Snapshots in Time

Change is the only constant for fine arts photographer and Artisphere curator Cynthia Connolly.

Photo by Erick Gibson

Cynthia Connolly has always been a creature of the underground. After moving to Arlington from Los Angeles in 1981, one of her first gigs was designing posters for the local indie music label Dischord Records. Her earliest art shows were staged not in galleries but in unconventional sites, such as bookstores and vacant buildings (including the one off Wilson Boulevard that now houses Java Shack).

Since then, her work has been exhibited in a number of museums, including Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Two of her pieces—original layout boards from her self-published 1988 book, Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground—were recently featured in the “Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (her alma mater).

But Connolly isn’t exclusively an artist; she’s also a curator. For that same show, she assisted curator Roger Gastman (a one time graffiti artist, filmmaker and publisher) in rounding up a whirlwind of 1980s ephemera, including fliers, records, newspaper clippings, stage clothes, instruments and video loops from D.C.’s go-go, punk and hard-core music scenes.

And then there’s her day job. Now 48, Connolly has served as the visual arts curator for Artisphere in Rosslyn ever since it opened in 2010, where she oversees more than 5,000 square feet of gallery space. Before that, she booked creative talent for the now-defunct venue d.c. space, and ran Arlington County’s Ellipse Arts Center (which was later absorbed by Artisphere).

Q & A

You are, first and foremost, a fine arts photographer. What do you photograph?

Big American landscapes. And ordinary things that people don’t notice, like those little detached garages beside houses. Remember those?

Funnily enough, we have one. Go on…

They’re simple structures, not well constructed. In the ’80s and ’90s, they were falling down or getting torn down in Arlington. I knew houses would eventually be designed without them, so I took pictures. They’re part of a time that’s never coming back.

So change is a theme in your work?

Yes. No doubt, this interest has influenced my fascination with postcards. When you buy them, they’re already outdated. Postcards from the ’30s and ’40s are photographic prints documenting how places used to look. I do that with my art. I photograph objects and landscapes that I feel are changing.

You’ve certainly found success as an artist. Why do you curate?

Curating is connecting an artist’s work—or a group of artists’ works—to send a single message. I like bringing creative minds together. I enjoy the community that’s created by curating a show.

How did you get into it?

From early on, I avoided galleries for my art because the wait-time to schedule a show was too long for me. Instead, I’d find my own space. I taught myself how to book and promote. It was a funny time. There was no Internet. I’d call and leave messages for people to come! Anyway, this morphed into curating for others.

And now you’re doing it for Artisphere.

I’ve been here since it opened. It’s a fantastic idea! It’s appropriate for Arlington to have a place like this that is forward thinking.

What kinds of shows do you curate now?

I work with Ryan Holladay, Artisphere’s new-media curator, to bring in artists of this time—of the here and now. It’s different from, say, the Smithsonian, where they plan exhibits five years in advance. Here, we work six months ahead. You’re really seeing contemporary art.

Which is the most lucrative show you’ve curated for Artisphere?

We don’t charge. It’s not our focus. Our goal is to have exhibits that create dialogue and generate community involvement. Our most-attended show was “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos.”

Frida Kahlo died in 1954, so she can’t really be considered a contemporary artist, right?

Right. But what made the show current is that the photographs were recently discovered and curated. We were also the only place in the U.S. to exhibit them.

Who funds Artisphere?

Arlington County, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (BID) and private donors.

It’s common knowledge that Artisphere is having financial problems. Will it survive?

We continue to get our funding from the same sources, but we’re working on creating a nonprofit to support our activities.

Which show at Artisphere has been your favorite so far?

I curated last year’s show “Beyond the Parking Lot: The Change and Reassessment of Our Modern Landscape.” It was based on Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi.” You know, “…they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot…

Sounds a lot like you. Doesn’t it?

So it does. That’s cool. I’m starting to notice what connects my artwork and me to my curating. There are themes.

Do you still have time to make your own art?

Yes. I take a week off here and there. At the moment, I can’t do long projects, but I’ll probably have the opportunity to do that again later.

Where do you work?

I have a studio at my home in Arlington Forest.

Name an artist you’d like to be compared to.

I’m a fan of the California-based pop artist Ed Ruscha [known for his painting, printmaking, drawing, photography and film].

How do you hope to be remembered someday?

The Smithsonian has been archiving my work. The Corcoran also recently acquired 12 more of my pieces. When I pass on, I hope people will see and enjoy what I loved about my world.

And what is your world?

It’s a treasure hunt, looking for nuggets of gold. That’s true, whether I’m curating or photographing.

Charlotte Safavi is a freelance writer covering art, design and food. She lives in Alexandria.

Categories: People