Washington has a lot of famous art museums, but not many famous local artists. We explore the evolution of the arts scene here and examine efforts to put DC on the map as a place where artists can work and prosper.


  • J.W. Mahoney Corresponding Editor, Art in America; Affiliate Professor of Visual Arts, University of Maryland Baltimore Campus; and Curator, "CATALYST-35 Years of Washington Project for the Arts" (on display at Katzen Art Center until 12/19/10);
  • Kristina Bilonick Program Director, Washington Project for the Arts; local artist

Related Video

Curator J.W. Mahoney talks about some specific pieces in the “CATALYST” exhibition:


  • 12:38:58

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey use bold, flat fields of color to make up strut images. The painters of the Washington Color School put Washington on the art world map, iconic names like Gene Davis and Tom Downing, but that was in the 1960s. A new exhibition at American University's Katzen Art Center includes a Gene Davis painting along with works by two other well-known locals, photographer, William Christenberry, and painter, Sam Gilliam. But the show's main focus is the hundreds of local artists you may not have heard of.

  • 12:39:30

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey've been working for years in the nation's capital without achieving national prominence, which raises an interesting question -- in a city full of world famous art museums, why is it so hard for local artists to reach the big time? Joining us in studio to discuss this is Jim Mahoney, corresponding editor of Art and America magazine and a professor of visual arts at University of Maryland, Baltimore campus. He's also curator of "CATALYST: 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts" that's on display at American University's Katzen Art Center until Dec. 19. Jim Mahoney, welcome.

  • 12:40:05

    MR. JIM MAHONEYWelcome. I'm very happy to be here.

  • 12:40:07

    NNAMDIWe'd also like to welcome into the studio, Kristina Bilonick, program director of the Washington Project for the Arts and a local artist. Kristina Bilonick, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:40:16

    MS. KRISTINA BILONICKThanks for having me.

  • 12:40:18

    NNAMDIYou know, Jim, you've said Washington is a great city for artists to live in...

  • 12:40:22


  • 12:40:22

    NNAMDI...but not a city that launches many artists in national or international fame. Why is that?

  • 12:40:27

    MAHONEYStrangely enough, the simplest and darkest fact is that oftentimes a museum, local museums, are the places where local artists are sort of showcased and really sort of get some level of massive sort of curatorial validation. Washington museums think of themselves as national, even museums like the Phillips and the Corcoran. Now, the Phillips and the Corcoran, years ago, used to do a lot of supportive local artists. And the Phillips has become -- is just beginning to get back into it.

  • 12:40:58

    MAHONEYBut major museums, especially major museums of contemporary art -- like Hirshhorn, like the Smithsonian American Art Museum and like the contemporary zone at the National Gallery -- don't focus on the idea that the local artists are worthy of national import. And that's not true in a place like Chicago or San Francisco or Philadelphia, where the major museums there really support the locals.

  • 12:41:22

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think that Washington's museums need to do more to support local artists? Or do they see themselves as having a national focus, and you think that's okay? 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Kristina, the exhibition at the Katzen Arts Center is called "CATALYST: 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts." What role has the WPA played in supporting local artists and their works since its founding in 1975?

  • 12:41:51

    BILONICKFor the past 35 years and continuing onward, the WPA has served kind of as a connector for artists and the community. We kind of serve as a bridge for our troop of D.C. artists to connect with galleries, curators, museums and the community, so we present a lot of programs, exhibitions and discussions, dialogues. We also have a registry of artists, D.C. artists, that's available through our website. So we kind of provide a face of D.C. artists to the rest of the world. So if people do not realize there's an art scene in D.C. they might find that out by visiting our website or checking out our CATALYST show at the American University.

  • 12:42:40

    NNAMDILet me say right now, out loud, in public, thank you for that because for the past WPA -- that's 35 years, the WPA has indeed been filling that role. Jim, what was your goal as curator of the CATALYST exhibition? What does the art you have chosen -- tell us about the evolution of the art world in Washington.

  • 12:42:58

    MAHONEYWell, the fascinating thing about art in Washington is that it's sort of assumed that Washington artists is just highly diverse and sort of not focused, but in fact Washington art has always been extremely focused on the ideal, and also specifically of the symbolic. D.C. is a symbol itself. The whole city is a symbol. And as Tom Downing, one of my old friends who was a color school -- major color school artist, said that D.C. is an eternal city. It's an almost like an Egyptian city. It's a place where almost the highest reaches of the imagination are addressed here.

