Going to museums isn't always easy in Washington. If you want to visit the African American Museum or find out what all the hype is about at the Hirshhorn's Yayoi Kusama exhibition, you have to score tickets well in advance and prepare for crowds. It isn't unusual to find lines in front of the Air and Space Museum or the Natural History Museum. Where should art lovers go for something quiet or off the beaten path?
Whether it's the gorgeous murals at the Department of the Interior or the watercolors and sculptures at quirky venues run by nonprofits, these non-museum spots give you a chance to see art without long lines.
Arlington Arts Center
Rosslyn's ambitious Artisphere is gone, but three Metro stops west is an Arlington County, Va., venue with some bold ideas. Housed in a former school, the Arlington Arts Center contains artist studios and nine galleries. There's a showcase for resident artists, but most of the exhibition space is devoted to venue-wide shows that generally emphasize the conceptual over the traditional. Now on display is one of the center's semiannual "Solos" shows, highlighting seven people from the Mid-Atlantic. Among them are West Virginia photographer John Ryan Brubaker, whose style tends toward the abstract, and Philadelphia's Sascha Hughes-Caley, a videomaker trained in acting and "time-based media."
Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-248-6800. - M.J.
Hillyer Art Space
Secluded in a carriage house behind the Phillips Collection, this nonprofit space is a project of International Arts & Artists, which organizes traveling museum shows (and whose offices are upstairs). The three galleries usually host three separate exhibitions, although sometimes a single show claims more than one room. Many of the artists are local, but the venue has hosted work made all over the world. The current lineup offers floral drawings by Zoe Linn Jarvis and sculptural installations by Bonnie Crawford Kotula and Judith Pratt. The theme of Pratt's show is "point of origin," so visitors are invited to add something, by writing or drawing, about their own creation myths.
Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW. 202-338-0325. - M.J.
This artist-owned cooperative gallery was founded in 1976 and has been in its current location near Mount Vernon Square since 2010. Touchstone attracted some attention - not all of it favorable - with a pre-election show titled "Art as Politics." Usually, though, the venue divides its space between a members' group exhibition and two solo showcases. It's now showing black-and-white landscapes of the American Southwest by Harvey Kupferberg, a medical researcher turned photographer, and art about the African American life, history and spirit by Janathel Shaw. She's known for her evocative ceramic sculptures, but this selection also features drawings.
Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW. 202-347-2787. - M.J.
VisArts at Rockville
This nonprofit group, just beyond Rockville (Maryland) Town Square's library and skating rink, fills two floors and a bit of the ground level with studios, classrooms and exhibition space. One of the galleries is usually devoted to student or teacher shows, although last month's "Questioning Power at VisArts" linked the shows in all four. More recently, the place has gone apolitical with shows that emphasize color and form. Diane Szczepaniak's luminous watercolors contrast squares within squares, and Kayla Plosz Antiel's oils have the feel of early-20th-century abstraction. Kevin Labadie's circle-themed paintings are harder-edged and more ironic: One spacey set of rounds includes two small (and circular) speakers that provide a thumping soundtrack.
VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200. - M.J.
Department of the Interior
Completed in 1936, the Department of the Interior headquarters features the most New Deal-era artwork of any federal building, with 47 scene-stealing murals that turn the otherwise stodgy structure into an unassuming art hub. Prevalent from the basement cafeteria to the rooftop penthouse, the works were championed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Secretary Harold L. Ickes, who commissioned Native American artists from Navajo, Apache and other tribes to paint scenes depicting indigenous life. The high-traffic locations were intentional; Ickes wanted office employees to recognize the loss of cultural identity and expression, said the director of the department's museum, Diana Ziegler.
Near the cafeteria, Millard Sheets created life-size paintings commemorating African Americans' contributions to science, religion, arts and education. The building's second floor features a three-panel "Construction of a Dam" by William Gropper, steps away from a hallway with four-foot prints of Ansel Adams's historic Park Service photographs. The artworks are available for public viewing via free guided tours held twice weekly by the department's museum staff.
