If you want to see art as business, go to Chelsea in New York. If you want to look at art as community, walk around Washington.
What you’ll find is a multitude of small art galleries so much a part of their neighborhoods that you might walk right past them. Some are hidden on side streets in residential areas, others are up or down a flight of stairs from street level, some sit right next to shoe stores, corner groceries or banks. But all of them reward a quick visit during a lunch break or on a leisurely weekend stroll.
Some will offer a surprise too. Take the Kathleen Ewing Gallery on a recent Saturday afternoon. It’s at 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, just one block north of busy Dupont Circle, but you can easily miss the gallery doorway that opens to a tiny vestibule and a flight of stairs.
But on this day your attention is drawn to dogs in orange coats emblazoned with “Adopt Me” scampering on the sidewalk. Look more closely and you will see the sign “Adoption Event Today 12-3.”
Now showing at the Ewing gallery is “Athlete/Warrior,” a photographic project by Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low depicting young men and women of the U.S. military academies in uniform and as competitive athletes. But twice a month Ms. Ewing, the doyenne of Washington art gallery owners, opens her gallery to orphaned cats and dogs. On the board of the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) for 18 years, Ms. Ewing says she “wants to bring animals into the community.”
Upstairs is Mark Nelson, 57, the “cat person” on the WARL staff. In a blue plaid shirt, baseball cap and hiking boots, he keeps an eye on his charges — kittens cuddled by patrons who might take them home. As he answers questions on cat behavior he gazes at the black-and-white photographs on the surrounding walls.
“Art and animals are my first love,” he says — so it seems natural to show off these beauties in an art gallery.
Farther north on Connecticut Avenue, on the west side at No. 1732, is the Washington Printmakers Gallery. At street level all you see on first glance is the striking Greek restaurant Mourayo. But go up the stairs beside the restaurant entrance and you’ll enter a bright space with a full wall of windows looking onto the broad avenue. The wood floors are highly polished and you can sit on a wooden bench in the room’s center, swivel around and look at the colorful prints on the walls.
This is a cooperative gallery, explains Martha Oatway, a gallery member and printmaker from Crofton. It represents 38 local artists who take turns exhibiting their work and staffing the gallery. Currently on show are “Earthprints,” monotypes, monoprints and linocuts by Jean Barnes Downs.
“This is a great way to help artists in our community show their work to the public and hopefully sell it as well,” she says. “There’s something for everyone here.”
The gallery has been here for 20 years, renting the space from Natalina Koropoulos, proprietor of Mourayo, who owns the building as well as the Italian restaurant La Tomate across the street.
“It’s a wonderful collaboration that brings fine art and dining together for our neighbors,” Ms. Oatway says.
Another hidden gem a few blocks away is the Robert Brown Gallery. Go south on Connecticut Avenue two blocks, grab a coffee at the corner Starbucks cafe and turn right. At the quiet end of R Street Northwest on the corner of 21st, the gallery sits in the lower level of a striking townhouse.
Walk down five stone steps beneath an awning that is bright white and lettered in charcoal and through a glass-paned door. You will enter a warm, comfortable art gallery. In this location since 1991, it is one of the oldest galleries in town.
“There are many serious art galleries in Washington,” says owner Robert Brown, a longtime art lover and dealer who is currently showing works on paper by Jennifer Bartlett, Ellsworth Kelly, Alex Katz, Sol Lewitt and James Siena. “I’d like to think we’ve all made a substantial contribution to the community.”
In this neighborhood of low-rise residential townhouses, around the corner from the Phillips Collection, many art spaces hide just inside front doors. Meander down the street and peer in the windows and you will see walls covered with framed pictures. Usually a small sign in the window alerts keen-eyed walkers to the gallery.
Art historian Royce Burton calls attention to his gallery in a big way, with a striking sculpture, but you still might pass it by. On the other side of Dupont Circle right off P Street, at 1506 21 St. NW, Burton Marinkovich Fine Art, a gallery of modern and contemporary art now spotlighting works by Richard Diebenkorn, is located on the ground floor of an imposing brownstone.
