City Arts: Vermillion Celebrates 10 Years

| May 30, 2018


When someone insists they don’t want a big gathering for their birthday, some suspicion is usually warranted; you might wanna stock up on last-minute balloons. Diana Adams is the exception to the rule. Yes, her art gallery/bar Vermillion is celebrating its 10th anniversary this Friday, but no, she doesn’t want a big blowout. She’s not planning for it, at least.

“Last year, we got out our photo booth, black ties, you name it. Only a few people showed up,” she says with a woeful chuckle. “This year, it’ll be mellow. WIZDUMB and DJ Brian C, also the bartenders, will be spinning records. I want to celebrate them. They’re the ones who’ve kept this place going.”

With a mellow party, Vermillion will come full circle, she says. On an early summer night in 2008, a group of around six people shared a cheese platter and red wine, an homage to the space’s name, which refers to the pigment used in paints and the color of the wine that would be served there. Vermillion had art for its first birthday, but no liquor license.

Things were different. Rent on Capitol Hill was cheap. Adams had spent a year and a half building out the space, a former thrift store, while working restaurant jobs after a career in photography and the music industry. With the help of after-hours contractors, she transformed the front part of the space into a white-box gallery, the back in to a darkened bar. Back then you’d walk in and always discover art by local artists such as Ryan Molenkamp, Ellen Ziegler, Sean Gallagher and Adrien Leavitt, as well as jazz and hip-hop performances, a roundtable conversation or polyamorous meet-up.

Ten years later, Vermillion is a holdout of a bygone neighborhood. That’s no meager feat, especially given Capitol Hill’s total transformation—”dissolution,” as Adams calls it. Perhaps the pile of broken tiles she sweeps from the stoop during my visit is a potent metaphor here; maybe it isn’t. In any case, the neighborhood’s changes are so obvious and omnipresent that when I meet Adams at Vermillion to talk about the anniversary, we don’t have to acknowledge them to know they’re on her mind.

“Everybody’s blaming the tech people, but they’re not the ones coming out to the Capitol Hill businesses,” she says. “Vermillion is partially subsidized by the Eastside kids. The bros and the woo-girls are the reason I’ve been able to stay open this long. Now we have people who come in for a couple of shots and others who hang out the whole night to see music.”

Does that combination work?
Surprisingly, yes. I think it’s due to supportive and protective regulars, as well as the fact that I’ve established a strong cultural and artistic aesthetic. People know what they’re getting into when they come in. They seem to respect the place and each other. 

Because of the art on the walls?
Absolutely. The art is prominent, not an afterthought. I’ve never wanted to put a bar in the front and a gallery in the back.  

Do you think that the presence of a bar lowers the barrier to step into the gallery?
I think it’s the perfect combination. The two things equally support each other. 

Financially, too?
No. My goal was to break even by 2017, and that’s not been possible. Business is down 35 percent. I’m not sure what to do. Maybe a crowdfunding campaign. [sighs] You know, I just offer up the space and service to anyone who wants to book a program here. I rarely say no. It gives many people a chance they would never get. If they want to charge money or have a free show, that’s up to them. But we’re finding that audiences take entertainment for granted nowadays.  

It’s been 10 years. Are you still having fun?
Sometimes. Less, maybe. I think that’s natural; every business has an arc. I’ve also had some big things happen in the last year—my mom almost passed away in November and my dad had a stroke. I take care of him in my studio apartment. So things are crazy now. Then again, I’ve made it through so many crazy things in those 10 years. It’s become way more of an institution than just a simple wine bar with a gallery in it. People say it’s become a cultural hub. I’m proud of that.

Could you do another 10 years?
I feel like I want to be here as long as I possibly can, although another 10 years does not seem very possible. And then I think about all the people who, every single day, give me feedback, thank me, or tell me they don’t want me to leave.  

Does that help to convince you to say?
It helps, for sure. But it’s a lot of pressure. I feel obligated to give back to what people have given to me. 

What do you want to give back?
I’m not in it for the money. There hasn’t been any money in it, really. [laughs] But I’ve gotten a lot. I want to give back the acceptance of the artists and the patrons, anyone who has come in here, created, talked to other people. On a personal level, it’s been the best thing that has ever happened to me. I’m timid, but Vermillion has made me social. I’ve been able to observe and understand and be a part of people’s lives and cultures.  

What else have you learned in those 10 years?
As a photographer, I realized I lost out by taking photos all the time by not being in the moment. At Vermillion, I might be hiding behind the business in a similar way, but I’ve learned to slow down and pay attention to things. Sometimes it’s really frantic and then there’s this moment of calmness: A musician is playing a note that goes through the room, the audience coming together, seeing their satisfaction, seeing them interact. You can’t recreate those moments.

Vermillion’s 10th birthday takes place Friday, June 1. More information at and on Facebook.

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