  • 12:43:34

    MAHONEYAnd the artists that live and work here -- I mean, you think about the idea of alternative music and cities like Austin, Texas or Portland, Ore., or Athens, Ga., come to mind. But in terms of alternative art, there aren't any alternative art cities. There is New York and London and Los Angeles. And I would really love to see that Washington at least achieve some level of status as being a city that actually generates and sustains and flourishes in a very, very alternative way.

  • 12:44:06

    NNAMDIYou've described today's Washington area art style as speculative symbolism, and you just talked about how Washington has always been symbolic. But what does speculative symbolism mean to you?

  • 12:44:17

    MAHONEYMore or less like this. It's one thing you -- I mean, a symbol has a visible and an invisible component. If you think about swastika, that's really obvious. But you think about -- if you've dreamed about -- let's say you have a vivid dream of a blue car. You're going to ask yourself, what was this about? What -- why did I dream about this? What does this really mean? A lot of the artists in Washington create works that really do involve this major question that they are fascinated and fixed on an idea and want to express it and are very comfortable not entirely knowing what it's going to mean, only just this deeply intuitive feeling that this certainly means something.

  • 12:44:58

    NNAMDIKristina, you moved back to Washington a decade ago and you have said that the D.C. arts community has a small town welcoming feeling. What do you mean by that?

  • 12:45:07

    BILONICKIt does.

  • 12:45:07

    NNAMDIAnd how would you characterize the art that's being made here today?

  • 12:45:11

    BILONICKWell, as far as the small town feel goes, I just felt like when I moved back here, it was very easy to connect with the art scene. You have to kind of scratch the surface a little, start going to openings even if they seem intimidating at first, and join membership organizations such as the Washington Project for the Arts. And there's also some other groups -- D.C. Arts Center, Arlington Arts Center -- that you can join and connect with other artists. And being that there are so few galleries -- or, I mean, there's a handful of galleries and nonprofit art spaces. It's pretty easy to kind of navigate around, find a fit somewhere.

  • 12:45:51

    BILONICKAnd a big trend I'm noticing, too, is because of -- we're not New York, and we don't have thousands of galleries. There's a huge movement here in D.C. of a do-it-yourself mentality. And so artists get together, and they create their own exhibition spaces and programming. And a group that Jim often references is Decatur Blue, which was in the early 2000s. And then there's places like Red Dirt Studios, founded by Margaret Boozer, which is out in Mt. Rainier.

  • 12:46:21

    BILONICKJust one woman opens her studio up to artists to do their work together in a group atmosphere, and they hold open studios. There's other groups. Dissident Display was some -- a group that they were kind of pioneers of the H Street district. And there's just lots of stuff like that going on and that, I think, D.C. has -- because of its lower price bracket and kind of easy accessibility, it's been a good place for artists to get together and do things like that.

  • 12:46:54

    NNAMDIYou recently realized a long-time dream by opening a studio space on Georgia Avenue. Tell us about your search on Craigslist and how your Pleasant Plains workshop may be a good model for artists in D.C.

  • 12:47:06

    BILONICKYeah, well, it really is a dream of mine to have. I've always rented an art studio in addition to working full-time to continue my art practice. And I just -- as a hobby, almost, I have always surfed on Craigslist, looking for this art/ live/workspace of my dreams. And a couple of months ago, I found such a space on Georgia Avenue over by Howard University. And, you know, I joined up with a couple of friends to show the artists the studio space/storefront downstairs, and there's an apartment above.

  • 12:47:38

    BILONICKAnd I was able to afford it, so I just jumped right on it. And fortunately for me, the building owner is -- was once a young business budding entrepreneur himself. And he ran the Labamba Sub Shop -- or it was called something different in the '50s. But he appreciated my enthusiasm. And so that's just like a really micro example of something that other artists can do -- just inhabit some of these empty storefronts that are very prevalent in D.C. right now.

  • 12:48:10

    NNAMDIKristina Bilonick is program director with the Washington Project for the Arts. She's also an artist. Jim Mahoney is a contributing editor of Art in America magazine. He is also a professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland Baltimore campus and curator of "CATALYST: 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts." That's currently on display at American University's Katzen Art Center until Dec. 19. Jim, as I mentioned, you're a contributing editor at Art in America. What is Washington's reputation in the national art world? Are we seen as a center for alternative art?

