But the Phillips Collection exhibition”Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshopsews these two realms together. Here the local feels just as important as the national, and that’s a credit to Stovall. Co-founder of a short-lived but influential studio and exhibition space known as the Dupont Center—founded in 1969 by Stovall and curator Walter Hopps—the longtime graphic artist and now six-decade district resident made what might be called a history of DC in the grafic art.
Stovall’s vibrant, borderline abstract posters – many made with DC jazz musician and visual artist Lloyd McNeill — feature prominently in the show, bringing the same signature aesthetic flair to arts and activism events, large and small. On one poster, a blocky, blue figure that appears as improvised as a jazz solo invites viewers to Miles Davis’ performances in the now-defunct Bohemian Caves. On another, loosely connected shapes suggest waving hands and bobbing heads, promoting the Black Arts Festival, featuring DC soul group the Unifics and DC painter Alma Thomas. A flurry of elongated red and blue rectangles conjures up a stream of bodies on a sign for an anti-Vietnam protest made for the New Mobilization Committee to End the Vietnam War.
As museums across the country grapple with how to make their spaces more equitable and accessible to their communities, this show, curated by Stovall’s son, artist and writer Will Stovall, provides a model. Bringing together works created by artists in the workshop and collected by the elder Stovall between 1969 and 1973, along with Stovall’s community posters from 1967 and 1968, the exhibition paints a multifaceted portrait of DC: its black community, its activism, its rich art scene. . After your visit, step into the narrow streets of Dupont Circle, just a few blocks from where downtown was located, with a heightened sense of history all around you.
The Stovall show is making bigger strides than just bringing the city’s past to life. By putting the spotlight on Stovall, it challenges our sense of what kind of artistic work is considered remarkable and what kind of artists are written into history. All too often we learn about art through the myth of the single star, the isolated genius. It’s easy to forget how many hands it takes to create a work of art. While the show’s striking natural landscapes make it clear that Stovall was an artist in the conventional sense — calling drawing his “high skill” — it’s Stovall’s role as a community organizer, graphic artist and collaborator that really shines through.
Stovall was often behind the scenes, acting as the connective tissue of an outwardly burgeoning art scene. At the Dupont Center he made prints for such Washington Color School artists like Gene Davis and Thomas Downing, and showed them how their abstract images could be given a new lease of life in a new medium. He printed photos for William Christianberry. He made stretchers for Sam Gilliam‘s paintings with beveled edges and collaborated with the abstract painter on nearly two dozen works. Under Stovall’s direction, the Dupont Center nurtured artistic talent, but not just the kind fit for a museum. The center offered classes to elementary school students, military personnel on leave from Virginia’s Fort Belvoir, and other members of the public.
On the one hand, the show can feel like a step back in time. Posters screaming for peace and love give it a decidedly 60s tinge. One image announces DC’s first bike lanes (with the tagline “Bikes Have Equal Rights”), while another image advocates Charles Cassell’s campaign in DC’s first school board election. A 1972 poster featuring a jet black figure with loud orange hair celebrates singer Roberta Flack, on the occasion of DC’s first Human Kindness Day.
On the other hand, there is a way in which the content of the exhibition feels strangely contemporary. Prints reflect the nation fighting a violent war abroad, the district fighting for political rights, Washingtonians reeling from violent riots, and black-focused spaces thriving on the heels of the civil rights movement.
Perhaps that’s why the Dupont Center’s founding principles are so similar to what museum advocates demand today. “What is needed now is something different, something different and more active than the unwieldy, national museum,” Hopps wrote when he conceived the institution, which grew out of the Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, more than 50 years ago. “What is needed is a new kind of local institution, one that not only serves the local arts audience, but vigorously expands it.”
Making art accessible in a city where most works of art hang in grandiose buildings is no mean feat. But from his own painterly serigraphs to his Dupont Center collaborations, it’s clear that Stovall has the gift of giving art the human dimension.
Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.
Recognition: Included with general admission of $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, children aged 18 and under, and military personnel. Time-limited masks and tickets are required.