Just off an alley behind 52 O St. NW, Philippa Hughes is hosting her 42nd birthday party. It is in most respects a typical Philippa party.
The warehouse interior is painted white, marked here and there by artful graffiti. Inside the space, a studio called the Wonderbox, a DJ in a seemingly sprayed-on navy cocktail dress spins top 40 hits—more of them than a warehouse party would seem to demand. A 9-foot-wide roll of thick, black paper hangs from the ceiling, serving as a portrait backdrop for guests who mug for professional photographers.
The night’s event is as much by Hughes as it is for her. This is what Hughes does: She throws Philippa parties. A Philippa party is a mash-up of two endeavors that used to be reasonably distinct: meet-ups for young professionals, the sort promoted by the Going Out Gurus or Things To Do DC or any of the other hype machines she has eclipsed, and DIY art shows, which Hughes has turned into unlikely vehicles for local renown. Since 2007, she has built up her brand, The Pink Line Project, by pushing art, artists, and arts events on a network that has grown to include some 5,000 people.
In some ways this Philippa party is more than typical—it’s redundant. On an improvised platform set between the ceiling and the top of a utility closet, two dancers from a group called the Glade Dance Collective perform. Wearing white leotards, the pair envelop themselves in a stretchy white fabric, thrashing about like a throbbing cocoon. It’s likely that most of the attendees saw this performance back in August at the End of Summer White Party that Hughes hosted at the Phillips Collection. Later, Grammy-winner Christylez Bacon, also fresh from a performance at another Philippa party the previous weekend, will sing a duet with a new singer Hughes has just discovered, Aaron Thompson.
The crowd doubles from 50 to 100 between 8 and 9 p.m. The acts may be familiar, but few of the regulars have been to Wonderbox before. “It’s always a new space with Philippa,” says Jason Bond Pratt, one of the founders of the online art-scenester collective Brightest Young Things. Pratt says Hughes always beats them to the new spots. “We’ll see it and be like, ‘Damn!’”
Which explains why Hughes, in a relatively short period of time, has managed to turn herself into Washington’s most influential arts patron, able to bring out significant crowds in a city whose arts community ranges from lingering DIY types that bristle at society to older, moneyed folks uncharmed by informality. Hughes has gotten a lot of fawning press over the years, and more than a few barbs from people on both ends of the art-scene spectrum who intimate that she’s a lightweight. What she hasn’t gotten, though, is any serious competition for the title of D.C.’s top gallery-party hostess.
Of course, Hughes isn’t the first person to combine socializing with art—and make a name doing so. But while she shares the guerilla aesthetic of predecessors like those around the Decatur Blue and Signal 66 collectives, known for events in the same sort of warehouses as the one where Hughes’ birthday party was held, the Philippa work ethic is more Protestant than punk. And Hughes’ social and economic aspirations are distinctly higher. Her events draw crowds to museums and galleries as well as warehouses and collectives.
In 2007, The Pink Line Project—the formal name (and LLC) under which Hughes throws pop-up gallery shows, art walks, panels, fundraisers, salons and other Philippa parties—hosted 10 events. She did 19 in 2008, adding collaborations with DCist and Brightest Young Things. She nearly doubled the figure in 2009, with 35 events including celebrations for the National Cherry Blossom Festival (“Cherry Blast”) and an after hours party at the Hirshhorn Museum. In 2010, she says she’s hosted 36 Philippa parties to date, about one a week—though she notes she might have forgotten an event or two. She threw a party to open Digital Capital Week, a Mad Men–esque party at the Textile Museum, and a Labor Day soiree at the Phillips.
“Big is important in the sense that it gets attention,” says Hughes, who throws big events. “Getting attention is important. It gives you a platform for saying what you really want to say.”
