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D.C. art collector Philip Barlow had “no burning desire to become a curator,” he says. But he became one anyway. Just to make a statement.
“There are a lot of things about the way the arts community functions in D.C. that bother me,” says Barlow, 44.
One thing in particular: those darn donkey and elephant statues—and, more recently, pandas—mass-produced by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH).
Hundreds of area artists opted to paint the life-size polyurethane critters, which lined D.C. sidewalks in 2002 and this past summer. But to Barlow, the city’s Party Animals and PandaMania public-art projects both dumped creativity in favor of uniformity. “Here you have to take a shape—that is, a donkey, an elephant, or a panda—and you have to do something with it,” he says. The inspiration, therefore, doesn’t come from the actual artist.
And the results, Barlow adds, are less than inspiring: “I didn’t see many of them as works of art.”
So Barlow set out to take a stand. Wooed by Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran (WPAC) Executive Director Annie Adjchavanich, Barlow agreed to head up Options 2005, the nonprofit’s biennial exhibition of emerging artists.
Under one condition, that is: “I made it very clear to them that anybody who participated in the Party Animals or PandaMania I would not consider for the show,” says Barlow.
That’s right: Under Barlow’s leadership, donkey decorators and panda and pachyderm painters would be blacklisted—which was all well and good, as far as Adjchavanich and the WPAC board of directors were concerned. At least at first.
After all, Barlow was merely being selective about the artwork. That’s what curators are supposed to do. That’s why the WPAC tapped him for the job. “I know he chooses carefully when he buys artwork,” says Adjchavanich. “He’s got a good eye, and I like the fact that Philip has strong opinions.”
If only he weren’t so strong about those opinions.
After Barlow divulged his plans to stiff the animal artists in a Sept. 23 Washington Post article, Adjchavanich issued her own statement on Oct. 15, announcing that Barlow had been fired. “The leadership of the WPACorcoran believes that Mr. Barlow’s public statements regarding his selection of artists for the OPTIONS exhibition and the exclusion of artists based on their own statements of expression via the Party Animals or Panda Mania projects has irreparably compromised his credibility as curator of this exhibition,” she said in the statement.
She went on to charge Barlow with violating “basic ethical norms of curatorial practice” and the Corcoran’s long-winded policy on “Freedom of Artistic Expression,” which favors the “unhindered exchanges of ideas, however unpopular.”
Barlow had known his stance would stir up controversy. But he had thought he had the WPAC’s support. “That’s why I had insisted on meeting with the board of the WPAC,” he says. “I wanted to let ’em know what they’re getting into.”
The politics behind the curator’s dismissal are by no means monolithic. The WPAC, which receives no direct funding from the city, didn’t have a problem with Barlow’s dissing the public-art projects. But the Corcoran itself, which stands to benefit from D.C. Council’s passage of a $40-million tax-financing deal to construct its long-awaited Frank O. Gehry–designed wing, did have a problem.
Corcoran President and Director David C. Levy heard personally from DCCAH Chair Dorothy McSweeny about Barlow’s comments. “She was kind of unhappy about it,” he says. And Levy, in turn, called up Adjchavanich.
“You can’t just exclude a category of people from an exhibition on the basis of their participating in an activity unrelated to the exhibition,” says Levy.
Adjchavanich says a lip zipper would have saved Barlow’s job. “Most curators wouldn’t be so naive as to empty the contents of their curatorial vision into a reporter’s notebook,” she says.
SHOW ME THE MANET
If you’ve ever dropped by D.C.’s Continental lounge or Shake Your Booty shoe store—or just visited the Black Cat’s ladies’ room—then you’re already familiar with the artistic stylings of Kayti Didriksen.
A muralist and faux finisher, Didriksen and her Offbeat Interiors partner, Stacey Matarrese, have been “infusing modern color and design” into local venues, according to their Web site.
But two weeks ago, images of Didriksen’s artistry began popping up in places outside the District. Outside the Beltway, even. Far, far outside the Beltway.
On Oct. 9, a photograph of Didriksen’s recent painting Man of Leisure, King George went out over the Associated Press wire. The painting—which depicts President George W. Bush buck-naked, reclining on a chaise lounge, and attended to by a crown-carrying figure that resembles Vice President Dick Cheney—is a parody of Impressionist Edouard Manet’s infamous 1863 nude Olympia.
And it began appearing in newspapers nationwide, from California’s Fresno Bee to Florida’s Ocala Star-Banner. And around the world, from the China Daily to India’s Hindustan Times. Yes, even in taboo-ridden India, papers still printed Didriksen’s Bush in the buff—albeit substantially cropped, so only the chest and head of the cartoonish commander-in-chief were showing.
Oh, and it’s on TV, from the BBC to MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann. A quick Google search of her full name now results in more than 2,000 hits—predominantly, the same AP story reprinted over and over by various news outlets, blogs, and other Web sites.
“All of a sudden, the whole world knows my name,” says Didriksen, 32, of Columbia Heights.
Eager to profile as the preternatural artist-in-agony, Didriksen says, “I’m not really sure that I have actually made a piece of art that I think is significant enough for the world to check out.”
The painting, suitable for over-the-mantle hanging, was just one of some 40 works of “funky furniture” barred from display at the City Museum of Washington due to some of the pieces’ racy or controversial themes (Show & Tell, 10/10).
But news outlets tended to single out Didriksen’s piece in their coverage of the shuttered exhibit: “Brush with Bush in the buff,” read the Calcutta Telegraph. “Nude Bush painting ducks for cover,” according to the Times of India.
And in many accounts, Didriksen is the only artist from the furniture show to be mentioned at all. And that’s not gone unnoticed, either. “According to the news, there’s only one painting,” notes event co-chair Chad Alan. “That artist is getting a good run for her money,” adds Leslie Shapiro, co-chair of the City Museum’s board of directors.
Not financially, though. At least not yet. Despite all the buzz, Didriksen hasn’t received one offer from someone looking to buy ol’ Dubya in the buff. Neither has Arlington’s Museum of Modern ARF, where the painting is presently housed until it moves on to the sprawling Art-O-Matic expo later this month.
All the “funky furniture” pieces were intended to be sold at auction, with proceeds benefiting Art-O-Matic. Prior to the news blitz, Didriksen wanted to start the bidding on her work at $1,000. But Modern ARF director John Aaron is encouraging her to “bump it up” closer to $10,000.
“It could go through the roof, given all the publicity,” says Aaron.
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