In-Depth with Transformer’s Victoria Reis
From Cecile Oreste at danceDC
Transformer hosted its 7th Annual Silent Auction & Benefit Party at the Mexican Cultural Institute Saturday, Nov. 13. The current exhibition, Tang: “Freedom & Its Owner,” is on display at their Logan Circle gallery space at 1404 P St. until Dec. 4. I recently spoke with Executive and Artistic Director Victoria Reis to talk about Transformer’s gallery space and to learn more about the organization.
Transformer is a non-profit visual arts organization founded in 2002 by Reis along with Jayme McLellan, Founder and Director of Civilian Art Projects.
Borderstan: Transformer is a catalyst and advocate for emergent expression. Why the focus on emerging artists?
Reis: At the point when I founded Transformer with Jayme, there were no consistent programs for emerging artists. None of the commercial galleries and no other nonprofits were consistently presenting works of emerging artists. We wanted to fill that need.
Transformer defines “emerging artist” somewhat broadly as someone who doesn’t have an established art career or who is seeking to build their career outside of his or her established base of operations. D.C. based artists Transformer exhibits may have been in group shows, but have not yet had a solo show. An artist based outside of D.C. may have more exhibition experience, but has not yet exhibited in D.C. Emerging is not necessarily tied to a specific age and the artist may or may not be represented. Transformer not only looks for artists who are just launching their careers, but are also launching new ideas or experimenting with processes and themes.
Borderstan: How do you find the artists you work with? What do you look for in artists and their work?
Reis: In launching Transformer, I personally knew so many amazing emerging artists who had recently graduated from the Corcoran and other area institutions like Virginia Commonwealth University. Additionally I had been building connections with many D.C. artists who were also musicians, as well as artists from outside D.C. that I connected with through my previous work experience with the National Association of Artists’ organizations.
I started with artists I knew and found other artists from referrals of artists and arts colleagues, and word of mouth. Transformer also gets referrals from our advisory council and our network of peer arts organizations that we are connected to via the Warhol Foundation and other networks.
In addition, Transformer staff members make frequent studio visits and see exhibitions around the region, nationally and internationally. We also have an open submission process for any artists who would like to submit work for us to consider.
It’s exciting for me to see an artist that is experimenting with a new process. I look for artists who are ambitious and really committed to furthering themselves, artists who are open to feedback and working hard. It’s a combination of talent and a unique voice. Transformer does have a certain aesthetic. Our program tends to focus on artists who want to present their work in a fully realized installation format.
Borderstan: What makes Transformer unique?
Reis: Transformer defines itself as a visual arts organization, not as a gallery. The gallery space allows us to have an immediate connection with our audience, but our overall program is much bigger than the physical space that we’re in. One of the defining characteristics of Transformer is that we work to connect and promote artists within as wide a network as possible.
As part of this, we have and are presenting exhibitions and other programming in collaboration with larger cultural institutions, museums and academic institutions including the Meridian International Center, Goethe-Institut and Carnegie Mellon, the Hirshhorn, the National Museum of the American Indian, The Phillips Collection, the Corcoran College of Art + Design, and the Mexican Cultural Institute among others.
Unlike most other visual arts nonprofits in Washington, we’re not strictly focused on DC or regionally based artists. The ratio of local artists to national and international artists Transformer presents is about 60/40. This has always been a key part of our mission. In tandem with that, Transformer works to exhibit D.C. artists nationally and internationally. It’s something we’re really committed to.
In fact, our upcoming “Alptraum!” exhibition is a collaboration between three artists/curators – one from Los Angeles, one from Berlin and one from London. “Alptraum!” will launch at Transformer’s P St. space on Dec. 11 and then travel in 2011 to arts spaces in London, Berlin and Los Angeles in addition to host sites in Capetown and Vienna.
Borderstan: What are the short and long term goals for Transformer? Any business plans you can share with us?
Reis: In terms of the gallery space, we’re not planning on moving our location. Our current store-front space is small, but it allows us an important immediacy with our audience. It also keeps our overhead costs low so we can put our dollars into direct support for artists, providing them needed honoraria, material costs, exhibition marketing and more.
Our short and long term goal is developing more and more partnerships with artists and organizations. JBG Companies and Grosvenor Properties are working on a project in the 14th Street area. Both were sponsors of our recent auction, so I’m hoping there is some potential there for programming partnerships in the neighborhood beyond Transformer’s project space.
Additionally, Transformer is continuing to develop international relationships. This includes building relationships with the diplomatic community in D.C. Transformer has had great cultivating support from the Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan and his wife Veronica Valencia Sarukhan who have been incredible champions of our work and artistic exchanges with galleries and artists based in Mexico City.
We’re always open to and really interested in partnering with different cultural organizations. In May 2011, Transformer will be working with the National Museum of the American Indian to present an exhibition on emerging contemporary indigenous Hawaiian artists.
As Transformer approaches the beginning of our 10 year anniversary season in fall 2011, we hope to further our mission by building as broad an audience as possible for emerging artists, their ideas and their work. We are always expanding our mission and program overall. Through the support of the Warhol Foundation, Transformer’s Board of Directors held a two-day intensive retreat in April 2010 to conduct a self-assessment of the organization. The assessment was led by a consultant from LarsonAllen.
This has provided the perfect groundwork for Transformer’s board to pursue development of a three to five year strategic plan for the organization, beginning in early 2011, to strategically identify the best ways to continue building our capacity and our program to support emerging artists and emergent expression in the visual arts.