Hughes is less certain, though, about what that thing is she wants to say. Success has exposed Hughes to attacks from both high and low. She also has the bottom line to think about. She does not draw a salary from her work, and she says she needs for The Pink Line Project to start paying its own way. The lifestyle has taken its toll on her person. In April—a month in which she hosted Cherry Blast and an event at the Textile Museum (“Hapi Hapi Hour”)—within a week of one another, her arms broke out in a rash. Her doctor told her it was stress-induced.
No wonder: Hughes herself has trouble determining whether the Pink Line brand and her individual person are divisible in a meaningful way. She works alone, with the help of part-time interns. She also brings Pink Line into her home, where “Salon Contra” artist discussions usually draw a dozen or more people. It’s an exciting life, but it’s no way to run a business. And so now, with The Pink Line Project firmly established on Washington’s social radar, Hughes wants its organizational structure to grow up, too. What it needs next, she has decided, is a mission statement.
One evening earlier this month, Hughes assembles a dozen of her “mainstays” at her 14th Street NW condo to enjoy an appetizer buffet and champagne before heading to a gala that will celebrate the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s new contemporary exhibition program. The art-filled apartment is very, very pink. She has a swing that’s pink and a surfboard and laptop and scooter that are all pink. Hughes commissioned Cory Oberndorfer, a D.C. pop artist she has championed, to illustrate her walls, which he painted over with a giant, pink Hokusai tsunami wave. Artists Kelly Towles and Brad Chriss have both contributed murals. Another, Zach Storm, once stayed at her house to watch her cat for a week, and painted her ceiling while he was at it. Hughes is a serious enough collector to keep a makeshift storage system in her home for the work that she cannot display. But what she does show trends toward the extremely playful—and the pink.
At $150 per ticket, the Corcoran event attracts an elevated crowd. Hughes prices her own parties in the low double digits; often, they’re free. “How is an art party where people pay $10 or $20 to attend different from where they pay $150 to attend?” Hughes offers. “They still pay exactly the same amount of attention to the art. I doubt the people paying $150 are any more likely to come back to the museum.” In fact, the museum gala has a lot of overlap with Hughes’ warehouse party. There’s conceptual music—tonight courtesy of Bluebrain, an electronic duo performing a piece inspired by one of the evening’s featured artists, Spencer Finch. (Naturally, Bluebrain has done previous Philippa parties, most recently the one at the Phillips Collection.)
No matter where the Philippa parties take place, it’s also a pretty good bet that many of the party-goers don’t self-identify as members of the art world. For them, Hughes pretty much is the art world—or at least the gateway to it. At one point she refers to herself as the “ambassador” to that world. She also calls herself a “connector-person.” Of course, she’s sure to hang air quotes around both terms.
Some people, alas, don’t want to be connected. The Corcoran event, especially, draws some art-world Brahmins who don’t buy Hughes’s brand of populism. Izette Folger is one of them. Like Hughes, she is a member of the host committee. Unlike Hughes, she comes from Best Part of Waking Up money. After hearing that I’m writing about Hughes, Folger pulls me aside to describe a slight her sister, filmmaker Nora Maccoby, suffered at a Salon Contra event she helped to stage. Maccoby had arrived at Hughes’s home early only to find Hughes still in curlers, so to speak, noshing on pizza, says Folger. (Hughes says she missed the point: “That’s why it’s successful. Because there’s no pretension about it.”)
“Sometimes the Internet can be a dangerous place that gives people a false sense of power,” Folger says, decrying the reach of social media in the hands of people like Hughes. “People follow these people when they have no background or education in art or architecture or literature or humanities. It’s a party crowd [that follows Hughes]. It’s not a group of intellectual or sophisticated people. They’re like party wraiths.”
Standing near a conveyor belt that delivers hors d’œuvres to the Corcoran party’s guests, Hughes deflects praise from half a dozen people who thank her for the ball. She is blunt, friendly and unfailingly smiley to each of them. “I didn’t do anything. I’m just here.”
