On a recent warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, the streets were lively with springtime activity near the new street-view gallery Plain Sight on Georgia Avenue in Northwest D.C. Tempting aromas wafted outside of the restaurants in Park View and each beer garden and patio competitively blasted its speakers. Someone made a left on a red light and horns blared. Except for the masked pedestrians, everything felt back to normal for just a few minutes.
A patron leaving St. Vincent Wine next door stopped for a minute to observe the current exhibit “The Revolution Will be Digitized” by D.C.-based artist Halim A. Flowers, nodded after silently reading a few lines of the excerpted poem scrawled on the gallery wall and continued on his way. A few minutes later, two women in their 20s stopped by. This seemed to be an afternoon destination for them. One woman scanned the window’s QR code with her phone while her friend walked to the side window to read the didactic label about the exhibit. In another minute, a couple walking a pug mix saw the two women enjoying the exhibit. I overheard their exchange about the newness of this space as they walked past.
“The name ‘Plain Sight’ is an encapsulation of some of our goals,” explains Teddy Rodger, Plain Sight’s co-founder and co-curator, along with Allison Nance. “We wanted it to be that the art was accessible, that there were no barriers – especially in this time when it’s harder to even see many of the free opportunities that are in this city. When we started to dream of this, we thought of ways of making this easier for people to see.”
Everything about Plain Sight has been designed deliberately for radical accessibility and with the residents of Park View in mind. In this time of social distancing and anxieties about being indoors with others, the installations are visible from bustling Georgia Avenue. Admission fees and gallery hours, often barriers for many potential gallery visitors, are non-issues. There is no entry and therefore no entry fee, and the exhibits are visible at all hours. After dark, the gallery window is resplendent, professional gallery lighting illuminating the art against the dark walls.
The monthly rotations allow enough time to plan a visit, while also changing frequently enough to remain novel and fresh for the residents who walk by daily on their way to work, running errands or getting to the Metro. The abbreviated didactic labels are visible from the north-facing window, but one can appreciate the exhibits without reading more.
“We don’t want anyone to feel they need to be prepared to engage with the arts,” Rodger says. “We’ve spent our careers trying to make warm and welcoming environments where it’s easier for our visitors to ask questions rather than receive a download of information that suddenly readies them to engage with the artwork.”
The gallery is the site of new opportunities when we all have resigned ourselves to a year of postponements, cancellations and closures, and offers a bright promise for the future of equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion in the local arts scene.
Of Endings + New Beginnings
In June 2020, Nance drove from her home in Alexandria, Virginia to meet her friend and former coworker, Rodger, in Park View. They previously worked together at IA&A at Hillyer, a renowned international artist-focused program and exhibit space in the Dupont neighborhood where Nance served as director for seven years. Since March, they had spent several months postponing and eventually canceling installations, breaking the bad news to both local and international artists, and eventually both of these well-respected arts leaders lost their positions.
Walking together along Georgia Avenue, the underused office space of nearby Sonny’s Pizza offered a fresh spark of inspiration. Nance recalled several international street-view galleries, including a Roman gallery she previously worked with through a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) Sister Cities Grant awarded to IA&A Hillyer.
“Una Ventrina showcases super contemporary art in an old building,” Nance notes, “and Fentster in Toronto is in a traditional Jewish community and highlights that with related programming.”
Rodger adds, “We would be remiss not to acknowledge that Transformer [a Logan Circle-based gallery] has an incredible street-view, front gallery window. We’ve been following them for years, and we’ve been thinking about other spaces that use the front window to share exhibitions.”
With a quickly approaching July deadline, Rodger and Nance applied for two grants from the DC CAH. They were awarded to Rodger, who lives in Park View. The pair selected their artists and alternates, created a timeline, and reached out to civic associations, neighborhood businesses and Park View’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. They even contacted Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau to inform her of their plans to open a new gallery.
“We started this because we lost our jobs, but we wanted to continue to support the arts community,” says Nance, who has since become managing director of The Nicholson Project, a community and artist residency program in Southeast D.C. “We felt we would do the project no matter what.”
Because of the Public Art Building Communities grant they received, Nance and Rodger were able to hire design consultant Le Whit and contractors SoCo Contracting to transform the space. They repainted the facade charcoal, installed new drywall and lighting in the white box gallery framed by an 11.5-foot-wide window, and, most importantly, paid the artists.
“We are both passionately in love with artists in general, and especially these artists,” Rodger says. “We picked people we were really fans of. We needed artists who would roll the dice with us and still take the ride, even if we didn’t get the grant.”
Plain Sight, which opened with Flowers’ current exhibit in January, has monthly exhibits planned throughout September. Nance and Rodger selected works they felt would resonate the most with their Park View neighbors, and all of the artists currently live in D.C. or Baltimore. Ubiquitous poster artist and Park View resident Absurdly Well has created works on paper to cover the windows during the dismantling and load-ins between exhibits.
Nance and Rodger wanted to do right by artists with whom they already had strong working relationships, or artists they were excited to work with before the pandemic but never had the chance. Flowers and Baltimore-based Lee Nowell-Wilson were both slated for upcoming exhibitions at IA&A Hillyer but did not have an opportunity for their work to be shown. Nara Park, another D.C.-based artist, did an artist talk for IA&A Hillyer, and Baltimore native Ada Pinkston previously presented there and expressed her excitement in working with them again.
