On a commercial strip of 12th Street Northeast in Brookland, a bright pink storefront opened up on Saturday, June 19. Above the door, it reads “Bad Candy,” but there are no sweets inside — at least not yet. The owners of the art gallery, Bruce Allen and Henry Dotson, leased the space a few months ago when they couldn’t find the right place to show their artwork as the city reopened.
Allen is a photographer and Dotson is a painter, and even before the pandemic, they felt there weren’t enough spaces for artists to show their work. They realized they could fill that gap by opening an artist-owned gallery that’s accessible, approachable and affordable.
The pair showed their own work at Bad Candy in June, with bimonthly exhibits featuring other local artists on the horizon. In addition to selling work, they offer sustainably sourced apparel and sneaker customization. The apparel is screen-printed by D.C. artist Beth Hansen of The Arcade, a group of locals focused on arts accessibility in different neighborhoods.
Allen and Dotson agreed their top priority was making art approachable. D.C. is home to world-class institutions that are (amazingly) free, but they can also contribute to a limiting perception that art is just for museums.
“We want to make sure art is not some crazy inaccessible [or] intangible concept,” Dotson says. “It’s a thing you can hold in your hands, put on your wall, and admire and learn something from.”
In contrast to most museums, Dotson says they want to personally engage gallery-goers when they visit, as well as feature local artists and let them explain their work.
“Art is a community. Some of these places [are] missing that. We want to focus on the story of who made the piece and how they made it.”
However, the gallery owners do want to offer the accessibility of downtown institutions by making the space clean and open during regular business hours. Lastly, they want to make the work affordable. Pieces at commercial galleries can easily run upwards of several thousand dollars. At Bad Candy, they want the work to be available to students, families and anyone else interested in purchasing art.
“What we want to do is infuse this IKEA-affordable mentality into the pieces,” Dotson says. “We want anybody admiring a work of art to realize they can own that piece.”
They also want to close the gap by offering a place specifically for local artists. Working in D.C. themselves, Allen and Dotson can speak to the city’s thriving underground arts scene, but also to the difficulties of showing work to residents.
“Just on a quantitative level,” Dotson says, “there aren’t that many spaces for artists to pop up. You have to seek them out. It’s not a reliable thing.”
Allen points out the need for longer showings, noting that pop-ups can take months of planning and often end too quickly.
“While the art pop-up scene in D.C. is around, it’s only for a night or a week [at a time],” he says.
And as artists in the local scene, they understand how many of their peers in the District can go unseen.
Dotson adds, “There’s a lot of voices that go unheard, and we want to be the space that amplifies those voices.”
They hope to collaborate with these artists on Bad Candy apparel and sneaker customization. This month, they’re opening an application process on their website for “artists and creators looking to collaborate.” Expect monthly apparel releases.
“If there’s any big cultural ethos for young people, it’s that collaboration works,” Dotson says.
They already have several local artists planned for upcoming shows, which, in keeping with the candy shop theme, have titles like “Sugar Rush,” “Flamin’ Hot” and “Sweet Dreams.” “Sugar Rush” will be a group show this month and “Flamin’ Hot” will be a solo show in August, but Allen and Dotson are hesitant to reveal the featured artist for the latter.
“I’m not going to say who, [but] he’s one of the biggest upcoming artists [in] this area and we’re honored to work with him,” Allen says. “You’ve definitely seen him.”
Until then, the plan is to fill up the walls, get people in and ensure a constant flow of art from the gallery to local residents.
As we near a post-pandemic era, it’s encouraging to not only see spaces reopen, but to see new spaces open that are entirely rethinking what galleries in the city can look like.
“D.C.’s art scene is still slowly recovering,” Allen says. “I hope here at Bad Candy, we can foster that and give people the motivation and courage to pursue it.”
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