The idea of mixing party and exhibition doesn’t bother Jeffry Cudlin in the slightest. As the director of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center, he’s worked with Hughes for the gallery’s best-attended events. “Wreckfast at Tiffany’s” led Cudlin, a Washington City Paper contributing writer, to “recognize the power of Philippa.” Some 900 people showed up for the graffiti exhibit. The cops shut down the opening. Hughes is now an AAC board member.
“I want people encountering art on whatever terms I can get those encounters to happen,” Cudlin says. Though an ideal encounter might mean no party—just a viewer, moleskine notebook in hand, taking notes in front of a painting—Cudlin says artists themselves choose to lend their work to Hughes’ events. “You can’t make an artist do what they don’t want to do. If it does seem like they are cheapening their work, they were going to go down that path anyway,” he says. “They were already going to disappoint you.”
Hughes is expressly tired of the backlash from “‘real’ art people,” she says. “If I only cater to ‘real’ art people, then I don’t think I’m accomplishing anything. I don’t know what my mission is, but I think I’m trying to bring more people into the fold, even if it’s a superficial entry point.”
Hughes may well be the perfect point of entry to the arts community: she’s fashionable, but not threateningly so, she never drops art theory, and she’s indefatigably chirpy. Her breezy grin keeps everyone comfortable, from art-scene purists to party-hopping dilettantes. And while the overlap between Philippa and her brand might suggest someone who’s been plotting for years to make the scene, her easy persona hints at how she actually came about it: gradually, as a by-product of other ambitions.
Philippa Bates was born and raised in Richmond, Va. Her dad worked for years as an engineer on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline while her mom refurbished and flipped property. Her parents, now divorced, taught her to cook; she says the only thing that either will still say about the other is that he or she is a great cook. Hughes went to school at the University of Virginia, then got a law degree at the University of Richmond. She loved law school but hated the work that followed. “I kept trying different aspects [of practicing law] to not have wasted that money I spent, but it just didn’t take.”
Philippa married David Hughes in 1992. The pair moved to Washington in 2001, where he established an orthodontic practice. In 2003, Hughes quit her last law-related job, both to help her husband get his practice going and to devote more time to her own creative writing, a pursuit that still nags at her. (She favors short fiction.) She also began collecting art and started inviting artists around. David’s growing practice allowed Philippa to leave her lobbying job at the Investment Council Association of America and begin The Pink Line Project. Her first event—“Press Play,” an April 2007 collaboration with Project 4 Gallery—was a group show at a raw space at 1520 14th St. NW, now home to a tapas restaurant.
David Hughes says Philippa started without any model to follow. “Is it possible to build an entity of any kind just on the idea of promoting the visual arts at a grassroots level in this city? To my knowledge, what she’s doing now wasn’t being done in the city,” he says. “I don’t think I knew where it was headed. There was a lot of time in the lab, so to speak.”
The Hughes’ marriage split up not long after she started putting on shows, at a time when he was increasingly focused on his practice. (“Our parting was different from a traditional throwing shoes and yelling split,” David says. “Everything was easy except for the art division,” Philippa says.) In June 2008, she moved from the couple’s home in Logan Circle to a condo at 14th and V streets NW. Because she could not show a reliable income stream, he co-signed on the mortgage. With the divorce now final, and Pink Line’s revenues no more clear, her mother is assuming the note. (Her daughter will continue to pay the mortgage.)
David confirms Philippa’s business acumen, saying that she ran the marketing and general accounting for his orthodontist practice early on, when he was focused on building doctor referrals. “She has an entrepreneurial side in her that comes out in the way she buys and sells, whether it’s securities, or real estate, or in the case of Pink Line, lifestyle entrepreneurship,” he says. Years prior, Philippa says, she invested in Apple when stocks were low. She says she lives off those savings now, though The Pink Line Project pays for many things; pretty much all of her meals and her cellphone included. “This place is thanks to Apple,” she says, though David adds that money from the divorce settlement went toward the home.
