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The Rise and Fall of Washington Print Galleries: A Fifty Year History

The 1960's saw a dramatic rise in the number of Washington, D.C. art galleries specializing in original prints. During the decade's early years, Sidney Michelson, Franz Bader and Emanuel Baker, located in three different parts of the city, offered a selection of 19th and 20th century prints to the public. By the fall of 1969, the print scene changed dramatically when three new galleries opened in Georgetown. Jane Haslem arrived from Madison, Wisconsin, Barbara Fendrick moved from her Chevy Chase home, and Harry Lunn relocated from Capitol Hill.

Jane Haslem installed comprehensive exhibitions of Josef Albers, Gabor Peterdi and Edward Hopper. Harry Lunn mounted shows of Milton Avery's prints and the works of important turn-of-the-century artists. He collaborated with private dealer Jem Hom to show prints by Louis Lozowick and John Sloan. For the opening of her M Street gallery, Barbara Fendrick displayed a group of Jasper Johns prints which spelled out the numbers of her address. She exhibited the work of Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and other nationally known artists, including several who were making prints at newly established print workshops.. Both the Washington Star and the Washington Post ran extensive articles on these exhibitions. The Post’s Paul Richard and Joanne Lewis along with Benjamin Forgey of the Star wrote thoughtful critiques which were especially helpful in encouraging the development of an art savvy public.

The price of prints was affordable: a Hopper etching cost $950, and one by Sloan only $350. Crowds flocked to the galleries and shows sold out.

The Washington Print Club was founded in 1964, according to LuLen Walker, Curator at the Special Collections Research Center at the Georgetown University Library. A trio of collectors, John Mathews, Mary Hewes and Tim Bornstein, founded the organization and formed a committee of stellar advisors, including Alan Fern, Jacob Kainen, Jerry Nordland, Adelyn Breeskin and Victor Carlson.

During the 1970's, ten Washington galleries were located in The P Street Strip and more could be found in the neighborhood around the Phillips Gallery. Those exhibiting prints included Middendorf, Haslem, Marsha Mateyka, Hom, Robert Brown and Addison/Ripley. Jane Haslem not only installed large exhibitions, she also held competitive shows for Washington area printmakers. The Fendrick and Lunn galleries continued to exhibit and sell prints from their Georgetown locations while Franz Bader’s downtown gallery remained very active with prints. An enthusiastic public visited to look at, learn about and buy fine prints. It was not unusual for an art lover to walk comfortably from one gallery to another, enjoying the complete work of Will Barnet, a Peggy Bacon retrospective and the most recent prints of Helen Frankenthaler, all on one afternoon.

In the 1980's, rising real estate values caused the P Street galleries to close or look for new locations. Harry Lunn, then specializing in fine art photography, moved to 7th Street, as did Osuna, Kornblatt, David Adamson, Nancy Drysdale, Haslem and Zenith. At first, media coverage was good, particularly for the half dozen galleries located at number 406. However, as time passed, the Washington Star closed and critic Paul Richard of the Washington Post decided to limit his articles to museum exhibits and to assign art gallery reviews to a team of younger writer/critics. Over a period of five or six years, attendance at gallery openings fell from 2000+ in an evening to less than 100. Once again, real estate complications dealt the final blow. Dealers moved to new locations, and this time no cluster of galleries developed. As a result, it was no longer possible to spend a pleasant afternoon wandering by foot from one gallery show to another.

In the 1990's more new galleries opened, older ones closed or relocated, and press coverage by the Washington Post decreased dramatically. The print market, so exciting in the city during the 70’s and 80's, suffered a downturn. Robert Brown, Marsha Mateyka, and Jane Haslem were among the few dealers who continued to install important print exhibitions. And the Washington Printmakers Gallery continued to promote local artists. But by this time large, expensive prints by big name artists produced in print workshops dominated the market. Artists, critics and museum curators turned their attention to large-scale, one-of-a-kind works of art. The time for the intimate and affordable print seemed to be a thing of the past.

Today there are just a few dealers who exhibit prints and are open to the public on a regular basis. Art galleries are plentiful, located from Capital Hill to Georgetown, from downtown to Dupont Circle, all over the city and beyond, in Alexandria, Silver Spring and Bethesda. However, the recession of the past several years has been devastating. Dealers are struggling, as are all but a handful of artists. Some of those who once collected prints are finding that they have less disposable income, others have left their spacious homes and no longer have enough wall space to display their collections. And there are those who, after many years of living with their collections, find that it is time to let go. By giving fine prints to their heirs, donating collections to public institutions, and sending works to the auction houses or to dealers for resale, the collectors of the past fifty years will hopefully generate renewed interest in the art of the print.

However, once again Washington seems to be on the upswing. This fall two new print galleries will open in Georgetown. Robert Brown Gallery is returning from NYC along with Neptune Fine Art also from New York. We will keep you posted.