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Back in August, D.C. designer Chad Alan was just gushing about an upcoming exhibition of artist-made “funky furniture” at the beleaguered City Museum. Titled “D.C. as It Was, Is, and Could Be,” the show would riff on the notion of the year-old museum as the District’s “living room,” he explained.
The show was to feature 40-some furnishings and to raise money for Art-O-Matic 2004. Among the highlights, Alan first mentioned a peculiar end table, created by Jane Kerr. “The top of it is gonna be a slab of crack cocaine,” said Alan, the event’s co-chair, “and scribbled above that, the words, ‘The Bitch Set Me Up.’”
Real crack? “Uh, no,” he clarified. “But it’s a nice little ode to Marion Barry.”
Then there was Dana Ellyn Kaufman’s acrylic-painted floor pillows, Sweet Dreams and Real Nightmares, which caricature breast- and butt-cheek-baring prostitutes and their zoot-suited pimps. “High profile prosecution of high priced call girl rings make top news,” Kaufman explains on her Web site. “But, a drive down certain DC streets at night will show you the real story….children, drugs, violence, AIDS and the list goes on.”
Oh, and then there was Alan’s own artistic contribution: A 7-foot-long oak church pew decorated with pink, purple, and gold pillows. One depicts Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Another shows a mushroom cloud. And the pew itself features this 1986 quotation attributed to dearly departed comedian Bob Hope: “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS, but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.”
All edgy stuff for a furniture show. A bit too edgy for the City Museum.
On Oct. 2, organizers began setting up the exhibition on the museum’s first floor, with the show scheduled to open to the public on Oct. 5. But two days later—on the eve of the opening—museum officials ordered Alan & Co. to move all the items upstairs.
“The show is currently dismantled,” Alan informed the Washington City Paper late Monday night, “and it’s in question as to what’s going to happen to the pieces.”
Organizers blame the show’s dismantling on a number of issues: the lack of signage, for instance, and the heft and immobility of many pieces combined with spatial conflicts with other scheduled events. “It wasn’t really ready to open,” says museum Special Events Manager Elizabeth Dreux. But organizers were also told that some of the artwork was simply inappropriate for the museum.
“All this stuff would fly at a gallery,” says Art-O-Matic organizer and “funky furniture” liaison Jim Tretick. “The City Museum is a different kind of venue.”
PandaMania kicked off this past spring under the guise of promoting civic cheer. It was “all about doing what Pandas do best,” according to the project’s Web site. “Surprise you, lift your spirits, make you smile and bring something special to your day.”
But more than that, it was about bringing in bucks. Rolling out 150 painted polyurethane panda statues across town, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) made no secret of its wish to re-create the money-making magic of its “hugely successful” 2002 Party Animals campaign, which netted more than $1 million for the commission’s grants and arts-education programs.
But hawking donkeys and elephants is pretty easy in ever-political Washington. Pushing nonpartisan pandas is another story.
So now comes the moment of truth for the city’s latest animal-themed public-art project and fundraiser: the actual fundraising part.
Can PandaMania live up to the Party Animals’ high-revenue example? Or will it fall short—one final blow to a kitschy project marred by rampant vandalism and a high-profile pandanapping? Is this the end of colorful critter clutter along D.C. streetscapes?
On Saturday, Oct. 9, 41 of the 4-and-a-half-foot to 5-and-a-half-foot faux fauna will be sold to the higgest bidders in a “Giant Panda Live-Auction” at the Marriott Wardman Park, hosted by real-life fast-talker and former Virginia state champion auctioneer F.W. “Col. Bill” Billingsley. And another 108 pandas will follow in an eBay-style Internet-only auction.
The DCCAH expects that “500 people or more could participate in the auction,” according to a press release, and that some statues “could be sold for $10,000 or more.”
Or maybe less. Do I hear $500? Anyone?
A month ago, the DCCAH began accepting bids via the Internet. And at press time, there were zero takers for 10 of the bears. Thirteen had garnered only a single bid. And the two top bid-getters, Mary Stasek Johnson’s The Last Samurai Panda and Sharon Moody’s Celadon Panda, were up to only $1,400 and $1,350, respectively.
That’s not to say there’s been no interest, however: The online auction site had registered more than 100 hits on average per panda.
Lots of logged-on onlookers had gawked at Maggie O’Neill’s highly publicized Pandela Anderson, for instance—195 of them so far, in fact. But just one bid. Despite an initial $600 breast augmentation—complete with its own cleavage-drainage system, that is, a hole in her swimsuit allowing water to escape “so West Nile doesn’t develop,” O’Neill explains—bidding on the blond bear was up to only $950.
That’s less than Raphael Pantalone’s PandArt!, which had attracted six bidders and is now up to $1,050, despite having had his face bashed in earlier this summer with the torn-off bristle end of his own polymer paintbrush.
Typically, such extensive damage “diminishes the value” of an artwork, says D.C. fine-arts appraiser Randall C. Hunt—even after restoration.
