Transformer at 20: Co-Founder of Visual Arts Nonprofit Tells All 


Speaking at The Georgetowner’s Sept. 22 Cultural Leadership Breakfast, Victoria Reis said being at the Tabard Inn felt like coming “full circle.”

Reis recalled meeting in the very same room with members of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations. Her stint working for the Washington, D.C.-based NAAO, which no longer exists, put her on the path to co-founding the nonprofit visual arts platform Transformer 20 years ago.

What else led her to launch (with Jayme McLellan) an organization to advance the careers of emerging artists? Serving as curator of Washington Project for the Arts’ 1999 and 2001 “Options” exhibitions — every other year “just didn’t feel like enough,” Reis said — then as curatorial consultant for the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities’ public art program.

With help from Sarah Finlay and Patrick Murcia, who had opened the Fusebox gallery nearby, Reis came to sign a lease on 1404 P St. NW, a 250-square-foot space several blocks east of Logan Circle and the yet-to-be-christened 14th Street Corridor. Transformer now pays seven times the 2002 rent.

The inaugural exhibition paired a pop-culture treehouse installation by Misaki Kawai — Reis happened upon Kawai, new to the U.S., selling work on a Manhattan sidewalk — with tourist-mode photographs of Japan by Mica Scalin.

About six shows go up every year in the tiny space, currently “Artise Fletcher: Commemorative Strands,” on view through Oct. 22. The Fletcher show, Transformer’s 19th annual solo exhibition of a D.C. artist’s work, explores “sociological meanings and issues surrounding hair, especially in Black culture.”

While showing emerging D.C. artists alongside their peers from elsewhere remains a Transformer principle, connecting with artists from abroad has been facilitated by ambitious international partnerships.

Early on, meetings with artists in the former Yugoslavia led to showing their work at Transformer and at the DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan. Since 2007, Transformer has partnered with about a dozen embassies to plan exhibitions and artist exchanges; a recent Sister Cities program with Seoul had to go online due to the pandemic.

No matter where they live, “artists are having similar conversations,” noted Reis, and “pursuing similar concepts.”

Transformer is also an avid partner in its home city. Reis referred to the “long-standing relationship with the Corcoran,” saying “many, many, many graduates” have shown at the P Street gallery. One D.C. collaboration she highlighted took place in 2009-10, when Transformer presented Jennifer Wen Ma’s “Brain Storm” as the Phillips Collection’s first Intersections project and Ma guest-curated a Transformer exhibition of emerging artists from China.

Other activities she mentioned included Transformer’s annual Collector’s View series of visits to the homes of D.C. art collectors and the Artistic Interventions mentoring program, now in its 19th year. “My big passion project,” she said, is a summer residency for performance artists in her hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, to which Reis and her husband have relocated. (She still hopes, as she did at age 17, that Bruce Springsteen will someday underwrite it.)

Reis said she had “few opportunities to reflect” given that Transformer is a “very small, gritty organization” — she has been its sole leader, along with a “really fun, kooky, amazing board of directors,” since 2006 — and that she is always thinking, “Okay, what’s next?” But now is the time: 2022 is Transformer’s 20th anniversary.

On Nov. 10, a silent auction and benefit party will kick off “Transformer20,” a retrospective exhibition in the historic Flagg Building of George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. With about 100 artworks in the main atrium space and a Transformer timeline on the sidewalls, the show will run through Dec. 10.

In response to a question about Transformer’s sources of income, Reis underscored the importance of private donors and grants from national and District arts funders. She singled out the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, saying, “They really saw me grow up in the field.” Another principle: paying her staff, generally young women, a fair wage and paying artists “for everything”; calling itself “artist-centered,” Transformer is certified by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.).

With D.C. rents so high, could DIY galleries crop up as they did in the early 2000s? Reis’s answer: “Never say never.”

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