  • 12:48:42

    MAHONEYBy no means. It's a little upsetting that there are -- the artists that you mentioned -- Sam Gilliam and William Christenberry, specifically -- are the only D.C. artists that are known to have a massive national reputation.

  • 12:48:58

    NNAMDIAnd they have been around since the 1960s.

  • 12:49:00

    MAHONEYSince the '60s. Since the '60s. Strangely enough, it -- a lot of the way the art world seems to work, it's interesting that it's become as international as it has been. But the places where people become art stars are art fairs, which happen in places like Miami or Switzerland or Shanghai or large multiple-artist exhibitions like the Venice Biennale or the Whitney Biennial. There are -- those are places where you go to become a star, and you go there oftentimes -- especially at the art fairs -- because you have your gallery representation. Washington's galleries -- Washington's art fortunes do kind of rise and fall almost like a sand weight.

  • 12:49:43

    MAHONEYWhat happens is some get -- there will -- right now, we're -- there are not that many galleries in D.C. Back at the beginning of the '90s, there probably were about three times as many galleries, art galleries, as are now -- exist now. And also, we had art publications that were serious. Now, we got some serious art blogs. But that's not the same thing as a magazine, like the New Art Examiner or The Washington Review, that was highly supportive of local culture and gave local culture a sense of identity. I write large pieces about D.C. art every -- at least every decade. They'll let me do a large piece in D.C., even though I'll review individual artists. But somehow the museums have not moved a muscle to validate whatever I've written about. Not that that's evil or bad or wrong -- they just don't do it.

  • 12:50:32

    NNAMDII got to get to the telephones. But before I do, if you're on the telephone, hang on the line. I will get to you. We can -- you can still call 800-433-8850. Before I do that, Jim, talk about the spectrum of galleries, museums and alternative art spaces in the D.C. area. Who is doing the most to showcase local artists?

  • 12:50:50

    MAHONEYThe great thing is, is D.C. does have a very living, vibrant system of alternative spaces. Kristina was mentioning some of these -- the Arlington Arts Center, the District of Columbia Arts Center, DCAC. The Katzen Center has been -- because of Jack Rasmussen's presence as director because he was very involved with WPA back in the '70s. So his sensitivity to local things is very profound. But basically, WPA has been very much a hub from which a great deal of DIY stuff projects, that -- it's -- in terms of it being a place that artists know actually is going to be relentlessly proactive.

  • 12:51:29

    MAHONEYWPA is basically the center of a great deal of that. What WPA doesn't have right now is a central exhibition space as it had back in the '70s and '80s. But the fact is, is WPA is very, very good, as this Katzen show demonstrates, at finding really, really high-quality spaces to show art and (unintelligible) continuing to do that.

  • 12:51:52

    NNAMDINow, on to the telephones. Glen in Woodstock, Va., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:57

    GLENHi. With the -- thanks for having me on the air, by the way. With the wealth of the D.C. suburbs, it's really appalling how abysmal the art scene is in D.C. Nobody's managed to bring that wealth into the city. And, secondly, as hard as it is to get shown as an artist in D.C., it's even harder for sculptors. Everybody wants to show things on flat walls. There's very, very little support among the arts for sculptors.

  • 12:52:33

    NNAMDIIs that something that the WPA is trying to address, Kristina?

  • 12:52:37

    BILONICKYeah, actually -- well, we've worked a few times with the Washington Sculptors Group. I'm not sure if you're familiar with them, but we actually have a...

  • 12:52:45

    GLENYeah, I am.

  • 12:52:46

    BILONICKWe have a call up right now. And I know that's just, you know, the one central group for sculptors in the D.C. area, but we're working with them right now on a show that's set to open in spring or summer of 2011 at the ArtistSphere. That's something we are looking for constantly, is more space. We actually have a public art initiative that we're kind of developing with DCCAH. And we recently sent someone over to the Socrates Sculpture Park, which was a residency out there for a D.C. artist to go over there and explore public art making in New York. So I agree that it's hard to find venues for sculpture.

  • 12:53:26

    NNAMDIGlen, thank you for your call. Good luck to you. On to Bob in Silver Spring, Md. Bob, your turn.

