BY PHIL HUTINET
Published concurrently in Capital Community News’ East of the River October print issue and online.
Anyone who has ever visited the Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique will tell you that no other Washington, DC art space can compare—the gallery buzzes with frenetic energy, an eclectic art collection and that warm welcome one feels upon entering the home of a good friend. Occupying center stage, owner Juanita Britton, or Busy Bee as she is known to her friends, shines larger-than-life, welcoming every visitor individually, praising them for their chosen purchases and sharing tales of far-away travels through which she acquired various collections of antiques, jewelry and artwork. On the eve of the gallery’s closure, which will finalize in December 2014, this dynamic lived on just a little while longer.
On a pleasantly warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in September, long-time Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique curator and manager Barry Blackman shuffled back and forth between customers helping two women out with a jewelry purchase, another with questions about a sculpture all the while assisting a group of artists getting ready to show work in the tented portion of the gallery’s massive backyard. The gallery has provided an excellent balance between showing the work of local and international artists. Ultimately though, “we have always focused our collection on the African Diaspora” explains Blackman. Wherever people of African descent live, the gallery has represented artists from their homeland. A few years ago, when the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, located across the street from the gallery, held an exhibition of Afro-Mexican work, the Anacostia Art Gallery concurrently showed work by Afro-Mexican artists.
The gallery’s extensive collections includes work from Afro-Latino, Caribbean, American and, naturally, African artists. “We would go to Ghana and purchase $800 worth of goods. This represents four years of income for the average Ghanaian” says Blackman. Both Barry Blackman and owner Juanita Britton’s extensive travels provided economic benefits both at home and abroad through the gallery’s retail sales. At home, every weekend, local artists and craftsmen set up shop at the gallery and sold everything from jewelry, purses, leather goods, paintings and woodcarvings. This activity not only provided an outlet for local artists and craftsmen but also attracted people to the neighborhood.
Despite her success as a gallerist, Britton did not seek out the role. “I never wanted to run an art gallery” she explains. The building that once housed Britton’s private residence when she first came to DC, quickly morphed into a gathering place as she would invite people to her home to purchase items she brought home from trips. For instance, several years ago, she and a group of investors purchased a tusk responsibly harvested from a deceased elephant at a nature preserve in the Ivory Coast. Britton then had craftsmen fashion several bracelets out of her share of the ivory. “I didn’t need three bracelets” she said “but I knew someone else might!” On the afternoon of my visit, a long-time customer purchased one of the remaining bracelets from the series.
In 2006, Britton had done the unthinkable—she opened an art gallery East of the River, in Anacostia, filling her former residence with original artwork from the US and abroad. Her offerings grew from a few items to showcasing one-of-a-kind collections of ceramics, sculptures, paintings and photographs. While she never intended to open an art gallery, she did so not out of reluctant serendipity, but rather because Britton possesses a pioneering spirit coupled with many years of success as a seasoned businesswoman and retailer. She has remained fiercely committed to connecting with immediate community, employing adults from the Woodland Terrace public housing project, located one house down from the gallery, to work in her retail concessions at area airports. Her involvement with the local community engendered the respect and trust of her neighbors.
While ultimately a retail space, Britton’s neighborhood outreach and the innumerable events hosted by the gallery over the years inevitably turned the space into a community meeting place. In addition to the gallery’s regular collection and outdoor market, the backyard’s stage provided the perfect venue for a number of concerts and other well attended performances over the years. Programming also included children’s art workshops, ethnic home décor shows, garden art sales, lectures and panel discussions.
On September 14, in an event to end all events, a ceremony took place to close the gallery’s cherished Ancestral Garden, located towards the rear of the property. An ancient African tradition, people have created ancestral gardens for centuries to commemorate the death of loved ones and to venerate ancestors. Over the gallery’s eight year history, area residents placed 115 rocks for loved ones who died and to mark the recent passing of public figures like Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. In keeping with Britton’s penchant for planning grand events, the gallery closed the Ancestral Garden with a massive community procession which meandered through the neighborhood. Participants, including Britton, wore ceremonial clothing, some wearing all white while others wore white with traditional African patterns. Akan priestesses oversaw the procession as loved ones collected the stones that represented the lives of their dearly departed. The garden’s permanent closure made way for coming changes to the property.
Britton did not make the decision to sell her gallery and the surrounding property lightly. Jerry Waldman, a DC area developer, had purchased land adjacent to the gallery including a parcel once owned by Britton. Over time, the two grew friendly and began to exchange ideas. Waldman proposed purchasing the gallery to use part of the land, specifically the area where the ancestral garden resided, to build a school. Britton researched the proposed Rocketship Charter School and saw it as a good fit for the neighborhood. After a “powwow” with family, Britton decided to sell her property to Waldon. However, Britton has no intention of going anywhere, “I live East of the River and I still own other property here.” She intends to continue her commitment to the neighborhood by serving on the board of the local Rocketship Charter School and keeping the lines of communication open between the institution and the Woodland Terrace residents whom she believes will benefit from the new school when it opens in 2016-2017.
For those who will take news of the gallery’s closure to heart, they should know that the gallery may not become a distant memory after all. While the school will absorb part of the property, the building that houses the gallery, as well as the stage and tented area, will remain. If Jessica Smith, one of Britton’s protégées, has her way, she will continue to build on the gallery’s legacy. Smith believes that the “creative energy” from the Anacostia Art Gallery will live on and would like to harness it to operate her business “Culture Kingdom Kids,” currently a mobile art workshop programs for children. While in the preliminary planning stages, should Smith succeed in making her plan a reality, the gallery, which Smith calls “a neighborhood jewel,” will continue to provide an arts venue East of the River.
The Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique is located at 2806 Bruce Place SE, Washington, DC 20020. The gallery’s phone number is 202.610.4188 and the website is www.bzbinternational.com All items in the gallery are currently deeply discounted.