It takes an empty building, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 visual artists, actors, bartenders, and art lovers; a lot of hard work, very few rules, and you get Artomatic.
Held irregularly every couple of years or so since 1999, Artomatic is the Greater Washington, DC region’s free-for-all, non juried, all open, democratic visual arts extravaganza and the closest art event that our nation’s capital has to an open art biennial.
Back in 1999 a handful of enterprising and hardworking DC area artists convinced the management of an empty historical building to let them use the building for an open art show. Within a month, three hundred and fifty artists had cleaned, installed lights, painted and gallerized the 100,000 square feet building which once hosted a massive laundry and dry cleaning business. That year over 20,000 visitors attended the first Artomatic, held over six weeks, by far the largest art event held in DC that year.
And it continued to grow and expand as empty buildings were made available to Artomatic artists by developers.
By 2000 music and performances of all kinds became part of the event, and in that second year 665 artists exhibited and 200 performed as thousands of visitors flocked to the show.
In 2002 more than 1,000 artists and performers took part in the event and even more joined in 2004 at the old Capitol Children’s Museum. By then over 40,000 people were visiting the show and also by then the Washington main stream media was savaging the show, aiming its criticism at the lack of a curatorial hand and ignoring the key core of the event: a free and open exhibition for all.
Blake Gopnik, the erudite and Oxford-educated Chief Art Critic for the Washington Post wrote:
Here’s a fine idea. Let’s find an abandoned school and then invite local dentists to ply their trade, free of charge, in its crumbling classrooms, peeling corridors and dripping toilets. Okay, so maybe we won’t get practicing dentists to come, but we might get some dental students, hygienists and retirees to join in our Happy Tooth festival. What the heck, let’s not be elitists here: Why don’t we just invite anyone with a yen for tooth work or some skill with drills to give it a go. Then we can all line up, open wide and see what happens.
I’ll be at the front of the line.
After all, it could hardly be more excruciating than this year’s Artomatic, the fourth edition of the District’s creative free-for-all, which opens tomorrow. Organizers have gotten about 600 local “artists” — anyone who could ante up the $60 fee and 15 hours of his or her time, in fact — to display their creations. They’re on show in the sprawling, scruffy building in north Capitol Hill that once housed the Capital Children’s Museum and several charter schools.
The result is the second-worst display of art I’ve ever seen. The only one to beat it out, by the thinnest of split hairs, was the 2002 Artomatic, which was worse only by virtue of being even bigger and in an even more atrocious space, down by the waterfront in a vacant modern office building.
I won’t dwell on the art. And I certainly won’t name names. No one needs to know who made the wallfuls of amateur watercolors, yards of incompetent oil paintings, acres of trite street photography and square miles of naive installation art that will be polluting this innocent old building for the next three weeks. There’s something for everyone to hate. The rest are works only a mother could love.
But art lovers, art dealers seeking new talent, art collectors looking for new art, and artists looking to exhibit their work, continued to love the event, and Artomatic made a stop in neighboring Virginia for the first time last year, occupying the former Patent and Trademark building in nearby Crystal City right across the Potomac River. In spite of even more hostile critical reviews from the press, it drew over 40,000 visitors.
What Gopnik and other harsh art critics of AOM miss, is that the event is not just about the art. Take any 1,000 artist-event, even a curated one, and you’ll be astounded by the degree of “bad art” that gets included. Do the last 2-3 Whitney Biennials come to mind?
Artomatic (or AOM as the locals call it) is also about delivering spectacular re-charging of artistic batteries for a city often dominated by poisonous partisan politics, world class museums that ignore local artists, powerful media presences that focus on politics and ignore a vibrant regional art scene, and one of the highest concentrations of individual wealth in the world with apparent little interest in acquiring original art.
At AOM, artists mingle with each other, learn from each other, party with each other, and – and this is a really important and – exhibit and show their work to 40,000 people who otherwise would be blissfully ignorant of the healthy and vibrant art scene in the Greater DC region.
And it pays off for the few who rise above the masses.
Just this year Gopnik wrote glowingly of the very talented Dumbacher brothers artistic team; one of their first DC appearances was the 1999 AOM. The second AOM saw the debut of Tim Tate. At that AOM you could purchase an original Tate glass sculpture for $300. I discovered Tate there and we gave him his first gallery solo show in my former gallery in Georgetown. A few weeks ago, two Tate pieces were auctioned off for $41,000 each.
If you are reading this blog, chances are that you are familiar with the Postsecret phenomenon. Its brilliant creative mind, Frank Warren, started his amazing worldwide art project at the third AOM.
Those are some of the big name success stories of this amazing arts extravaganza; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other success stories associated with the event, which keeps growing, showing and recharging our artistic spirit, in spite of those who simply see bad art in front of them.
The current version of Artomatic opened on May 9 and runs through June 15, 2008. It is located at the Capitol Plaza I building (located at 1200 First Street, NE in Washington, DC). All the events and details that you need to know are at www.artomatic.org.
Later: a review of the 2008 Artomatic.