Explore Washington D.C.

D.C. Woos Contemporary Art

Official, commercial and off-beat scenes reflect the city’s multicultural spirit.

How to describe the capital art world? The New York Times asked Smithsonian American Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich to try. She called it an “ecosystem” with fringe spaces growing organically like self-generated weeds, commercial galleries purposefully cultivating crops and federally funded institutions looming like grand greenhouses.

Indeed few cities have our range of “gardens”—public and private museums with rich collections, dealer showcases for local and national talents, co-ops run by artists themselves and independent centers devoted to risk taking and community. 

Venerable Venues  

Even as major museums respect and display their famous holdings, they pack a few surprises. At the National Gallery of Art, Ginevra diBenci’s portrait, the only DaVinci painting in the hemisphere, draws her perennial pilgrims, but fresh reasons to visit include temporary exhibitions (think Dutch Golden Age paintings that feature 10 by Vermeer) and startling loans, like the—photo-op alert!—monumental, electric-blue rooster (“Hahn/Cock” by Katharina Fritsch) on the East Building’s newly opened Roof Terrace. 

The Hirshhorn Museum, a Smithsonian site for important contemporary art, presents its founding collection and changing installations within circular galleries and a sunken sculpture garden. In the latter, Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” rises near Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais.” 

To place challenging art in the city, the Hirshhorn has sponsored a large mural by Ono at Union Market, a neighborhood gathering place (Sixth Street NE) that hosts studio visits and artists-in-residence. 

The Phillips Collection, the first (1921) U.S. museum of modern art, holds masterpieces by Bonnard, Matisse, Rothko and latter-day artists. Its most famous painting Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” inspires an exhibition of 40 works, a “back story” of the artist and his circle of handsome friends. Recent acquisitions include a Zilia Sánchez 3-D monochromatic canvas that juts from a wall, similar to this Cuban artist’s work in the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection
Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection (Courtesy The Phillips Collection)

And, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, galleries pay respect to native masters—from “outsider” artists like James Hampton with his “Throne of the Third Heaven” built of scavenged foil, light bulbs and other detritus, to video wizard Nam June Paik with his walls of monitors and spinning pixels. Current dazzle comes via “Lumia,” a display of Thomas Wilfred’s 1920s light works that curator Virginia Mecklenburg says is “beautiful—cosmic, zen.” 

Its sister museum the Renwick Gallery, a French Empire-period museum across from the White House, devotes grand spaces to fine craft objects and experimental installations like “Parallax Gap,” a suspended visual puzzle that shifts with illusions as visitors walk beneath.

Alternative Spaces 

“Underground” once applied to happenings like film screenings in urban basements. Now it factors, quite literally, beneath busy Dupont Circle, its park, fountain and chess players. Dupont Underground has claimed an abandoned streetcar station and its platform for up to 144 events this season—music, talks, dance, film and visual art. Early buzz came when 750,000 plastic balls poured in to challenge wannabe sculptor/architects, but now shows include videos and the World Press Photo exhibition. Look for a red-walled entry on the circle’s north side.

Dupont Underground entrance
Entrance to the Dupont Underground (©Forsaken Fotos/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Washington Project for the Arts celebrates more than four decades of exhibitions and impact. At 8th and V streets NW, it has opened a new space for installations “by artists, for artists” like Lending Library, “a dispersed, people’s museum” that allows registered borrowers six-month loans of paintings, sculpture, prints, videos and mixed media by important artists like found-object sculptor Jeff Spaulding.

The District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) opened in 1989 above an Adams-Morgan hookah shop. Its 800-square-foot gallery shows emerging and under-recognized artists (24 exhibitions a year) and performances (in a 50-seat theater). DCAC also gives business advice to artists, tests young curators and sponsors the Nano Gallery for works of intimate scale.

Market Clusters   

Art dealers back the notion of gallery “neighborhoods” that encourage foot traffic and draw opening-night crowds. Their events appeal to collectors, art students and, always, grazers who come for the social scene, cheese and free wine. 

Book Hill in North Georgetown hosts a second Saturday walk-around. Check Addison/Ripley, with a stable including painters Carol Goldberg and Nan Montgomery; Artist’s Proof with an international roster plus DC photog legend Fred Maroon and his images of the capital; Susan Calloway with contemporary figurative and abstract works plus antique oils; Klagsbrun Studios with mixed-media inspired by biologic and mythic metamorphosis; Washington Printmakers with colorful graphics; Maurine Littleton with work by major glass artists and Cross MacKenzie with ceramics, photography and paintings.

Artist's Proof
Artist's Proof (Courtesy Artist's Proof)

Dupont Circle galleries uphold a three-decade tradition—joint openings on the First Friday of each month. Hillyer Art Space mounts three juried exhibitions a month with Mid-Atlantic artists. Studio, the city’s oldest artist co-op, exhibits members’ works on two levels and in the garden of a Victorian townhouse.

In the trendy, cafe-rich 14th Street zone, three galleries persevere. Hemphill Fine Arts represents current stars (Mary Early, Renee Stout, Robin Rose, Julie Wolfe) and late masters (Jacob Kainen, William Christenberry, Rockne Krebs, Willem de Looper). Across the street at Neptune & Brown, savvy couple Christine Neptune and Robert Brown show joint inventories of engaging local artists like Carol Barsha and international figures like Celmins, Holzer, Katz, Serra, Riley, Ligon and Marden. And then there is Transformer, where co-founder Victoria Reis has been called a “punk-rock art savior” for her support of untested talents. Of the micro project space that carries a large impact, she says they plan only six months ahead, since “staying nimble and flexible is key.”