Art beyond the Smithsonian: Unique Galleries and Museums Thrive in D.C

Article excerpt

Most everyone has heard of them. The Hirshorn Museum. The National Gallery of Art. The Sackler Museum. These well-known art venues, all of which are part of the partially government-funded Smithsonian Institution's collection of 14 galleries and museums, are practically Washington landmarks--but they have not yet cornered the market on the D.C. visual arts scene. In fact, many D.C. art destinations offer everything from collections centering on local artists to traveling exhibitions from around the globe.

While the District of Columbia is small in size for a major metropolitan city, it is densely packed with a variety of neighborhoods that can change in character from one block to the next. Alas, the city's "gallery row" can be found all over town: on 7th Street in downtown Washington; in trendy Georgetown; and in a variety of other haunts, both popular and inconspicuous.

Passion for the visual arts is, perhaps, among the few pursuits that unite "the donkeys" and "the elephants," or more formally, Democrats and Republicans, in this city's partisan environment.

A Block-Long Smorgasbord

A stretch of 7th St., beginning in the 400 block and ending in the 1000 block, is home to the 7th Street Arts District, a veritable contemporary art cornucopia bounded at either end by Pennsylvania Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. And it is the monthly event called "Third Thursday" that is orchestrated by the private non-profit Cultural Development Corporation (CulturalDC), which provides a "gallery crawl" of 7th Street's offerings, led by two alternating local artists. "We try to provide a time that is welcoming to newer and younger audiences that might be intimidated by the gallery scene," notes CulturalDC Executive Director Anne L. Corbett. "We get a lot of regulars who come for a glass of wine and a little bit of culture."

The wine reference alludes to the customary wine and cheese offerings that grace many a gallery opening. "We have had as many as 200 people, but normally we have 30 or so that are split into two groups." And at 6 p.m. on the designated monthly day, a group of eager gallery hoppers gather at the Goethe Institut for the start of the tour.

While the diverse list of participating galleries and arts organizations on the "crawl" is constantly evolving, the roster of 12 destinations now includes, of course, the tour's starting point, the Goethe Institut, which is the cultural foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany. Among its many cultural offerings are exhibitions of selected German artists, whose works range from painting to photography to sculptures, and beyond. On the opposite end of the block, Zenith Gallery exhibits the work of local, national and international artists, as it has for nearly three decades. The gallery, owned by founder and director Margery Eleme Goldberg, has a collection that runs the gamut of artists' media and includes an assortment of three-dimensional, mixed media pieces ranging from tapestries to sculptured furniture. And Goldberg even provides consulting services, offering a staff of professionals that can wisely advise both the novice collector and "the shepherd" of a corporate collection.

Zenith's biggest claim to fame, however, may very well be its neon art collection. Exhibited for the last 25 years, this collection receives extra promotion with the venue's annual Zenith Gallery Neon Invitational. The collection reads like a "Who's Who" in the country's 3-D neon art arena, boasting works by the likes of Craig Kraft. A common theme in Kraft's work--a theme that immediately holds a peruser's eyes hostage--is the seemingly partial emergence of a human figure from the canvas, made all the more captivating by the strategically placed neon backlighting that appears to serve as the portal for the bas-relief segment of the work.

While the Zenith Gallery is a highlight on the 7th Street Arts District tour, the promenade up and down 7th is not void of the corporate element. …