Like Apple, Hughes’ art events cater to the demographic urban theorist Richard Florida dubs the “creatives.” But as with many trends beloved by this set, it has proven easier to popularize than to monetize. Hughes is sober about the prospect of continuing to finance The Pink Line Project through trading. “It’s very risky to live that way,” she says. “My risk tolerance is probably higher than most people. It’s too stressful.”
Around midnight on the evening Hughes put on a grand-opening bash at Rosslyn’s brand-new Artisphere cultural center, the trash cans are overflowing with empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and Vitaminwater bottles. Cleaning up the mess, just like assembling the crowd, is Hughes’ job. But even as she ponders post-party refuse, Hughes’ connections are on display. D.C. Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein, a close friend, is among the volunteers picking up late-night garbage. Klein offers to put in a good word for Hughes with Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette after everything is over.
When it comes to swaying the governments that provide large chunks of arts funding, Hughes might actually not need lobbying.
In the District, for instance, one of The Pink Line Project’s more successful public projects was a summer collaboration with the D.C. government to transform the former R.L. Christian Library, at 1300 H St. NE, into a temporary store—the Temporium—where local artists and designers sold their wares. A few months later, the city had turned the innovation into an entire category of funding. A request for applications released by the Office of Planning defined what a Temporium is (“a Temporary Urbanism project that transforms vacant storefronts or spaces into a temporary retail space for local designers to exhibit and sell their work”) and outlined the H Street project’s successes (“Future Temporiums should meet similar benchmarks”). One grantee will be selected to build their own Temporium in December 2010.
Hughes is bemused that the government would put out a request for proposals to recreate her project. “I think it would be better for them if they had their own branding on it,” says Hughes, somewhat miffed. “It’s bad for them if they’re trying to achieve their own goal in temporary urbanist projects.”
Last year, Hughes became a commissioner on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—a title she now lists directly under “chief creative contrarian” on her Pink Line e-mail signature. The position gives her some input on a number of funding, grant and public art projects undertaken in the District. People in the art scene have asked why she hasn’t been made the commission’s chair. “I think the situation is too political and bureaucratic and I think I can make more of a difference on my own, working on the ground so to speak,” Hughes says.
The appointment has its critics, too. “I cannot say I understand why she is on the D.C. arts commission, other than that she has lots of energy, loves to party, and seems to be doing a very good job of bringing the young art community together,” sniffs collector Lorie Peters Lauthier, who attended the upscale Corcoran party. Hughes finds herself cultivated by government on the other side of the river, too. Arlington County’s cultural affairs division tasked her with organizing one of the opening weekend parties for Artisphere—a county-sponsored megaproject that needed some buy-in from the twenty- to thirty-something set. Hughes delivered by bringing Brightest Young Things on board as co-host and, promising all-you-can-drink PBR and balloon-based performance art, sold some 900 advance tickets at $20 a head. More than 1,400 guests came in all.
The Artisphere party cost just south of $21,000 to produce. Of that, The Pink Line Project and Brightest Young Things spent roughly $4,000 on booze, $6,000 on talent, and $4,500 on security. Arlington Cultural Affairs gave the hosts a $5,000 sponsorship, meaning that all told, The Pink Line Project and Brightest Young Things netted between $5,000 and $6,000 each. Hughes estimates that it cost each of them 300 man hours.
Cynthia Connolly, director of visual arts for the Artisphere, says that she was first attracted to Hughes because she’s a surfer. “I heard about this woman named Philippa who collected art and surfed,” says Connolly. “Who the hell in D.C. collects art, is a younger woman and surfs?” A photographer and D.C. stalwart since 1981, Connolly is the visual art scene’s Ian MacKaye—something of a purist with a long memory and connections with anyone who produces art here.
