WPA’s Many Homes | Catalyst



WPA’s Many Homes

When Alice Denney founded WPA in 1975, she managed to achieve what for most would have been impossible: she successfully negotiated with the City of Washington’s Redevelopment Land Agency, to rent a three-story building in the heart of downtown for a mere $1 per year. Albeit dilapidated, the space at 1227 G Street NW was large enough to easily accommodate the broadly conceived programming that Denney envisioned for WPA – visual arts exhibitions, theatrical and musical performances, film and video, service programs for artists, and receptions celebrating the arts – while providing sufficient accommodations for the staff. The space was renovated under Denney’s direction, on a shoestring and pegboard budget, and provided a means for WPA to thrive until 1982 when, with director Al Nodal at the helm, the city sold the building to revitalize the G Street corridor and add a metro stop. WPA was evicted and the building was later demolished.

Nodal found and renovated a new 15,000 square foot location in the Jenifer Building at 400 7th Street NW. In 1983, the Board of Directors hired Jock Reynolds, an artist with fundraising talents, as Nodal’s successor and charged him with meeting WPA’s mounting space and financial challenges. The rent for the 7th Street space remained reasonable until 1986 when the owner, unbeknownst to WPA, sold the building to a law firm. By 1987, Reynolds had responded with a capital campaign. Additionally, with Board approval, he agreed to a plan in which WPA would remain in the building with diminished space while also loaning $500,000 to the building’s developer. At the end of a seven year loan period, WPA would have the option to either be paid back with interest and vacate the Jenifer Building or forgive the loan in exchange for equity in the building and pay market rent. WPA also agreed to renovate the galleries, a project that was completed by December of 1988. In the interim, it relocated to 434 7th Street NW, the former site of an S.S. Kresge Company five-and-dime.

By December of 1995, WPA’s financial position, always a difficult one, became untenable. With no investment interest and the prospect of a dramatic rent increase, there were no incentives to stay in the Jenifer Building. After a protracted internal debate, the WPA Board of Directors transferred operations to a new non-profit corporation, Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran (WPA\C), which was housed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and was legally accountable to its Board of Trustees. WPA\C had only one staff member and, without galleries of its own, became reliant on outside spaces for the presentation of its exhibitions and programs. Among those it was able to find were local galleries, vacated schools and commercial properties, and the Central Armature Building.

On January 1, 2008, WPA formally separated from the Corcoran and reincorporated as Washington Project for the Arts. A fully independent 501 (c)(3) organization once again, WPA moved to 2023 Massachusetts Avenue NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Later that year, it launched an ongoing project series, Coup d’Espace, in which artists take over the WPA office space. WPA continues to present in outside venues that are suited and receptive to its larger exhibitions and programs.

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