  • 12:53:33

    BOBHi, Kojo. Great show. Just one quick exception, let's not forget the sculpture of Martin Puryear, born here in D.C. He is a great sculptor. His works are permanent collections -- in the permanent collection of the National Gallery, and I believe MoMA in New York, wanted to glean some comments on that, if I could.

  • 12:53:55


  • 12:53:56

    NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Jim.

  • 12:53:57

    MAHONEYMartin Puryear is one of my favorite artists in the world, and Martin taught here. He spent a rich time at Howard and considered himself, you know, very much a part of the sculptors' sort of guild around here, back in the '70s. But basically, he couldn't have an art career in D.C. that was nearly -- that was going to become nearly as successful as his art career in Chicago. When he moved to Chicago, his work took off. And he -- and it wasn't that he didn't have really good gallery representation here in D.C. He did. McIntosh Drysdale represented him, and -- but it was literally the fact that there was a glass ceiling here. And Martin knew it, and, you know, Martin left town. But I'm really glad you brought up Martin's name. He's really one of our finest.

  • 12:54:46

    NNAMDISo am I. Kristina, it's been common for artists who become successful to move away from D.C. Do you think it's possible to change that trend and make Washington a place where artists stick around even after they achieve success?

  • 12:54:58

    BILONICKActually, I have noticed this as a trend in D.C. More artists -- more graduates from the local art programs and more artists are actually staying. And one thing I wanted to comment on in regards to CATALYST is that CATALYST, you know, shows off the staying power of the artists. There are so many artists in the show. And when Jim and I set out to contact them, we assumed that a lot of them would have to be shipping their works from elsewhere. And about 90 percent of the over 100 artists in the show were still living and working in D.C.

  • 12:55:28

    BILONICKAnd amongst my peers, I found that a lot of artists are choosing to stay and work in the universities, open up their own studios. There's a couple of folks -- my friends Bridget Sue Lambert and Jose Ruiz have just started a print studio here in D.C. called Furthermore. And Jose, who is a D.C. artist who gained success and moved to New York, is actually coming back -- or at least splitting his time between the two places -- because he noticed that there was an audience here and a clientele that he could tap into. And, yeah, I mean, that's -- I just think that as long as there are more support...

  • 12:56:07

    NNAMDIYou are seeing a change.

  • 12:56:08

    BILONICKThere is, yeah.

  • 12:56:09

    NNAMDIHere is Bryan in Washington. Bryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:14

    BRYANHi, Kojo. This is a great show so far. I'm very encouraged to hear about all of these initiatives to start up local galleries for the local art scene, largely because I think that it is proper for the National Gallery and for the Smithsonian Institution to maintain a national focus. I recognize that in some ways D.C.'s lack of a local art scene is an insoluble problem, given the fact that we are also the nation's capital. And so, like I said, I'm encouraged to hear that there is all this local support for art among local galleries, which I think is the only way to do it in D.C.

  • 12:56:52

    NNAMDIDo you think, Jim Mahoney, that the national galleries, that Bryan think properly see themselves as, well, national galleries can, like most artists, learn to walk, chew gum and paint at the same time?

  • 12:57:04

    MAHONEYIt's a difficult question. And the fact is, is that no one has ever said that living in Los Angeles or New York or London has been inhibiting for their work because of the fact that there are international, major art museums there. They find those -- the presence of those museums stimulating. The great thing about D.C.'s museums -- most of them -- is that they are free. They are astonishing resources.

  • 12:57:28

    MAHONEYThe thing that has just -- that has not happened on a museum curatorial basis, except in the work that I've been doing as an independent curator and in a lot of other independent curators have been doing, we are all working a way, basically, validating an indigenous D.C. art, however it manifest itself. The museums do not pick up on it, don't -- are not interested in it. And it's -- in some respects, we're sort of like -- one of the models I like to deal with a lot is this model of a supersaturated solution of a liquid. When you toss a crystal of that substance into it, it crystallizes.

  • 12:58:07

    NNAMDIJim Mahoney is corresponding editor of Art in America magazine. He's a professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus. He's curator of "CATALYST: 35 Years of Washington Project for the Arts," that's on display at American University, Katzen Art Center until Dec. 19. Kristina Bilonick is program director of the Washington Project for the Arts. Thank you all for being here and for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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