“It was amazing to work with Allison and Teddy,” Pinkston says. “They are supportive, encouraging and make sure that artists have everything they need to present their best work.”
“The Revolution Will Be Digitized”
Plain Sight’s inaugural exhibit, Flowers’ multimedia project “The Revolution Will Be Digitized,” is a vivid abstract painting (40” x 40” acrylic and oil stick on canvas) stating the title while excerpts from his poem of the same name are painted nearby. A QR code allows visitors to listen to his poem, a blistering critique against contemporary politics, capitalism and institutionalized racism set to a jazzy score.
The project was a collaborative effort between Flowers as artist and poet; his wife L. Patrice McKinney, who painted the background of the painting; curatorial assistant and local artist Alanna Reeves, who painted over the poem’s lettering; and Tone P, who produced the spoken-word track. Flowers turned to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide Black Lives Matters protest to update Gil Scott Heron’s classic protest poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for the 21st century.
The self-taught Flowers, who has demonstrated his capacity and range as a poet, photographer and prison reformer, began with photo-poem works. After the pandemic hit, he began painting in March 2020 and has produced 52 paintings during the last 11 months. Flowers’ references and allusions in his poetry and paintings are myriad and encyclopedic. Underpinning all of his work is the essence of love: from the revered paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the music of Jay-Z and John Coltrane to Martin Scorsese’s films to scientific terms from the worlds of geometry, algebra and physics.
“It will make viewers laugh and it will make them think,” Flowers says about his exhibition piece. “As human beings, we are very creative in not loving one another and treating each other as less than. I believe the revolution is love. If people aren’t equipped to love themselves, they cannot love anyone else. My art is a brutal truth of a reconciliation process but is always meant to inspire love. My journey as an artist is perfecting the manifestation of that intention [by] becoming more efficient in expressing in visual art that the dynamics of love [are not] fettered by race, class, gender, creed or sexuality.”
“The Revolution Will be Digitized” remains on view until March 7. Current and upcoming exhibits include the group exhibit “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1 in New York (closing April 4), as well as at National Arts Club in New York City and Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans.
Looking Ahead for Plain Sight + Other D.C. Galleries
Rodger and Nance plan to launch a second program series called “Sightings” this spring, funded with a projects, events or festivals grant from the DC CAH. The grant will allow for socially distanced or contact-free opportunities to engage with Plain Sight’s artists, including additional digital programming.
“There is only so much space, so we had to be creative in what information to share,” Nance says. “But there’s always more on Instagram [@plainsightdc] and our website. They all work together in tandem.”
Even after museums reopen, Nance and Rodger see a brilliant future for Plain Sight – from expanding to multiple venues throughout the District to collaborating with other institutions to highlight artists. They have also been approached by several embassies to exhibit the works of artists from around the world.
Of a shift to wider viewership, Nowell-Wilson says, “I do see many blessings from online exhibitions and virtual art life, so I hope galleries and museums continue to thrive in that way as it brings visibility to many more artists.”
Pinkston hopes “museums and galleries will think more deeply about being socially responsible and more inclusive of BIPOC.”
Rodger and Nance believe their model of radical accessibility can inspire other museums and galleries, too. Nance says so many museums have been trying out different models for “How do you bring the museum to the people? How do you benefit the community they are based in by trying different models, partnerships and locations?”
“Even when we think we’ve taken away all the barriers, there are still other barriers,” she adds. “There’s a lot to consider. Becoming a presence within the community you are a part of is really important. We are on a very busy thoroughfare, but our audience is anyone walking to their workplace or the Metro.”
Rodger concludes, “We are just trying to whet someone’s appetite to go and see more art. I would never presume we are replacing someone’s visit to the museums. We hope to be part of a healthy diet of arts intake.”
What’s Next on View at Plain Sight?
March 8-16 + 14-22, July 18-26, September 22-30
Between exhibits, the pervasive socially conscious art of D.C.-based Absurdly Well will be on display. portraits and stenciled taglines on brown craft paper, Absurdly Well’s works are brief, bold challenges to the status quo and a celebration of Black leaders seen throughout D.C.
March 17 – May 13
D.C.-based artist Nara Park will have three wall-based pieces and one sculptural piece displayed from March 17 to May 13 at Plain Sight.
She says her works will “explore the relationship between humans and the landscape, monumentality and what imprints we leave behind.”
Park’s faux stone pieces resemble headstones, with scribbles replacing engraved legible epitaphs and an unmoving stone clock carved from Styrofoam.
May 23 – July 17
This exhibit from Baltimore-based artist Lee Nowell-Wilson will revolve around investigating the ambivalent undertones within birth, domestic labor and human relationship.
“Most of my work revolves around these themes, and I try to execute this in an ironic way by using mundane objects (blankets, pillows, toys, etc.) to express complex human tendencies and emotion,” she says. “I like unfolding the tension between what feels comfortable and what feels aggressive, so viewers can expect an invitation into that vulnerable walk.”
“Speaking to Windows”
July 27 – September 21
This digital video and soundscape from Baltimore-based artist Ada Pinkston considers the past, present and future of Georgia Avenue using archival images, street sounds and conversations with contemporary residents of the neighborhood.
“When [people] visit my exhibit, I hope they are able to see the ways the installation bends time,” she says. “In particular, I would like for the audience to consider the past, present and future of this storefront.”
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