Washington is not The Swamp. Nor is it House of Cards. And it’s certainly not the sleepy burg with a couple of cool restaurants that The New York Times rediscovers every few years.
Instead, it’s something different – a sprawling urban corridor that stretches along I-95 from Richmond to Baltimore, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the green forested Appalachians. More than just the nation’s capital, it’s six million people in a megacity that dominates the Mid-Atlantic.
Saturday, while the cherry blossoms were blooming along the Tidal Basin, I crossed the river and went to Artomatic. More than 600 artists, performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes have converged upon Crystal City for this massive art festival that runs from March 24 – May 6. Artomatic is seven floors of art, along with classes, performances and movies, all taking place in an empty office building just across the Potomac from the capitol. Admission is free.
Artomatic is a non-juried festival. Anyone can participate. Artists that pay a fee and agree to do some volunteer time get space to display their work. Which means that you’ll find stuff you love, stuff you hate, and lot of work that falls somewhere in between.
It’s always inspiring. And I love to see friends of mine in the show. You’d be surprised at how many artists there are in Washington. Lawyers, web developers, government workers by day, they’re painters, photographers and dancers by night. Artomatic gives them the opportunity to shine.
And where else but in the Washington megacomplex could you have a massive, open festival like Artomatic? Only here will you find the ingredients necessary for this unique happening:
- Space. A lot of it. Thousands of square feet of space in a building soon to be redeveloped, opened or torn down. Artomatic began in 1999 when a developer donated space in an old building. Artomatic typically takes place in transitional neighborhoods, where space is being converted from use to another. Military offices have moved out of Crystal City and their space is being redeveloped.
- Artists. A lot of them. The 2008 show featured 1,540 individual artists, including painters, sculptors, photographers, dancers and poets stretched over ten floors in a new office building in NoMa. The artistic community is large in the region, featuring moonlighting professionals as well as graduates from local universities.
- Audience. The memorable 2008 edition of Artomatic hosted the biggest audience ever, drawing 52,000 people. When I visited on Saturday, the halls were full of friends and family of the artists, as well as the culturally curious, drawn to see something new.
- Organizers. Artomatic ain’t easy. The festival requires talented event planners to acquire the space, recruit volunteers and manage the event. Smart, well-organized, Type-A people, something DC specializes in.
Only in DC will you find this combination of arts, audiences and organizers. Washington isn’t the city you see on CNN. It’s more than just marble columns and endless arguments. Artomatic demonstrates the creative power and vibrancy of a city that few in America truly know.