Alice Denney, Director of Washington Project for the Arts, 1978. Photo by Paul Feinberg
Alice Denney enjoyed nothing more than causing a ruckus by exhibiting challenging new art in “boring old Washington.” We first met in 1974 when I moved to Washington for a year, and art-world acquaintances suggested I contact her. Alice loved action — giving parties, collecting art by young artists, and making them feel at home in a quiet city where there was, at the time, little interest in contemporary culture.
Alice was already a legend. She had been a regular at New York’s Cedar Bar, hanging out with the Abstract Expressionists before moving to Washington, when her husband started working for the State Department. It did not take long for Alice to find her way. As director of the Jefferson Place Gallery (1957), she helped launch the Washington Color School. Then, at the short-lived Washington Gallery of Modern Art, she caused a stir by bringing Pop Art and Happenings to the city (1963). Next came her stint as deputy director of the U.S. Pavilion at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where Robert Rauschenberg became the first American to win the Golden Lion.
In 1975, Alice almost single-handedly created the Washington Project for the Arts, one of the first alternative art spaces outside New York. The WPA, located downtown in a neighborhood that had seen better days, provided Washington artists with an all-purpose space that stimulated the development of a fully inclusive art community where nothing was off limits.
Her adventurous spirit was first evident in Another Washington! (1976) an exhibition that documented tattoo and massage parlors, gay bars, prostitutes and grifters in downtown Washington. In 1978, I helped Alice bring the Punk Art exhibition to the WPA. While we were organizing the exhibition, I remember her chuckling with the constant refrain: “We’ll show them!” Later, her rebellious spirit lived on as a member of the WPA board. In 1983 there was The Ritz Show, Washington’s version of the Times Square Show, which was held in an abandoned building and shut down by the police in less than a week. In 1989, when the Corcoran cancelled the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, it was welcome at the WPA.
Alice, an incorrigible mischief-maker, was never fully accepted by the Washington art establishment, but was loved by the city’s artists and the press. She was always ready to flout the rules, and against the odds made it to the ripe old age of 101, dying peacefully and fully cognizant to the end.
— Marc H Miller
Another Washington!, Washington Project for the Arts, 1976
Punk Art Invitation, Washington Project for the Arts, 1978
Punk Art Catalogue, Washington Project for the Arts, 1978
It was Alice who came up with the idea of printing the Punk Art invitation on a paper bag. She was also a driving force behind the catalogue, recruiting Billy Kluver to do an interview with Andy Warhol. An online version of the Punk Art catalogue can be seen on 98 Bowery.