Next to Corrective Shoe Repair and steps from a corner Starbucks, the front of the building is distinguished by Lesley Dill’s sculpture “Bronze Poem Dress,” a large construction of painted metal and plaster. Anyone who looks closely can make out the words of the Emily Dickinson poem “This World is Not Conclusion,” which appear to float in the air.
“Lesley Dill uses words like skin,” says co-proprietor Andrea Marinkovich.
Inside, the small space brims with images by modern and contemporary masters — Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Motherwell — on the gallery’s walls, propped up on its floor, or lying on top of a desk.
“Printmaking is like jazz music,” Mr. Burton says. “There are no real notes.”
Up in Woodley Park, on the busiest strip of Connecticut Avenue between the Marriott Hotel and the Calvert Bridge, is International Visions-The Gallery, where Tim Davis, painter, teacher and gallery director, seeks to share art from other parts of the world with residents here. This month he’s showing the work of the Lebanese-American painter Helen Zughaib.
International Visions, on the second floor of a walk-up storefront, is ensconced between a Bank of America and two antique shops and directly across the street from a CVS and Bank of America, so you have to look hard to see the glass front. But when you raise your eyes above ground you’ll be surprised by the colorful paintings hanging in the window.
“I’m intrigued by contemporary art from other countries,” he said. “That’s why I love to bring new artists to Washington.”
Now head for upper Georgetown. There on a quiet neighborhood street, at 1516 31st St. NW, a gigantic hollow shiny red pipe bent like a straw sits in the tiny, grassed yard in front of an attached gray-painted brick townhouse.
This work, Bret Price’s 1997 sculpture titled “Born Reddy,” screams for attention — and that’s just what Marsha Ralls had in mind.
“It provokes a lot of dialogue,” Ms. Ralls says. “I purchased it as a landmark to direct people to the gallery because it is my home.”
The Ralls Collection is hung in the living room, or main gallery, of Ms. Ralls’ house and in the dining room, which is called Gallery II. Ms. Ralls lives with the work of her artists — Caio Fonseca, Michael Kenna, Annie Leibovitz, Claes Oldenburg, among others.
Right now she’s showing new work by Melinda Stickney-Gibson; next week she’ll open a show of works on paper by Robert Rauschenberg.
On the other side of Georgetown, up one steep hill from M Street at 1227 34th St. NW, is the deceptively sedate-looking Govinda Gallery, the oldest established gallery in Washington that has always been in the same location.
Georgetown University students on their way to class and old-time residents with shopping carts bustle past its storefront, tucked in next to a dry cleaner and hair salon. Ample glass fronts the two-room photo gallery; books are piled high on the windowsill.
Owner Chris Murray, a New Yorker who attended Georgetown University and decided to stay and make a business of showing music photography, is marking an important Govinda milestone this year.
“Govinda has been a real part of the Georgetown community for 30 years,” Mr. Murray says. “We are an integral member of the original Georgetown ‘village.’”
As part of the celebration, on a misty Friday night not too long ago, Mr. Murray welcomed one of his heroes, the songwriter and musician Donovan, whose show of “Sapphographs” — his first try at art photography, printed in Washington and inspired by the lyric poetry of the 7th century B.C. Greek poet Sappho — will run at Govinda through Nov. 12.
The scene outside the gallery was of a community happening reminiscent of Donovan’s heyday in the ‘60s, with a sizable collection of fans — of not just the singer but the gallery. A young woman in black with red hair and wire-framed glasses, who would not give her name, sat on the wood edging around the sidewalk trees playing guitar and singing to no one and everyone.
“I had a feeling I’d be sitting around,” she explained, “so I figured I should bring some entertainment.”
Of course, you don’t have to stick to busy commercial districts like Georgetown and Dupont Circle to see public art. Across town on Pennsylvania Avenue, close to the Mall and in view of the Smithsonian museums is the glass, stone, metal and concrete of the Canadian Embassy.
The courtyard alone is an art piece, a space surrounded by huge fluted columns and a tiered structure lined with dangling green vines and small trees bordering horizontal walls of windows.
