPA is also celebrating its 40th birthday. As always, the big four-oh prompts a self-reflective inventory of haves and have-nots that can prompt reinvention or ruin — or what is more commonly known as a midlife crisis.
The crisis, however, may be behind the WPA. After falling on hard financial times in the 1990s, the organization has maintained an itinerant existence. But the end of 2015 has seen the emergence of reenergized WPA. Peter Nesbett, formerly of Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, took the helm at the beginning of November. More importantly, the organization has a brick-and-mortar location to call its own for the first time since 1995. Situated in the new, industrial chic Atlantic Plumbing development near DC’s staunchly cool 9:30 Club, this prime piece of real estate offers both exhibition and office space.
The maiden show in the new digs includes works by seven area artists who collaborated with WPA earlier in their now well-established careers. The small but diverse show comprises photographs, sculpture, video, mixed-media installations, and performances. Guest curator Laura Roulet makes economical use of the gallery’s limited square footage, most notably by projecting Michelle Lisa Herman’s specially commissioned “Mirror Mirror” remake onto the front windows.
For all of WPA’s newness, however, much of the work in Washington Produced Artists is decisively backward-looking. Nostalgia cuts through the new construction smell of the space in works like William Christenberry’s photo series of former District storefronts from the early 1970s, captured on a Brownie camera. Dan Steinhilber’s “Untitled (Lake Conway),” with its colorful horizontal liquid lines that run the length of the wall, purposefully recalls the work of DC’s greatest artistic legacy, the Washington Color School.
In memory of WPA’s various incarnations over the past four decades, Workingman Collective staged a walking performance on December 13 that led participants across the District, stopping at all of the organization’s former homes in chronological order. The artists strung twine between the locations as they walked. Drums, in true commemorative fashion, scored the procession.
The attention lavished on retrospection in Washington Produced Artists certainly underscores the WPA’s storied history, but it raises questions about the organization’s typical dedication to up-and-coming artists. Started in 1975 by art curator and activist Alice Denney who envisioned it as a “service center” for artists, WPA was one of the earliest alternative art organizations in the US. Like many alt spaces, its primary goal was to offer opportunities for local artists that liberated them from the institutional binds and commercial pressures of the art market.
Yet the artists included in Washington Produced Artists were selected based on the fact that they’ve institutionally and commercially “made it.” All have gallery representation, works in museum collections, or, in the case of Maida Withers, her own highly esteemed dance company.
The started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here theme of Washington Produced Artists seems a tad indulgent upon first assessment. But in the context of the WPA’s unstable past 20 years, it reveals a need to savor successes in spite of shortfalls. Furthermore, in the context of the broader DC creative landscape, the show ultimately broadcasts a sense of loyalty to and pride in both Washington and its artists.
It only seems fitting, then, that the show opened mere days after what was deemed a huge middle finger to the DC art community: Melissa Chiu, who stepped in as the Hirshhorn’s director last year, chose to host the museum’s gala — also celebrating 40 years — in Manhattan. Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott claimed Chiu missed a valuable opportunity to endear herself to her new home by recognizing the often-undervalued DC art scene.
In a city like Washington, where government-funded art monoliths cater to tourist audiences and galleries are few and far between, the need for community support — or at least visibility — is paramount. The Hirshhorn and the WPA may not have similar-sized staffs or budgets, but they share a responsibility to the place and the people that have kept them staffed and budgeted for the last 40 years. If Chiu did indeed miss an opportunity, the WPA seized it with Washington Produced Artists.
Washington Produced Artists continues at Washington Project for the Arts (2124 8th Street NW, Washington, DC) through December 19.