The 4,000-square-foot Terrace Gallery, over which Connolly presides, is one of the Artisphere areas where drinks aren’t allowed during the opening party. As The Pink Line Project has expanded from small art talks to art-scene galas, its reputation in the art scene has both waxed and waned. Connolly registers some doubts about the merits of mixing art shows and parties so explicitly. “I find it offensive sometimes. I find creativity really important and nurturing the creative mind really important, and I feel like it needs respect. I sometimes feel that in a party atmosphere, things can become in a way not respectable to the art,” Connolly says, as Hughes’ party swells in the hold outside her booze-free space. “The art becomes a vehicle to make the party happen, and the party supercedes the art.”
“Philippa brings Philippa,” says Norma Kaplan, chief of Arlington’s cultural affairs division, contentedly delivering forth on the different ways younger and older generations approach the nation’s cultural centers. But as she speaks, the party starts to get out of hand. It is, in fact, a youthful person—Pink Line Project intern Becca Gurganious, who Hughes says “pretty much runs my life and my business”—who first brings the trash situation to Hughes’s attention. Gurganious puts Hughes to work collecting garbage at about 11:30 p.m., even as skinny jeans and cocktail dresses continue to stream in.
“You can’t have a mega party like that and be ready to open at 10 in the morning the next day,” said Hughes in retrospect. “If you’re the Washington Hilton, you do that sort of thing. We should have waited a month.”
“This is the dark side of the party: scrubbing the floor in your party dress,” said Brightest Young Things chief Svetlana Legetic, after the fact. She and Hughes cleaned until 5 a.m. to ready the Artisphere for its open house the next day.
After organizing an average of an event a week thus far this year, Hughes says she has nothing scheduled after this coming weekend. She’ll continue the Salon Contra discussions in November and December, which she loves as much as artists seem to, and she mentions Cherry Blast next spring as a program she knows she’ll want to renew. Beyond that, she says, her hiatus could extend longer.
After Pink Line-related stress led to the rash outbreak, Hughes also lost the services of her three interns, who moved on to seek gainful employment. This and an incident in which Hughes says she snapped at Cultural Development Corporation manger of visual arts Karyn Miller—an incident Miller says she does not recall—led Hughes to do some serious thinking.
In fact, she’d already responded to some of the critiques about the admixture of high art and low entertainment. She’s become more selective. Hughes says she receives at least an e-mail every day from an artist asking for a place in an event. She says she turns down plenty of things. “D.C. is one of those social charity ball type places. There’s always a silent auction,” Hughes says, “fashion for cause, fashion for poverty,” again hanging big air quotes around these phrases. She avoids aggressively seeking corporate sponsorships for fear of winding up as an event planner, a title she despises.
The bigger issue is Hughes’ growing realization that she has made Pink Link Project successful by every metric but one: its finances. The big events make money, but they’re a poor return on her investment. “That’s why I’ve got to try to figure out a better business model. Because the financials of these huge events are not particularly great, I think of them partially as branding opportunities for Pink Line Project”—a loss-leader for a more sustainable project down the road.
But there’s no going back, though: She received notice this month that she’s lost her Virginia state bar membership because she stopped paying her dues. She posted the notice on Facebook with a status update: “I’m officially an ex-lawyer!” What she’s planning next may not be The Pink Line Project at all. To help her build out her strategy, Hughes has enlisted a brain trust. Her new advisory board includes Scott Royster, a venture entrepreneur; Ted Bilich, whom she helped to launch Creative Arlington; and Steve Goldenberg, a photographer who started a business processing online college applications. By the beginning of next year, she plans to have a plan in place to relaunch her website, dispel any notion that she’s an event planner, and profit. “I don’t think it would be smart for me to get rid of Pink Line Project,” Hughes says, “but I could actually see it taking a smaller role.”
Ultimately, she says, she’d enjoy a job that allowed her to focus on her own art. “How can I get to the point,” she asks, “where I can do the very thing I’m sort of preaching to others?”
“I want people to stop thinking of me as a purveyor of objects. I’m not trying to sell anything,” Hughes says. “It’s not really about art and objects. In all parts of my life, I’m more of a collector of people. When something happens, when the right fit arrives, I know who I can call on.”