Mounting Pressure for DC Galleries


G Fine Art, widely acknowledged as one of the premiere contemporary art galleries in Washington, D.C., will close in August. Housed on the second floor of a three-story galleries building, the gallery—whose stable features some of the most innovative and visible artists in the metropolitan area—will not renew its release after its current show closes, according to gallery director Annie Gawlak.

Gawlak says she fully intends to carry on with the gallery. “I’ve got the fall plan, but I don’t have the place to do it in,” she says.

But the cost of doing business has risen at 1515 14th Street NW, where Gawlak opened a 1,700-square-foot space in 2004. Her gallery is a cornerstone of the former auto showroom, renovated in 2004 and home to three other contemporary art galleries. The 1515 building perhaps best represents contemporary art in Washington-though that may change.

An installation image from G Fine Arts’ show in May, featuring work by Chan Chao

“People tried extremely hard to make this kind of gallery work,” says Giorgio Furioso, the owner of the 1515 14th Street NW building and a silent business partner in G Fine Art. Furioso echoes many in Washington who say that the difficult economic climate, combined with the high pedigree of art represented by Gawlak, contributed to the failure of the gallery space to remain viable through the recession. “It’s the economy for us,” he says, “plus the fact, I think our programming never really targeted the sale.”

“It’s very sad to see that DC does not support progressive, cutting-edge work to support a gallery of that caliber,” says Andrea Pollan, whose Curator’s Office gallery shares the second floor with G Fine Art.

Furioso is in a unique position with regard to the space and its closing. He supported the emergence of the centralized contemporary art space-a “magnet, a critical mass” as he puts it-by largely subsidizing the rents of the galleries that filled it. Today, five years later, he must raise their rents. This increase upon renewal was stipulated in the lease for each gallery, but it nevertheless arrives during difficult economic circumstances.

“Look back five years ago-we were in a different world,” says Laurie Adamson, director of Adamson Gallery, also situated on the second floor at 1515 14th Street NW.  

“I severely cut [the galleries’] rent,” says Furioso, describing the development behind 1515 14th Street NW. “I didn’t charge anything for general contracting. I put up all the money for interior work. I staked quite a bit on 1515 behind G Fine Art.”

Furioso says that the lease for G Fine Art was discounted between 30 and 40% from market rate, a subsidized figure along the lines of what all the galleries in the building received. Furioso, an artist and instructor turned developer, figured that by assembling high-quality galleries in the same building, he could create a synergy that would benefit everyone involved-from galleries to artists to collectors. “I went out and literally lured them to the space,” he says. “[George] Hemphill from Georgetown, David [Adamson] from 7th Street, Annie from Georgetown. Andrea [Pollan] didn’t have a space at that time.”

The restaurant space that occupied the entire first floor and storefront of the building never quite succeeded in a way that could supplement two floors of gallery space above. The restaurant Veridian closed after two years in the space in January 2008, making way for another restaurant, Posto, which opened in December 2008. (Furioso describes conflicted thoughts about having a restaurant anchor an arts building. He expresses a feeling of mixed relief back when Veridian closed: “The good news is we’re closing the restaurant. The bad news is we’re closing the restaurant.”)

Furioso says that he’s been negotiating his own lease on the building for two months. He claims that banks haven’t yet refinanced the building, at least in part because he is not charging his tenants at the market rate. In fact, the clause for renewal in each gallery’s lease indicates a raise to market rate-minus a deduction of 5% at minimum.

“G Fine Art paid slightly more than some of the other galleries, quite frankly,” says Furioso.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the other galleries, which are in the process of renegotiating their leases with Furioso. Hemphill Fine Arts, one of the community’s longest-running contemporary art galleries, expressed that it had “every intention to renew our lease here.” Pollan said that she had not yet begun negotiations. Adamson says that she’s less vulnerable than the other galleries because she publishes editions. “I’m a little better off, but it’s only because of that,” she says. “I don’t have to have a gallery to do what I do.”

“The closing of G Fine Art will leave a big hole in the Washington art community for several reasons,” explains Philip Barlow, a collector with an extensive collection of art by Washington artists, in an email. “G had a great mix of Washington and national and international artists that showed off how good Washington artists are.”

Barlow adds that “alongside the closing of Numark [Gallery] a couple of years ago, we now have two of the best designed commercial gallery spaces in DC not being used to exhibit art.” Gawlak opened G Fine Art eight years go in the sort of Georgetown brownstone that was common for dealers in the District, before the move to 14th Street NW and its Chelsea-sized warehouse spaces.

Gawlak says that she has every intention to follow through with her programming at a new space, though it’s unclear yet what shape those plans may take.  

“I think it’s still going to happen,” says artist Jefferson Pinder, whose joint show with Jose Ruiz was slated to open at G Fine Art on September 12. The opening may yet still fall on that date, albeit in a different space. He names Cheryl Numark’s former gallery space downtown as a likely candidate for the show, but acknowledges that it could be postponed. “It’s just probably going to take more time.”

“Right now I’m trying to find some place to do the September show-Jefferson Pinder and Jose Ruiz,” says Gawlak. “What I would need is for someone to be very kind.”

A group show, Good People, Bad Behavior, is on view through August 14.