Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, January 13, 2011

 

Here's a paradox for you. It's a lousy time to be running an art gallery, what with the economy still limping back from a bruising recession. Why pay good money for something you can't eat, wear or live in? On the other hand, it's quite possible that there's never been a time when we needed art more than we do now, for its power to uplift, inspire and challenge the status quo.

Vast swaths of you, however, have yet to discover the joys of the area's gallery scene (which may explain why it's such a lousy time to be running an art gallery). Sure, you've been to each of our world-class museums at one time or another -- who hasn't? -- but have you ever ventured into one of the places where today's artists try out ideas and give shape to images that might grace museum walls tomorrow?

Art galleries are laboratories where artists can take chances.

And that's a scary thing. Not just for the artist, but for the viewer. Unlike a museum, there's no docent, no wall text, no art history book to tell you what's good or bad, what it all means, why it's so expensive or what it's made of.

That's scary, yes, but it can also be thrilling, as with anything that's brand new. That's why art openings (at least the good ones) are so often jammed. To be sure, there's strength in numbers, and looking at something unfamiliar -- and something very possibly perplexing -- is less intimidating in a crowd. But there's also a rush that comes from being among the first to experience something that's never been seen before.

We'll make the adventure easy for you. Here's a list of eight area galleries to get your feet wet, along with dates of upcoming opening receptions. Think of them as parties that you're encouraged to crash. And with an open bar. Most gallery receptions offer free wine or beer, along with light snacks. (On rare occasion, there's a modest suggested donation.) The best way to get notified of future exhibitions is to sign the mailing list when you walk in the door. And don't worry. There's no obligation. No salesman will call.

Each of the places we've picked -- a mix of nonprofits and commercial spaces -- has something to recommend it: longevity, daring, verve, smarts, commitment, pluck, sheer beauty of the space, or proximity to other galleries. In each case, we've included a suggestion of another gallery stop in the same neighborhood, so you can compare and contrast.

Why bother? That's the easy part. For the same reason you read books, watch movies, go to plays and listen to music. As one gallery owner we talked to said, "Who doesn't want a conversation with what's beautiful?"

Hamiltonian Gallery

1353 U St. NW. 202-332-1116.

www.hamiltoniangallery.com .

When Hamiltonian first opened in 2008, it was an innovative hybrid: Part nonprofit finishing school offering fellowships to young, unrepresented artists who wanted to learn the ropes from more-established artist-mentors, and part commercial gallery. It still is both.

Since then, the exhibition program has evolved. No longer is every show automatically divided up between masters in one-half of the gallery, and pupils in the other. This makes for fewer awkward arranged marriages and a brighter spotlight focused on the work of those who have yet to make their mark.

"If people are interested in observing artists in the long term, they should know about us," explains director Jackie Ionita, "because after art school, we're step one."

Now on view: "Magnolia Laurie: Holding Up" and "Bobby Benjamin: Going Home," through Saturday.

Up next: "Katherine Mann and Selin Balci: Bound," opening Jan. 22 from 7 to 9 p.m. Through Feb. 26. (Artist talk: Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.)