The New DC Art Scene is Open to All

skateboarder at fight club 
Preparing to take off. A skateboarder at the Fixation Show.

Has the DC art scene really left the underground and emerged into the light of day? That was the premise of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post. According to the piece:

Washington has a vibrant, under-the-radar art party scene that has long been visible only to those in the know. 

While I’m no porkpie hat wearing hipster, I’ve lived in this city for a while, and am friends with artists and arts organizers. In other words, I’m “in the know” and I don’t believe that there was a vibrant art party scene that was only available to the initiated.

In the past, “art gallery party” was a bit of an oxymoron. Galleries had receptions, where you politely drank white wine and tried not to eat all the cheese. These were serious affairs with the unspoken vibe that only potential buyers were welcome. Jackets were not required but you’d feel more comfortable in one. I can remember several events like this where I felt distinctly poor, young (though I’m not) and underdressed. Guests whispered to one another. Women in furs swooped in, distributing air kisses. This was a serious place where you affected a critical gaze as you looked at abstract paintings and wondered, “What the hell is that?” But you didn’t say that, instead you attempted the foreign language of ArtSpeak. “Uhh, this work seems to explore the idea of emptiness as a construct yet ultimately expresses the impossibility of authenticity in a plastic world.”

But the gallery owner could just look at you and know, he’s just here for the booze.  Which was only partially true, since I’ve had a long interest in all types of creativity. Going to a gallery, however, just didn’t seem fun.

That all changed with Artomatic. I’d date the birth of DC’s art party scene to the Artomatic in 2004 at the old Capitol Children’s Museum. From the beginning, what’s distinguished this scene has been its democratic nature. Artomatic is open to all – anyone can hang their stuff on a wall and call themselves an artist. Only very loosely organized, with just a few rules, Artomatic is to art what “open source” is to software – it’s taking authority away from middlemen and putting it in the hands of the crowd. And like open source software, everyone can participate though you have to contribute something too. Artists showing at Artomatic had to volunteer some of their time. They manned the bars, cleaned up and did everything else that the festival required.

Artomatic was an inversion of the gallery process. No one told you you couldn’t hang your stuff up and crowds of people responded to this openness. Artomatic has become a huge annual event in this city, one that took up an entire office building in 2008. It brought hordes of people (more than 50,000 of them) that were younger, poorer and more diverse than could be found in any Georgetown gallery.

The other unique trait of Artomatic was its do it yourself nature. Like the 48 Hour Film Project, another homegrown event, Artomatic was created from the bottom up. It was not organized by the Corcoran. Instead it was created “by artists, for everyone.” 

Since the last Artomatic, the art scene has really burgeoned, as correctly described by the Post. It’s included some awesome parties, such as the Roller Derby Party and the Fixation Show. But, these have not been underground affairs open only to those with a secret password. Instead, what characterizes the DC art scene has been openness, a lack of formality, disdain for hierarchy and a do it yourself spirit.

While things haven’t always gone as planned, it’s inspiring, for these casual affairs show that artists are real people and that art can be made by anyone. And, for myself, I’d much rather be drinking foamy beer out of a plastic cup while watching skateboarders than any fancy gallery affair.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder on U Street, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.

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