Alexandria, VA – Before there was an Alexandria Arts Alliance, the Torpedo Factory was a burgeoning collective of never-say-never artists and artisans who converted a dilapidated munitions plant into a world-class showcase for art.
Back when Georgetown was the old town, and against the odds, Robert F. Murray kickstarted a vibrant art scene in Alexandria.
Bob Murray has been dominant throughout the Alexandria and DC art scene for four decades. Murray established the von Brahler, Ltd. Gallery on King Street in 1983 after first opening on M Street in Georgetown that same year. Initially, Murray represented mid-century Mexican Postwar & Contemporary artist José Salazar and German Surrealist Paul Wunderlich. Progressive for ‘80s Old Town, the outlier gallery opened its doors on the day they cut the ribbon on the new King Street Metro station.
In 1985 Murray founded the Association of Alexandria Art Galleries, a consortium of dealers and cooperative fine arts advocates comprising around 50 art spaces throughout Old Town. The Torpedo Factory Art Center was a member. Today the Alexandria Arts Alliance assumes a similar role, expanding the arts scene in Old Town and beyond by promoting public engagement and accessibility to art experiences and showcasing stellar art spaces throughout the City.
As Murray, who ran the AAAG until 1995, describes it Alexandria was the southern gold coast of galleries in the DMV. The association even created an underground paper called The High Times of the Alexandria Gallery World. Murray reminisced about the glory days for Old Town fine arts impresarios, saying, “von Brahler must be one of the oldest galleries from the high times still standing.” Bob also wrote about fine arts for The Zebra.
Murray’s specialized interest has spotlighted contemporary Russian expatriate art for the better part of 40 years, including artists of surrounding Eastern Bloc countries. Murray’s thesis for his master’s degree at Georgetown in 1991 discussed the collection of Russian art sent to the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1903, which was never returned. He also trained in studio art at Georgetown, the Corcoran, and took classes at the Art League with master watercolorist Steve Fleming.
Bob Murray is not only a recognized Washingtonian fine art dealer, curator, and accomplished artist, but he is also the author of Swampdoodle Lily, an account of the architect and interior master painter Benedetto Sestini who, between 1857 and 1859, designed the Renaissance style Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church on the Gonzaga Campus in DC, and the story of the church. Murray was the Director of Aesthetics and contract manager for the renovation from 1991-1994.
Murray closed the brick-and-mortar von Brahler Gallery space in 2011, expanding to alternative exhibit venues such as River Farm, where currently he has curated a show. Murray has exhibited horticultural-themed art shows for River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society located on riverfront land once owned by George Washington, for over 20 years. He has maintained representation of several Russian and Eastern European emigree painters, including Armen Kankanian, Yuri Kokoyanin, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, and Otari Shiuk.
Art as a means of cultural détente has proved to be ever more relevant as the war in Ukraine has continued for well over a year. Throughout history, great art, music, literature, drama, and cinema have been born of conflict. Shiuk, whose work is now on view at River Farm along with that of Kankanian and Kokoyanin, was among the first Russian emigres Murray represented. Otari Shiuk died in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved and two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A centerpiece of the latest Russian Impressionists exhibit at River Farm hangs over the mantle in the living room of the River Farm manse. “The Glory of Chrysanthemums” by Vladimir Ovchinnikov is one of the stunning floral fantasies delighting visitors inside and out, as the expansive grounds garden palette speaks to the vibrant brushwork and Matisse-esque compositions on canvas. Both beckon with the unabashed bravado of springtime.
Murray explains that River Farm’s current “OTARI” show is “an explosion of his impressionistic florals.” Otari said he painted flowers “as though they were people.” The walls of River Farm, where the exhibit can be seen throughout the first floor of the mansion house and the ballroom gallery space, dazzle the eye in a virtual buoyant, sparkling conversation, as if in poetic dialogue with nature. The florals burst forth from the canvases, a personified celebratory horticultural soirée feting spring, summer, and fall.
“OTARI,” on exhibit at River Farm through July 6, may well be Murray’s last as he plans to retire. But don’t count on it. You can take Bob Murray out of the art gallery business, but there’s no relinquishing his unwavering passion for fine art and the pursuit of beauty in a conflicted world. He’ll be back!
“OTARI” is on exhibit at River Farm now through July 6. River Farm, at 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, and the exhibit are open to the public free of charge Monday – Friday from 9 am – 5 pm and Saturday from 9 am – 1 pm.
A complimentary reception will be on June 18 from 1-3 pm. All are welcome. For more information, contact Bob Murray, 703-798-8686, or Leslie Bauman, 703-768-5700, ext. 114.