NOA Gallery was founded by Washington, D.C. native and artist Michael Little. In the 1970's when he purchased his row house things were a lot different in the Bloomingdale neighborhood.
"I'm glad I got in when I did," Little said. "You can't even buy a shell in this neighborhood for less than $400,000."
Unable to gain momentum and exposure in the gallery network in the D.C. area, Little opened NOA Gallery in 1979 as a space to showcase his own art. As a young aspiring artist, he was not offered exhibitions and most of the galleries did not seem to gravitate towards his style of artwork.
"What I found out was that galleries have nooks, they have specialties, and they have things they want to sell," Little said. "My work didn't fit their nook." So he decided to open his own gallery on the first floor of his townhouse, and in 1982, his gallery expanded, eventually occupying the entire house.
The name of the gallery was decided upon while talking to a friend and mentor. "We were just sitting around talking about what to call this new space. We agree it was new, and he said that there would be old stuff in it because I liked to shop for antiques, and some of my work was abstract. New, Old and Abstract, NOA, it was a perfect name for the gallery," Little said.
Little wanted to give young black artists the opportunity to exhibit and sell their works in a professionally-run gallery. "I not only wanted to give exhibition opportunities to young aspiring local artists, but to market them in such a way that they had the prominence, the press releases, and reviews."
He featured good artists, both young men and young women, who wanted to try new things. In the 1980s and 90s, he rotated shows every 30 days. The gallery earned notoriety, respect and economic stability with its motivated artists and consistent rotations, and in turn, was able to provide income for the gallery and featured artists.
During that same period, Bloomingdale was majority black and so were NOA's customers. In addition to the featured artists in the gallery, patrons wanted to purchase art advertised on mainstream black television.
"Popular television shows like The Cosby Show and Good Times had art hanging on their walls," Little noted. "Artists like Varnette Honeywood, Ernie Barnes, Brenda Joy Smith and Anna Lee were on television, and a demand was set. People saw those images and those were the images they wanted. Television had their attention to at least want to consider buying art because they could see families regardless of class, having an art experience. That was a good period for me," he said.
Gentrification has changed the neighborhood, and brought an influx of new residents. Little had an exhibition that he marketed through his neighborhood list-serve of which two-thirds are white. To his surprise 80 percent of the people who came were white.
However, Little noted, "Just because the neighborhood changed in color doesn't mean that all of these people know about art. For example [at one exhibition] I had all these European artists' works hanging on the wall. This white guy comes over to me and says, 'Where is the white section?' which surprised me. Evidently he had made up in his mind that since I was black, what he was looking at were black artists. I immediately took him to a Norman Rockwell and an Andy Warhol and said to him, 'These artists are not black.' I also pointed out black artists that were in the show, but two-thirds of the artists were white."
NOA Gallery has always shown European artists, but its focus has been and continues to be black art. At any given time you can find art from the Asia, South America and Africa in NOA Gallery.
NOA Gallery is adapting and responding to the emergent trends in the ever-changing Bloomingdale neighborhood. At the age of 60, Little is not about to reinvent himself for anyone. One thing is constant: His love for the arts. He says that he and the gallery are what they are, and anyone who wants to come in is welcome.
"You might be surprised at how much we might think alike if you have an appreciation for the arts," Little said..