In a 12,000-square foot Kensington building on the intimate, bohemian Howard Avenue, Gary Rosenthal crafts one of the most popular lines of Jewish artwork in the country; his busy metal workshop is filled with skeletons of unfinished pieces, bins of fused glass, and shelves of Menorahs, dreidels and plaques.
And above, sits a studio space he hopes will one-day house the arts community of Rock Creek.
The Howard Avenue Arts Incubator is the latest in the line of Rosenthal’s endeavors, after nearly 40 years as an artist, businessman and nonprofit sponsor.
“I wasn’t happy just being a successful sculptor, I wanted to help the world. Art is a wonderful avenue to get people engaged in social action,” Rosenthal said.
However, the arts center is still in its own incubation period, during a time where far-off goals of becoming a self-sustainable arts community are hampered by economic challenges and shifting priorities.
“There are way more artists than galleries could possibly exhibit,” said Catriona Fraser, a local artist who works with the Howard Avenue center, adding that in the last two years, about 10 art galleries have shuttered in the D.C. area. Casualties include her own Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, 7-year-old Neptune Gallery, and alternative art space Woodman Studies in Downtown Silver Spring.
Still, Rosenthal managed to hold two photography exhibits, and after a summer off, he’s returning with a musical series, art classes, and a series of three juried photography shows.
“We’re very aggressively trying to make things happen. It’ll take years to put together and I’ll be impatient through the whole thing,” said Rosenthal, who’s been working in Kensington for more than a decade.
Snapshots of life
The center’s most ambitious project is an international call for artists for three photography exhibitions that will celebrate the positive aspects of life, under the themes of hope, survival and renewal. Submission deadlines are in October, February and April respectively, and “Hope,” juried by Fraser, will open in December.
Attendees will likely see some “sunrises and flowers blooming and children smiling,” Fraser said, along with more inventive interpretations.
Rosenthal said his ideal candidate for a show is an adult who has been creating art as a hobby and hasn’t participated in a show before, and lacks the reputation or experience necessary to show in other galleries around town.
“We are in a very, very down economy, and the first thing to get cut unfortunately is always art, always music and things that are creative,” said Kensington town council member Mackie Barch, who oversees the arts council.
“It becomes extremely difficult for new artists to find space to get their art shown,” he added.
Barch said the incubator helps just by acknowledging the arts as being important to the community and encouraging a dialogue, and that the next step is making sure that progress isn’t lost through the town’s ongoing revitalization process.
Kensington’s Sector Plan, a plan developed in June to guide the town’s future, includes guidelines that require at least some new developers to incorporate public art into their projects. And annual events, like the Paint the Town celebration Labor Day Weekend, also give a nod to the area’s abundance of artists.
Because the Howard Avenue gallery and this competition are brand-new, and the space is so large, the odds of even a new artists’ work being accepted are very high. Fraser said she can select about 60 images, and estimated Rosenthal may receive less than 100 applications.
More seasoned competitions, like the ones Fraser held for 15 years at her gallery, often see twice that.
The featured artist in one of the incubator’s shows last spring sold eight pieces for a total of $5,000, an amount Rosenthal called extraordinary in today’s market. And money aside, showing their work in a gallery also gives emerging artists presentation experience, resume credentials, and hopefully talk time with other gallery owners and artists; a network of support is especially important in this field, where experts and amateurs often work together simply because of their passion for art.
Rosenthal also invites local artists to work with the incubator to hold classes, and is meeting with members to put together a schedule.
“He’s doing a very generous thing with using this building that he owns to provide an arts center for the community,” said Fraser. “I know that having an art gallery is an extremely difficult business to be in, especially in these economic times, but Gary really wants to do this to showcase the work of artists in our community, which I think is amazing.”
Featured photo: Guests enjoy one of the incubator’s first events, a member-curated photography exhibit in April.