Fifty years ago, six women had a great idea for enriching their community. McLean, where they lived, was bucolically beautiful and populated with lots of smart, accomplished people. What it did not have was a place to enjoy and learn about first-class contemporary art.
The women--three who were budding artists themselves, studying with noted painter and teacher, Robert Gates, then head of the Art Department at American University--decided to do something about bridging that critical cultural gap. Dogged and optimistic, in 1962, they founded the McLean Art Club.
Five decades later, that hopeful initiative has grown into the McLean Project for the Arts (MPA). Housed inside the McLean Community Center, MPA is recognized as one of the region’s top nonprofit visual arts organizations.
“I feel really satisfied. We struggled so hard, and people laughed at us, scorned us, and it turned out to be what we hoped it would be,” said Nancy Bradley, 86, the last surviving member of MPA’s founding women.
Contributing $300 each, MPA’s founders initially rented a basement space in a shopping center, Bradley recalled. To get to the new gallery space, visitors had to walk down an alley, go down a few steps and through a red door.
At first artists were required to pay $100 to mount a show. “It paid our [monthly] rent,” Bradley said, recalling that one year an artist canceled and they had to throw an emergency luncheon, charging $10 a head.
It finally occurred to them that a better idea would be to develop a permanent supporting membership. “Suddenly we had some money,” Bradley said, leading to a series of larger rental spaces. Among them was another basement in the McLean Art Center, a dance studio on Emerson Street that gave the developing arts organization and now MPA’s main gallery its name. There also was a space on Poplar Street, now Beverly Road, and a Sears-Roebuck house on Whittier Street.
Besides membership fees, money to support the fledgling nonprofit came from a series of “happenings,” according to Bradley. “After all it was the ’70s,” she said with a laugh, remembering that one such happening included a member dressed in a bikini whose body was painted a la Goldie Hawn on TV’s then popular “Laugh-In” comedy show.
When the McLean Community Center was built in the 1970s, thanks to the active support of people like former Dranesville Supervisors Nancy Falk and Lilla Richards and “everyone we knew going before the Board of Supervisors,” Bradley said, MPA found its permanent home.
How MPA eventually became MPA will be explored in a special 50th anniversary exhibition that opens April 19 and continues through June 2. Part of a yearlong, multi-event celebration, the exhibition will fill MPA’s Emerson, Atrium and Ramp galleries.
Titled “Four Perspectives: Becoming MPA,” it is curated by Nancy Sausser, MPA’s present exhibitions director, and past exhibition directors Sarah Tanguy, Deborah McLeod and Andrea Pollan. The history of MPA will be told through artists, selected by each curator, who have exhibited there in the past.
The four curators will participate in a panel discussion on “Becoming MPA” on April 26 from 7 to 9 p.m.
Sausser, who organized “Becoming MPA,” said she wanted an exhibition that celebrated both its artists and the curators, who like the “Wizard of Oz, do their work behind a curtain.”
“I am constantly grateful to the curators who came before me. They put together great shows that established the exceptional reputation of the place so firmly,” said Sausser, 53, who was the arts in education director for the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County before coming to MPA about eight years ago.
In addition, Sausser noted: “It is a beautiful space, treats its artists really well and has a wonderful community. It’s been really fun. … I think I have the best job at MPA.”
Given “curatorial and creative freedom,” each of the “Becoming MPA” curators came at the exhibition from their own distinctive perspectives, Sausser said.
Sausser focused her part of the exhibition on artists whose works fit well into the dynamic yet bisected and sloped space of the Ramp Gallery.
Sarah Tanguy, 57, now a curator for the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies Program, worked as MPA’s curator-in-residence between 1996 and 1998. “By the time I was there, it was a well-established alternative art space,” she recalled.
“It was a very formative experience. I wasn’t the seasoned curator I am now. … I knew it was a big deal for me,” said Tanguy, who was working as an independent curator and art critic before coming to MPA.
“They gave me so much freedom. … It was one of the highlights of my career, an incubator experience. … It gave me the confidence for putting together all kinds of art exhibitions.”
Tanguy’s section of “Becoming MPA” features artists whose works contemplate “a realm where shadows cross into light, and whispers blend into chorus.”
A veteran independent curator, Deborah McLeod, 61, owner and director of the Chroma Projects Art Laboratory in Charlottesville and a former art critic at the Baltimore City Paper, was director of exhibitions at MPA between late 2001 and 2003.
Then as now, she said, MPA “had a very good reputation for not being compromising.” It was one of the attributes that attracted her to the job. Another for McLeod, who describes herself as “a bit of a renegade,” was then executive director, the late Geraldine (Gerry) Brock, “who believed curators shouldn’t be stifled, should be allowed to explore and play.”
Exhibiting in the Atrium Gallery, McLeod noticed that, although it was not deliberate, the nine artists she selected are unified by the idea of “holding something precious within something else, having a protective covering.” Also pink, which tends to be the color of fragile things, seems to prevail. “I didn’t want a blast of wild colors. I wanted a monochromatic quality not haphazard,” she explained.
Andrea Pollan, MPA exhibitions director for 10 years prior to McLeod, between 1992 and late 2001, also regards Geraldine Brock as a “visionary” and significant influence. Impressed by MPA’s artistic integrity and unflagging commitment to enriching both adults and children, Pollan recalled that not only was Brock an educator but also “had a way of standing up for artists.”
As MPA’s professionalism grew so did her own. “I became a full-fledged exhibitions director [at MPA], said Pollan, who was doing independent curatorial projects and managing corporate art projects when she came to McLean.
Her other takeaways, she said, included building an incredible network of artists, learning what big things could be done on a small budget and mastering how to effectively run a small nonprofit from fundraising to organizing events.
Trained as an art historian at Yale University, Pollan, who was also curator at the Arlington Arts Center prior to MPA, now owns the Curator's Office micro-gallery on Logan Circle in Washington, D.C., which specializes in a variety of arts-related services.
Sharing the larger Emerson Gallery space with Tanguy, Pollan’s 10 artists mix photography and sculpture with new media and paper works.
Going for her own “unorthodox, helter-skelter aesthetic,” she explained: “Because it’s the 50th anniversary, I wanted the spirit of playing and experimenting. … I picked artists who were game for this presentation.”
Appreciating the way, MPA allowed her to “push the envelope” while she was there, Pollan, who just turned 50 like MPA, celebrated that “MPA is all about trying to open people’s eyes.”