On one side you can look across Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Gallery of Art’s East and West wings. Turn slightly and through a perimeter of trees ringing the sidewalk around the embassy and an expansive grassy park you can see the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse. Nearby, government and courthouse workers dot the benches eating lunchtime sandwiches.
Sounds of traffic are muted by the rushing streamlets of water in a pool in a corner of the courtyard — and there sails public art at its best, a 5-ton bronze boat sculpture, 20 feet long and 13 feet wide, called “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.”
The Haida, whose home is on the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia, are one of Canada’s native peoples. “Haida Gwaii” means “Islands of the People,” and their “spirit,” as conceived by the late Vancouver artist Bill Reid (who was part Haida), lives in this black canoe laden with 13 figures from Haida legend — animals, humans and the human shaman Kilstlaai, all in the same boat.
It’s a complex work that tempts watchers to circle it time and again, rewarding them with something new each time. And it’s the perfect warm-up for entry to the embassy Art Gallery, a small but quite spectacular public art space that most people don’t realize exists.
“This is the only space inside the embassy that’s open to the public daily,” says Anne Delaney, counselor for cultural affairs. “We want to share our contemporary art as well as our heritage and culture with the Washington community. With this gallery we are reaching out to our local neighbors.”
Just opened at the embassy gallery is “Boots on the Ground,” a show of works by Canadian artists depicting members of the Canadian military in action in Canada and abroad.
So take a leap into the unexpected. Meander through some new streets on a Saturday afternoon or during the week at lunchtime. Look for a hidden art gallery. You never know what you’ll find when you cross the threshold.
Follow the advice of Deba Foxley Leach, a Bethesda art collector, appraiser and curator: “If you go solely with the open-minded goal of pleasure, you will be delightfully surprised.”
Current exhibits at the galleries
Galleries in Washington are free and open to the public during set hours, usually Tuesday to Saturday and by appointment at other times. Many galleries rotate exhibits to feature one or more artists monthly. Some schedule rotating exhibits several times a year and others may simply show a variety of work that is not unified by a theme or a particular artist.
At most galleries, gallery hoppers can pick up a copy of a useful and free guide to Washington and Baltimore art galleries by neighborhood. Published by Reid Baron and called simply “Galleries,” the thin glossy booklet carries a street map showing each gallery’s location. It usually sits beside the guest sign-in book at a gallery’s reception desk.
Here’s a quick guide to current exhibits at the galleries mentioned in this story:
Burton Marinkovich Fine Art: 1506 21st St. NW. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. Now showing “Works by Richard Diebenkorn,” through Oct. 29. 202/296-6563 or www.burton marinkovich.com
Canadian Embassy Art Gallery: 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Now showing “War Art — Boots on the Ground” through Dec. 30. 202/682-1740 or www.canadianembassy.org
Govinda Gallery: 1227 34th St. NW. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. Showing “Sapphographs” by Donovan through Nov. 12. 202/333-1180 or www.govindagallery.com
International Visions-The Gallery: 2629 Connecticut Ave. NW. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. “Changing Perceptions,” works by Helen Zughaib, runs through Nov. 2. 202/234-5114 or www.inter-visions.com
Kathleen Ewing Gallery: 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. “Athlete/Warrior,” photographs by Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low, through Oct. 29. 202/328-0955 or www.kathleenewinggallery.com
The Ralls Collection: 1516 31st St. NW. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. “New Paintings” by Melinda Stickney-Gibson through Oct. 15; “Happy Birthday, Bob: Works on Paper” by Robert Rauschenberg runs Oct. 22?Jan. 31. 202/342-1754 or www.rallscollection.com
Robert Brown Gallery: 2030 R St. NW. Noon-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. “On Paper,” works by Jennifer Bartlett, Ellsworth Kelly, Alex Katz, Sol Lewitt, James Siena and new editions by Linn Myers, shows through Oct. 29. 202/483-4383 or www.robert browngallery.com
Washington Printmakers Gallery: 1732 Connecticut Ave. NW. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Noon-9 p.m. Friday, Noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “Earthprints” by Jean Barnes Downs runs through Oct. 30. 202/332-7757 or www.washingtonprintmakers.com