U.S. Department of the Interior Museum, 1849 C St. NW. 202-208-4743. - W.S.
Korean Cultural Center
The Korean Cultural Center, a stand-alone space north of Dupont Circle along Embassy Row, is an initiative by the Embassy of Korea that showcases monthly music performances and modern art exhibitions. Seeking to build public discourse about Korean culture, the center tends to spotlight art that reflects the Korean diaspora, as well as the Asian American experience. On view until the end of this month is "Space," a collection of photography and installations that portray the relationship between technology and society. In one notable work by Daniel Kyong, futuristic red alien forms hover over a Cambodian metal-roof shantytown. In late May, the center will present a contemporary paper and ceramic exhibition by American artists inspired by Eastern elements.
Korean Cultural Center, 2370 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-939-5688. - W.S.
The nation's central bank makes for an unexpected fine arts venue. Born from President Richard Nixon's desire for a closer partnership between the arts and government, the Federal Reserve Board's Fine Arts Program materializes in the building's historic Marriner S. Eccles lobby. With its Italian marble walls and brass staircase, the setting serves as an exquisite backdrop to a vast selection of works. From Pop art by Andy Warhol to presidential portraits by Steve Penley and local pieces from Takoma Park artist Joseph Holston, the Fed has curated its exhibitions over the years through loaned and donated pieces and a permanent collection. The current exhibition, "Exploring America: From Sea to Shining Sea," features romantic land and seascapes from the late 1800s to the present. Tours are made by appointment only and require reservations a few weeks in advance, depending on staff availability.
Federal Reserve, 20th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-452-3000. - W.S.
House of Sweden
Set on the banks of the Potomac, the House of Sweden - the Embassy of Sweden's cultural wing - offers arresting views of the Georgetown waterfront and a platform for Swedish art and culture. The center, open on weekends, offers three exhibitions and a Room for Children, a space for literature readings, films and art workshops for families. The year-long exhibition "Stories of Migration - Sweden Beyond the Headlines," presents an educational showcase of migration stories in multimedia and poster art. The building's concert hall features the work of award-winning Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman, "Where Children Sleep," a poignant collection of photographs that capture sleeping children in war-torn Middle Eastern and European countries. The cultural center also hosts a diverse roster of musical guests; past performers have included reggae artist Jason Timbuktu Diakite and hip-hop phenom Rebstar. Next month, Italian musician Marco Fusi will perform.
House of Sweden, 2900 K St. NW. 202-536-1500. - W.S.
The Capitol building is a relic to behold in of itself, with its royal blue and deep brick Minton tiles and embellished bronze-cast doors. Marble and bronze statues of such luminaries as Rosa Parks and Helen Keller, the latter commemorated in a tactile sculpture that visitors can touch for its Braille writing, flank the building's Emancipation and National Statuary Halls. Constantino Brumidi's famed 1865 fresco, "Apotheosis of Washington," illuminates the eye of the Capitol's rotunda 180 feet above ground, depicting President George Washington rising toward the heavens among Greek and Roman gods. Closer to eye level, the rotunda is surrounded by eight other notable paintings, including John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence," depicting Thomas Jefferson and other committee members who presented the first draft of the document in Philadelphia. Although free advance-booked tours are required for the Rotunda and National Statuary Halls, walk-in guests are welcome to wander in the Emancipation Hall.
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, First Street NE. 202-226-8000. - W.S.
Library of Congress
Designed in the Beaux-Arts style with giant columns, open light, granite and bronze doors and marble floors, the library surpasses all other local institutions when it comes to its comprehensive cultural collections. The numbers speak for themselves. The print and photographs division holds 15 million visual images, while the publication department has the world's largest collection of graphic novels and comic books, at 5,000 titles, and an extensive collection of works by political cartoonist Herbert L. Block, or "Herblock," on public view since 2011. New to the library this year is "Baseball's Greatest Hits," a selection of sheet music played at games that chronicle the evolution of the sport from pre-Civil War to today.
Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202-707-5000. - W.S.