Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat

Artomatic and the Laws of Art Shows

First of all, we have to say that Artomatic is an organizational tour de force. Each year’s event seems bigger than the last. Like all things in life, there are good and bad aspects to that.

Recently released census data shows that the Washington, D.C. metro area has the fourth largest number of people listing ‘artist’ as their primary occupation. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are of course the big three. D.C. by comparison is a distant fourth.
Even as a distant fourth, the D.C. area art scene is way behind where it should be considering its population. The Artomatic phenomenon in general is one of the best things that has happened here. In a fractured environment, it is the one all encompassing event that gives people a unified glimpse of the big picture. Now having closed its sixth show, and with plans to make this an annual event, it’s time we all took a serious look at how things are going. The long term health and well-being of Artomatic is in everybody’s interest.

For all practical purposes Artomatic is a member show, mind you the mother of all member shows, but a member show none the less. For the uninitiated, member shows typically require only that you pay your dues and show up with something to show. There is no concern about quality, no curatorial gate keeper. It is, in effect, the art world’s version of Little League. Everyone plays no matter what their skill level.

A good member show can be OK, but they’re never great shows. The bad ones can be unspeakably bad, earning descriptions such as thrift shop show. Worse, journalists find them almost impossible to review as they are in effect the artistic equivalent of a pot luck banquet. Thus press coverage for member shows is almost unheard of.

These shows are the easiest, and possibly the only, way to get an art organization off the ground. However, there is an ugly backside to this model. Venues that can’t get past the member show means of operating, get labeled as vanity galleries. Better artists catch on to this fact fairly quickly, and realize that career wise it’s a dead end. So they stop showing there, and the quality at that venue drops in a downward spiral as better artists drop out of the fold.

The hobbyist will show a few times. Their friends will come around to look at their work a few times, then stop coming. In short order, these artists stop showing and then before you know it, the art organization is struggling for its life as attendance and participation comes dangerously close to a grinding stop.

The serious artists are needed 1) Because it’s good work spectators want to see and will come back for, and 2) The serious artists are the lifers—they’re in the game till their last breath. It is the serious artists that form the core of an arts organization.

Having discussed Artomatic with a fair number of art world movers and shakers, I sadly must report trouble in paradise. This year’s Artomatic has seen this group give an almost unanimous thumbs down on the event. You may be thinking, “So what?” but those thousand-plus artists who showed at Artomatic were all trying to get those people’s attention. That’s a serious problem.

Gallery owners, who usually host “Best of Artomatic” shows, aren’t doing so this time around. There was virtually no significant press coverage in the Washington Post, except for the collector’s scam thefts. It’s the first harbinger of trouble in paradise.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post art critic referred to it in conversation as a giant audition without a judge. Gallery directors emerged with a dazed look of exhaustion and dismay. Clearly we have a problem here that must be addressed before it’s too late. The gig is up once Artomatic becomes thought of as a vanity show.

My seat of the pants impression is that Artomatic can not survive an annual show of this sort. Ideas abound, but getting the member show mentality to change course is a notoriously tough and completely thankless task. The basic problem is the people who format things that way see no problem with it. They see success in terms of size and quantity—not quality. As a result, they miss the peek and only wake up once the damage is done, and the viability of the entire project is in jeopardy. For everyone’s sake, we hope the hierarchy at Artomatic will avoid that gut wrenching scenario.

We all like the open door policy and we all want better quality. Something has to give. One possibility is an all-comers, free-for-all Artomatic, followed the next year by a juried version. Other notions floated are guest curators assigned an area to show artists of their choice.
Options to side step the volunteer hours would help facilitate the participation of time pressured older, and more experienced artists. Whatever the case, more advanced artists who are turning away from Artomatic must be accommodated with an environment they can feel comfortable showing their work in without damaging their reputation.

Hanging bad art next to good art does not make the bad art look good. It makes the good art look bad. Think of a pot luck feast where some of the food is spoiled. Suddenly, you find your appetite has waned and you question the edible nature of all the dishes at hand. Art consumption is really no different.

Just as there are more fast food joints than five-star restaurants, there is more bad art out there than good art. At a show like Artomatic, and truth be known virtually any member show, the good art can quickly be swamped by the bad art around it. It’s a phenomenon that makes more advanced artists seem snobbish in their refusal to participate. It really isn’t the case. They just want their work to be appreciated to its fullest just like everybody else.

The Artomatic model has been a godsend to the Washington area art scene. However its high-time quality is factored into the equation. The 10th floor of this year’s show was a fine example of what could be. We can only hope the Artomatic hierarchy heed the warnings around them, and improve the format for next year’s show.

Note: Since Artomatic is now closed, the review for floors 11 and 12 will be posted online later this week.