all photos: Jeff Martin + exhibition photos from BYT archives
This weekend, Transformer DC kicks off its 15th season with Defy / Define, a group exhibition exploring identity. And its name and topics are both a perfect description and perfect fit for this small but mighty arts organization that has always both helped define and simultaneously defied the art world space it occupies.
“We are excited to kick this season off by showing work by artists who defy stereotypes and examine how we define ourselves in a time of tumultuous social and political change.” – says Victoria Reis, Executive & Artistic Director and Co-Founder, as we settle into the tiny white box on 14th and P to catch up with her and her team, art waiting to be installed, their annual auction roster about to be finalized, and a series of projects big and small, international and local, under way.
The visual artist organization (“People calling us a gallery is my big pet peeve”- laughs Reis) has occupied ten of those fifteen seasons in the storefront on 14th street, using the space, and the rapidly changing city around it as a platform for showcasing emerging and cutting edge talent. “That was our mission from the beginning, and I don’t think it ever changed”-said Reis – “It has certainly evolved, but we stayed true to our original goals”.
The neighborhood certainly has (changed). As the corner of 14th and P went through some pretty dramatic alterations, both cultural and developmental (“Even the light in our space is now different”, notes Reis, “Ten years a go, there were no tall apartment buildings across the street”), Transformer has maintained its grounds and spirit as a benchmark place to discover new artists, engage both them and their audience in creative ways and use their HQ as a center of the art community.
“I have always thought of 1404 P Street NW as a project space, an extension of the Transformer mission. That is why we not a gallery. We don’t so much as curate art in it, but curate the artists, and then allow them to respond to it” – says Reis. – “And it is such a weird space, in a good way, because you really have no choice but to ENGAGE with the art immediately”. In the past this has resulted in some great site-specific installations, like last year’s Gift Shop and Art Repair Shop, or the Jessica Cebra’s shows a few years before, which used the location as a literal cave or snowglobe. Instagrammable before instagram.
This season’s 6th annual Storefront Exhibition (which follows Defy / Define) is showcasing the work of Andrea Polichetti, an extension of Transformer’s ongoing relationship with the diplomatic world, and a lively collaboration with Italy this year, which will culminate with almost 30 pieces by Italian emerging artists being included in Transformer’s annual auction, on November 19th.
“It was important to us to show not just local but national and international artists”, says Reis, “Not only because we wanted to think bigger but because it was great to see DC artists’ work in the context of the bigger picture too”.
Happening concurrently with Polichetti in the 14th street space, Transformer is presenting their 4th “Do You Know Where Your Art Comes From?” exhibition and collaboration with American University featuring pioneering feminist artist and underground hero Martha Wilson, and her work as Founder & Director of Franklin Furnace, a New York based non-profit arts organization that has been supporting avant-garde art since 1976. “Working with Martha… I am thrilled.”, says Reis, “She has maintained such openness and honesty and energy about her work, and even after all these years stands for everything we celebrate here”
Then in early 2017, Transformer will be hosting shows by Johab Silva and Chandi Kelley. Beyond that timeline, the programming remains fluid. “I think it is important for us to stay within a six-months out programming plan. W ith the focus on emerging artists that we have, staying nimble and flexible is key”.
And with DC often looking to Transformer to tell them what’s new, and who’s next in the art work, how do they discover their collaborators and artists to support? According to Reis, just staying engaged in the community is key. And people seem to have a desire to stay and keep working with Transformer once they start. Reis’ staff is filled with bright young art world things that were once (and will be in the future) featured in the Transformer programming, with the current roster’s Georgie Payne’s work was in Gift Shop and Rex Delafkaran is one of the artists in Defy/Define. With a team of people who not only appreciate but make art, the connection to the artists themselves is easy. Often collaborations start in one way, and find new extensions. This year’s auction coordination Dawne Langford was someone whose work with Quota Reis admired around town, who then worked on one of the 2015 exhibitions, and is now fully ensconced in the team.
It all goes to show that the Transformer energy, fifteen seasons in is still infectious. It is still a place people want to be part of. When asked what drew them to wanting to be part of the Transformer team, the answers make Reis almost blush. Cara Leepsen, development coordinator said that since she has lived in DC it has been her “unofficial life goal to become part of Transformer”, and Langford remembers how, upon return to DC from London, it was going to Transformer’s openings that made her feel that “Yes, I can do this. I can live in DC and be creative and not have my soul die”.
So, what keeps Reis going? “When Transformer was founded in 2002 we simply wanted to provide a consistent platform for emerging artists. And we did that, despite the challenges. And still we feel like we have to do this. Defy/Define is a great example of that. We hear the conversations that are happening in both the art community and community in general, and we know that this is a topic, in this time and place, that needs to be addressed. Because of that Transformer, as an organization is an art project in and of itself, and always a work in progress.”
So, what is next for Reis and her team? Just more of the same and more of the more. “We’d love to do so many things. Artist residency programs. Mentorship programs with some of our early artists working with our newer generations. Bigger, off-site projects”, says Reis, “But ultimately, the goal is to really just keep going and growing”
“And our official birthday is coming up, so we need to celebrate”
We, for one, look forward to it.
And see you all on the 17th for: