Artomatic 2017 in Crystal City Credit: Courtesy of David Baxter

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Artomatic founder George Koch recalls a year when the eccentric arts festival was held in a vacant office building in Crystal City. The building had previously housed classified workers, and, as Koch tells it, “all the doors were these SCIF doors, [and] required all kinds of codes to get into. The county required us to take the doors out, so we used the doors to make the stages, to make the bars.” When one door needs to be removed due to government regulations, another one opens, as it were. Creative problem solving and scrappy resourcefulness have always been baked into Artomatic’s DNA, but with all arts organizations scrambling in the face of social distancing shutdowns, that ingenuity can be a necessary survival skill.

Artomatic debuted in 1999 as a non-juried, volunteer-run exhibition in the Manhattan Laundry building, which also lent the event its washer-inspired name. Over time, it has grown into a 501(c)(3) with a board of directors and tens of thousands of attendees at each iteration, but until now, the model has remained largely unchanged: Participants pay a modest entry fee and take volunteer shifts staffing the event, in exchange for ample space to exhibit or perform pretty much whatever they want for multiple weeks. Events have happened more sporadically in recent years, but organizers wanted to mark the 20th anniversary year in a meaningful way. However, 2019 came and went without finding a location to host a celebration, so anniversary plans were moved to 2020, only to be upended by the outbreak of COVID-19.

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This summer, from July 20 to Aug. 20, the Artomatic team will put their characteristic nimbleness to use, mounting the first digital-only event, titled Artomatic 2.0: A Virtual Experience. 

In the time since its last event in 2017, Artomatic’s board and staff have been in the process of doing a soft reset to bring the event into a new decade, tweaking the organization behind the scenes and reevaluating how parts of the event work. As co-president Olivia Garcia puts it: “The demographics of the board have changed. The demographics of artists in the DMV has changed. We have to take all of that into consideration.” 

Ramping up for the banner anniversary year, executive director Natalie Graves Tucker, who was brought on as Artomatic’s first paid staff member, immediately set about updating Artomatic’s digital presence. “I wanted to make sure we could build up communications leading up to the event, not just around the event, all year round,” she explains. The social media pages and e-newsletter, which had been mostly quiet, began teasing the forthcoming event and posting other helpful information for the creative community. While that effort was already in place, it has become an increasingly important way to engage with the local artist community and connect them to resources for applying for grants and creating art while in quarantine.

Keeping in the collaborative spirit of Artomatic, Graves Tucker sent out a survey to gauge whether potential participants would rather wait until a physical event could be held or try the uncharted waters of an online event. “A large percentage of them said they had canceled exhibitions, lost income, lost gigs, so what can we do to help?” she says. The event will now take the form of an online gallery, as well as a calendar of virtual concerts, performance art, and workshops, many of which will be done in conjunction with other local arts organizations. The website, which was revamped last year, will now feature categorized and searchable artist profiles where participants can include not only their galleries of images, but links to websites, social media, and online storefronts for selling work. 

The festival has typically included some lessons and activities, particularly for children, but this year’s event will tout an increased focus on artist education, as well as bringing in artists and partners from the Artomatic network to do the teaching. Co-president Jamila Canty says new programs will provide focused instruction on topics like “the legal aspects of art, how do you manage and promote your work,” to serve first-time exhibitors and novice artists. The group was already looking into the possibility of putting workshops online, and now there is the opportunity to explore topics and events that are particularly suited to the current moment.

Until recently, the biggest challenge facing the Artomatic team each year was finding a spot for the event to be held. The explosion of D.C.’s real estate market has made securing 100,000 square feet of space a taller order than it was in 1999. The lack of a physical space has perhaps turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “We’ve grown so much that now we need so much space to accommodate all the artists,” Canty says. Artomatic has always been unlimited by genre restrictions, qualifiers of taste, or rules; an online event presents a host of new possibilities. Graves Tucker points out that folks who often clear out of the D.C. area for the summer are now likely stuck at home during the course of the event, and might make for a captive audience. She continues, “You don’t have to be in D.C. to participate.” 

Anyone attempting to produce an event in the midst of a global pandemic probably wishes the timing were different, but like a SCIF door that becomes a stage, the Artomatic team will work with what they have in the current moment, and leverage this time to uplift the local arts community. “Our mission is about strengthening the art community. We’re artists too, and we’re in this too,” Graves Tucker says. Details are forthcoming for participants and performers who want to sign up, and over the coming months the schedule of events and workshops will be filled. The work done to refresh the organization will help to usher in a totally different kind of event. Now more than ever, Artomatic is an organization dedicated to much more than the festival that takes place every few years. “A lot of times people think we’re an events organization, and we’re not,” Koch says. “We’re an organization that focuses on individual artists.”