And other previously bashed-up bears haven’t been so lucky. Catherine Hillis’ ode to Groucho Marx, Ti-Bet Your Life, now on his third pair of eyeglasses, had attracted no bidders. Francisco Quintanilla’s Booted—make that de-booted—had garnered only the opening $500 bid. And Greg Scott’s Jazz-E-Panda, whose left arm was nearly ripped off, got just two bids, up to $550.
The DCCAH is hoping that between now and Saturday, D.C. PandaManiacs will succumb to bamboo-fed exuberance and bid up those prices. It’s not as if there isn’t precedent: One starred-and-striped elephant in the 2002 Party Animals auction, Di Stovall’s America the Beautiful, went for a whopping $25,000.
That’s not altogether unreasonable, says Ted Cooper, fine-arts appraiser and director of Adams Davidson Galleries in Georgetown. “Money spent on art these days is at such a crazy level,” notes Cooper, citing Sotheby’s record-breaking $104 million sale of Pablo Picasso’s painting Boy With a Pipe this past spring. “You know, $10,000 for a panda…That’s equivalent to a lesser artist’s lithography in an edition of 200,” he says. Or, in other words, peanuts to affluent art collectors.
“Buy one and stick it in the garden outside,” Cooper says. “It’s something to talk about with your houseguests.”
Perhaps, but the conversation may feel a bit dated. “Two years ago, it was something new,” says Quintanilla. “This time around, the citizens of the District have become more jaded toward this kind of project.”
WISH BREW WERE HERE
Back in February, the U Street corridor gained another dingy rock venue, DC9, offering “music for the 21st Century,” and a bar menu for the choosy beer drinker: 19 varieties, ranging from cheap domestic Budweiser ($3.75) to midrange microbrew Flying Dog ($5) to high-end European import Chimay ($17). All in bottles.
But this summer, DC9 patrons cried out for something more—er, less, as it were: cheaper beer. In a can. “[C]ome on,” wrote one poster to the club’s Web site, “can’t we get something for $3 or less?”
Not an unusual request: These days, even upscale clubs stock low-end brews, catering to hipsters’ affinity for brands in retro-look cans. “I’m still baffled by the whole cheap-beer phenomenon,” says DC9 manager, co-owner, and part-time DJ Bill Spieler. “It amazes me, for instance, that Helix on Rhode Island Avenue carries Pabst Blue Ribbon. It just doesn’t go with the décor.”
Then again, DC9 is nothing like Helix: Dirt-cheap swill would seem right at home in such a dimly lit dive. So Spieler polled patrons for their picks, putting the issue to an online vote: “Which can BEER would you like to have at DC9?”
After a monthlong election process—with votes cast for every inexpensive brand of watery suds from bitter Busch to the ironically named Miller High Life—the results were tallied. And with a whopping 12 votes, or 35 percent, Iron City, Pittsburgh Brewing Co.’s signature lager, was declared the winner.
Spieler pledged to give the people what they wanted. On July 16, he announced: “Iron City should be in by next week.”
Twelve weeks later, however, Iron City still hasn’t come in. Turns out that while DC9ers were voting, D.C. distributors stopped buying from Pittsburgh Brewing. The closest distributor who still carries it is Larkin Wholesale in Hagerstown, Md. “They only deliver as far as Frederick,” Spieler says—nearly 45 miles away from DC9.
Never mind the cost and logistical issues involved with regularly making such long-distance beer runs. There’s also the sticky matter of the District’s alcoholic-beverage regulations.
“I don’t know if I legally can go outside the District, pick up beer, and bring it in,” says Spieler. And in fact, he can’t. Well, not unless he plans on bringing it in one gallon at a time—particularly tricky when dealing with 12-ounce cans.
According to D.C. Code, under the “Unlawful importation of beverages” section: “Only a licensee under a manufacturer’s, wholesaler’s, or common carrier’s license, or retailer’s license under a validly issued import permit shall transport, import, bring, or ship or cause to be transported, imported, brought, or shipped into the District from outside the District any wines, spirits, or beer in a quantity in excess of one gallon at any one time.”
What’s that? 10 cans? One more beer and DC9, armed with only a nightclub license, could face “forfeiture of the beverages transported” and “a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for not more than 6 months.”
In light of such stiff penalties, Spieler would rather wait while Pittsburgh Brewing works on a new distribution deal to bring Iron City back to the District. And brewery spokesperson Jeff Vavro is hopeful that D.C. suds hounds could be sucking ’em down before the end of October.
In the meantime, DC9 patrons must make do with second-place vote-getter Schlitz, “the Beer that made Milwaukee Famous,” for $2.75. “It’s a pretty good seller,” says bartender Mike Dugan. On a good night, he says, DC9 hawks three to four dozen cans of the stuff. Or several gallons. “People are usually pretty stoked when they see it’s the cheap beer.”
Not as cheap as it is just around the corner, however: Rival venue Velvet Lounge sells the same Schlitz cans for just two bucks.
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