The Walter E. Washington Convention Center’s art collection is one of DC’s hidden treasures boasting names such as Sol LeWitt and Carrie Mae Weems. How is it that so many of DC’s art lovers have never heard of this vast collection, and how do they access it? WPA talks to Joan Oshinsky, curator of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, to shed some light on the collection's mystery.

by Katie Macyshyn

Located on the edge of the Shaw neighborhood, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is a fortress, a giant among brownstones. From a pedestrian’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine what goes on inside the Center’s seemingly impenetrable stone walls. On April 21st, when I biked up to the main entrance of the south building on Mt. Vernon Place, I became acutely aware of my size as one feels when walking into a grand cathedral. Filled with boardrooms, halls, corridors, and vast amounts of space, the Convention Center is a cultural cathedral, which hosts a wide array of events.

The Center, as we now know it, is 2 blocks wide, 3 blocks long, and is comprised of 3 buildings. Construction was a joint venture of architectural teams from the Atlanta-based architecture firm Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates, Inc. and two local firms Devrouax and Purnell Architects Planner, P.C., and Mariani Architects Engineers, P.C. The Walter E. Washington Convention Center opened in 2003, moving from its former location on H Street. In line with its opening, a committee comprised of art professionals from the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Federal Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the DC Commission on at the Arts and Humanities acquired an impressive art collection to fill the new Center.

The works in the collection are contemporary, spanning 1968 to 2003. The art stars in the collection include Sol LeWitt, Gene Davis, Carrie Mae Weems, Sarah Sze, Sam Gilliam, and many more, 111 more to be exact. The size of the Convention Center allows all 137 works by 116 artists to remain on permanent display. While the Center houses museum quality work, only a select few art lovers have made the pilgrimage to view it. But of course, that’s where your plucky WPA intern comes into play, brandishing a notebook, camera, and an iPod on voice memo mode I enter the Center, determined to get the word out on what’s inside, which takes us back to that spring afternoon in the grand hall.

The grand lobby is a capacious space made up of granite, limestone, and glass. On either end of the plateau between staircases, Jim Sanborn’s sculptures stand like bronze cisterns. The work consists of two 16’ bronze columns which function as giant projection pieces, using light as a sculptural medium to project words great distances onto surrounding surfaces. The Sanborn’s are site-specific and impressive in size, a running theme I had expected given that the Center occupies 2.3 million square feet. I arrived particularly excited to see the Sarah Sze piece in the collection given all the space I imagined it taking up. I quickly find the info desk and stuff some pamphlets in my bag before being greeted by curator Joan Oshinsky.

Joan Oshinsky is seen here with Sam Gilliam's Many Things, 2003

Joan is the principal of ArtsManager, started in 2009. ArtsManager, LLC, CBE, is a woman-owned small business based in Washington, DC that consults in all aspects of fine arts management for institutions and individuals. With over 25 years of experience, ArtsManager has the vision to collaborate with clients to incorporate the use of Fine Art to achieve organizational goals in projects large and small. In addition to consulting, she’s worked in museums for many years including the National Gallery of Art. In discussing her specific role as Managing Curator, Oshinsky explains, “I’ve worked at the Convention Center for five years. In this capacity I supervise the art cleaning, conservation, and proper handling of the collection; propose policies and procedures for care of the collection; produced an art brochure, catalogue entries and text as needed; and work as an educator to develop content and conduct tours.” It’s impressive that 1 woman could manage such an important collection. As per the public relations front, she sums up, “The struggle in a city full of museums is how could anyone expect that something so wild as Sarah Sze would be here?”

Sarah Sze, Untitled (Footprint), 2003

As we journey to the elevator, I find myself drawn into the Donald Lipski piece, Five Easy Pieces, 2003. Lipski uses suspended objects to evoke images of D.C. springtime by creating delicate geometric forms. The sculptures are made of guitars, bar stools, tennis rackets, kayaks, and bicycles. Oshinsky periodically inspects the artwork, concluding that these pieces need to be cleaned soon. She points out that caring for the work in Convention Center is quite different than in a traditional museum space. The Center has nearly 1 million visitors annually. Housing art in a public space like this one presents a number of logistical challenges in its upkeep. In the case of Five Easy Pieces a 95-foot-high scissor lift must be used in order to reach the piece for routine cleaning. The treating and cleaning of art is done by Artex Fine Art Services.

Donald Lipski, Five Easy Pieces, 2003

When we reach the third level, Oshinsky takes pause at a piece by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith called Tribal Map, 2000-01. In the work, a painted map of the US has the names of displaced American Indian tribes and traditional geographical names collaged into what are now our 50 states. I begin to realize the political punch some of these works pack and continue to see the concept of "displacement" as a trend in the works of Gustavo López Armentia, Radcliffe Bailey, Carrie Mae Weems, and others. I wonder if many of the works in the collection are about social justice and the American experience. Oshinsky weighs in, “Certainly yes, but the issues are more global. A lot of the identity issues being dealt with by American artists; race, class, or sexism are universal. Now I do see some connections between regional artists, and I think of that very positively.

Juane Quick-to-See Smith, Tribal Map (Detail), 2000-01

With about 55% of the work in the collection created by artists living and working in the D.C. metropolitan area, the Convention Center is an important supporter of our friends and neighbors. Oshinsky briefly explains "…the reason you would want a grouping of regional people first of all is that you want to support the (local) talent. The other reason is that you find these clusters of artists that all clearly have an influence on each other. Steve Cushner is a regional artist, and you can see in his work the influence of the Washington Color School which gives me a chance to talk about the major art movement in Washington’s history. We also have work by Sam Gilliam...(who) was Steve Cushner’s mentor at the Corcoran.”

Steven Cushner, Swings, 1998

The most endearing aspect of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center’s art collection comes from it being in an unconventional space. The Convention Center houses beauty in many unexpected places, facilitating conversation among staff, business people, and art lovers alike. The Center does not reinforce the preciousness of work with decorum you would see in galleries, but makes it accessible for everyone to experience and enjoy. Some initiatives Oshinsky hopes can happen in the near future would be to provide online access to the collection, creating more informational wall text at the center, and putting together some of her own musings on the historical significance of the works in connection to each other.

I’d like to thank Joan Oshinsky for her time and candor. There are so many works of art worth mentioning that I didn’t have the space to include. Go to the Center and experience them for yourself. If you are attending a car show or comic con, grab the sunflower pamphlet from the information desk and take some time to wander the halls. Sound scary? There is a map in the pamphlet. If you would like a more personal viewing, Oshinsky provides extensive tours 4 times a year when there is downtime at the Center between big events.

The next tours are scheduled for:

Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Friday, August 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 12 pm

Tour participants must RSVP at o

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April 30, 2014