The DC Art Gallery Operating From a Freight Elevator

WASHINGTON — Turning an elevator into an art gallery may not be unheard of, but it’s still an uncommon impulse. Like a gallery, an elevator functions as a transient public space. However, transforming a machine designed to transport people and things between floors into a visual art showcase has its own quirks. According to Julia Bloom, director of the Freight Gallery in DC, an elevator serving as an art gallery embraces the “ephemeral” aspects of displaying art. And the term “ephemeral” precisely captures the sensation of witnessing one of her shows.

Visiting the Freight Gallery is inconvenient. The elevator is located in a building on the outskirts of Langdon, a historic neighborhood next to railroad tracks in Northeast DC, and equidistant to two metro stations. After you get off the metro, expect a 40-minute walk involving hills in order to reach the building. A bus ride from the station to the gallery takes at least 20 minutes, plus another 10 minutes of walking. If you instead bring a commuter bike, as I did, the hilly terrain and a massive Home Depot parking lot will color your 25-minute cycling journey.

Upon finally arriving at the building, massive signage on its facade reading “Off the Beaten Track” greets you like a practical joke. Inside, you may think you can finally see the Freight Gallery, but you are wrong. The gallery is open roughly once a month for two hours. In other words, if you miss the opening, you miss the whole show. No appointments, no exceptions.

The 1925 Hollister Whitney freight elevator is a later addition to the 19th-century building, once a postal facility and now home to artist and craft studios. Since the gallery isn’t permitted to use the hallway as an exhibition space, Bloom often darkens it during the shows to create a “mysterious” passage leading to the artwork. The hallway floor feels slightly sloped towards the elevator, heightening the anticipation. Sometimes a crowd congests the corridor, requiring you to squeeze through as if navigating a noir crime scene.

Freight Gallery exhibits work roughly once per month for two hours — if you miss the opening, you miss the whole show. No appointments, no exceptions. (photo Murat Cem Mengüç/Hyperallergic)
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Exterior of the Off the Beaten Track building (photo Murat Cem Mengüç/Hyperallergic)

On October 15, Susan Hostetler’s Fleeting Messengers used black lights to wash the corridor in a blue neon color and transformed its spectators into mere silhouettes. The exhibition consisted of bird-like, abstract porcelain figures hung above a white cube, which was also covered with similar figurines. The installation looked like a flock of birds being released from a cage from afar, but closer inspection revealed a scene of mourning and extinction. Chris Combs’s Pollination was then installed on November 5 at the end of the long dark corridor, which pulled viewers towards a giant flower-like object that recorded its viewers’ actions and played them back through several small screens. The resulting effect was one of being drawn in and observed by an artificial being. Combs’s flower didn’t make any permanent recordings, reminding the viewers that harvesting data from people is always an ethical choice rather than a technological necessity.

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Installation view of Chris Combs, Pollination (2023) at Freight Gallery (photo Murat Cem Mengüç/Hyperallergic)

While the elevator functions as any other transient space for hosting shows that will eventually disappear, the logistics of running an art gallery within it can get complicated. “When an artist agrees to do their work, we have to do practice runs,” Bloom told Hyperallergic. “One artist who was from the building did seven practice runs. It depends on the work.” The only time an artwork can be in the elevator for public view is during the two-hour show, and she added that the gallery utilizes her studio as its storage space when necessary. Some artists want less interaction between their work and the elevator space. “Occasionally I will get a piece of paper and cover up a sign if there is interference. One thing I don’t want to do is to have it as a gallery for paintings. That would open a whole other can of worms.”

Bloom said that the idea for Freight Gallery came to her in 2018. “I had a very specific vision,” she said. “I didn’t want to put it on social media. I didn’t want to be personally associated with it, and I didn’t want the building to be connected with it either. I just wanted it to be this cool mysterious thing.”

However, things didn’t go according to plan. “My friend whom I really wanted to have the first show, Diane Szczepaniak, became very sick with cancer. It never seemed to be a good time for her to have a show. She finally had a show at Freight Gallery in September 2019 before passing away the following month.” A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic halted everything, and the gallery was put on hold until 2022.

DC is a small town where you can’t keep secrets, Bloom explained — perhaps contrary to popular belief. Despite her initial reluctance to use social media to promote the gallery’s first show for the sake of the artist’s privacy, Szczepaniak’s friends took the initiative to post about the exhibition. “At first, I asked them to take it down,” Bloom said. “However, eventually, I ended up posting it on social media myself, for the benefit of critics. Now, of course, everyone knows that it was my idea.”

Bloom repeatedly emphasized her original “vision,” during our conversation sounding slightly concerned about the direction the gallery has taken since its founding. “I imagined it as a space for the underrepresented art and artists, especially performance art and installation,” she explained. “It is hard to find good places for that. And I personally think that the work that’s shown in the elevator looks better there than any place else because it makes it the only thing.” This is evident from images of past shows and, if you’re fortunate enough to visit in person, from firsthand experience.

I asked Bloom whether the inaccessibility of the gallery space and limited hours ever seem to deter visitors. “It has to be this way because it is a working elevator. People in the building use the elevator,” she replied, adding that she was surprised when artists expressed interest in exhibiting in the elevator given the mainstream emphasis on large spaces and long shows “The first thing I ask them is if they ever visited Freight Gallery. I do want people to think about what this place represents, and not just stick in a piece.”

As for the general audience, “I had to educate people,” she said.“Sometimes people tell me they can’t make it and if they could come and see the show next week. No one would ever dream of saying that about a concert or any kind of performance.”

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Installation view of Susan Hostetler, Fleeting Messengers (2023) at Freight Gallery (photo by Greg Staley, courtesy Freight Gallery)
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Installation view of Jackie Hoysted, Symbiont (2023) at Freight Gallery (photo by Jackie Hoysted, courtesy Freight Gallery)
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Installation view of Gloria Vasquez, Target Baby (2022) at Freight Gallery (photo by Julia Bloom, courtesy Freight Gallery)
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Installation view of Michele Montalbano, Pages from the Book of Babel (2020) at Freight Gallery (photo by Michele Montalbano, courtesy Freight Gallery)
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Installation view of Ira Tattelman, Trading/Post (2023) at Freight Gallery (photo by Ira Tattelman, courtesy Freight Gallery)
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Director Julia Bloom inside the elevator that houses Freight Gallery (photo Murat Cem Mengüç/Hyperallergic)

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