In the lounge of the Millennium Arts Center (MAC), a haven for artists in Southwest, Bill Wooby fires up a space heater shaped like a jet engine and sits back. MAC resides in the hulking old Randall School building, whose original structure dates back to 1876. It’s New Year’s Eve, and most of the 150,000-square-foot facility is refrigerator-cold because Wooby’s turned off the heat to save on utility bills. After four years of tenancy, he just started paying them last spring, forced by a court order. He’s never paid his rent.

Wooby, who’s 56 and runs MAC, is gray with exhaustion, his long bearded face looking ascetic above a deep purple shirt. Maybe you’d be tired, too, if you had his problems—such as an eviction notice hanging over your head. And District building and fire inspectors nipping at your heels. And ongoing bankruptcy hearings lasting a year. And people who thought you were crazy and a control freak and maybe even a thief. And a dream of running D.C.’s biggest multiarts facility that was falling apart around you like the crumbling and maybe dangerous building that houses it.

Just five minutes before, Wooby was riffing on his newest plans for MAC—an international presence, partnerships with foreign embassies—the ideas outrunning logic but as seductive as his original, never-built vision for MAC, the one with the film theaters and studio apartments, the restaurant and the recording studio, and the dancers and painters and glass blowers and mezzo-sopranos working and collaborating under the same leaky roof. “The plans were huge,” says one former MAC tenant. “It was a grandiose moment—everybody was listening to him.”

And why wouldn’t they? Wooby was the only person in D.C. audacious enough to start something like MAC. He was also probably one of the last people who should have been running it. Among Wooby’s mistakes: He signed an unworkable lease for the school building with the city, then withheld his rent and utility payments to the tune of $750,000. He ran afoul of the Corcoran Gallery of Art during merger negotiations. And he got into a feud with Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose that has been followed by waves of inspections and that eviction notice, which has frightened the center’s tenants and paralyzed its operations. “The last thing anybody could accuse Bill Wooby of is being a sophisticated businessman,” says his former lawyer, Eugene Lawson.

Give Wooby credit, though, for he also started MAC in a forlorn neighborhood before the gentrifiers wanted to be there, and now Randall’s assessed value has skyrocketed to $16 million amid starry-eyed new plans to redevelop Southwest. MAC has provided cheap studios to dozens of artists who were otherwise getting priced out of the city. And the center—however scruffy and hand-to-mouth—has always held the promise of becoming the kind of large multiarts and exhibition complex that other major urban centers take for granted but the District has never had.

But when MAC showed its first signs of trouble, the city did next to nothing. And now, after showering tens of millions on powerhouse theater companies, the city seems hellbent on shutting MAC down.

And nearly everybody’s blaming Bill Wooby.

Wooby says he fell in love with Randall the first time he saw it, in 1997, although it may be hard for a nonartist to see why. The two-story building at 65 I St. SW, one of about 40 surplus D.C. properties that the District decided to sell in 1996, is a dilapidated agglomeration of tack-ons to the original 128-year-old structure in a nondescript neighborhood just south of the humming Southeast-Southwest Freeway. With boarded windows and endless fluorescent-lit halls, Randall is squeamishly depressing in the way only old schools can be.

Wooby saw nothing but promise. “It was perfect for what we wanted to be—an umbrella organization for arts projects and artists,” he says. “Our model was closer to P.S.1 Contemporary Arts Center [a New York arts organization that’s partnered with the Museum of Modern Art and has studios, exhibitions, and education programs], but that was only part of what I wanted to do. We were taking pieces from everywhere.”

MAC typifies Wooby’s art-impresario career in Washington—good will mixed with opportunism, trouble, and a cat’s supply of lives. In 1987, he opened the Collector, a restaurant/art gallery at 1630 U St. NW, which artists still remember fondly as a meeting place and watering hole. Wooby also joined in the local protests against the infamous June 1989 decision by the Corcoran to cancel a planned exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.

The Collector closed in 1989, a victim of slow foot traffic. Wooby also admits to troubles with the Internal Revenue Service over the establishment’s finances. (He resurrected the Collector in 1992 in the Dupont Plaza Hotel, only to shut it again in 1996, when the hotel was sold.) Within a year, though, he was running Art on the 7th Floor, an art bazaar at the Washington Design Center, at 300 D St. SW.

His ventures brought him into contact with dozens of artists whose studios were getting pushed out of downtown and elsewhere in the District by rising rents and development. And filling their space needs became an integral part of Wooby’s project. “MAC is carrying on an arts scene in the District, if you will, that now pretty much no longer exists,” says Richard Dana, a painter and MAC tenant.

It took Wooby two years and countless neighborhood meetings, but in February 2000 he finally secured a 10-year lease-to-buy agreement for Randall. The deal yielded the old school building but also a big mess: asbestos in the attic, semi-shag carpeting in the classrooms, lead paint on the stair railings, and classroom after classroom stacked floor to ceiling with surplus furniture from the 17 years the District’s Department of Human Services had used the building as office and storage space. Wooby cleaned and painted and ripped out, but he says the building still needs more than $1 million worth of work.

Artists, though, are famously unfussy about accommodations, and MAC’s tenants, who pay between $175 and $1,000 a month for their 200- to 1,100-square-foot studios, think the building is heaven. “It’s the best place I’ve ever had,” says painter and MAC tenant Betsy Stewart. “It’s large, bright, convenient, and cheap. There’s a very professional atmosphere—people work hard here….And to have a studio in Washington so close to all the galleries is just ideal.” Wooby allows the artists to customize their spaces, and permits creative sprawl: Dan Steinhilber, for instance, colonized at least three unused rooms in preparation for his recent “Directions—Dan Steinhilber” show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Months after opening, MAC was stuck in neutral in the drive toward Wooby’s arts supervenue, with spaces rented to more than a dozen artists and a few arts nonprofits, but most of the building still unutilized. And in Randall’s old gym, there was an encampment of homeless folks, funded by the Department of Human Services and officially known as the Randall Transitional Center. The facility had been there since the late ’80s and offered both 170 emergency beds and intensive transitional services such as counseling for job seekers and alcohol and drug abusers.

The shelter was the main drawback of the lease that Wooby had signed with D.C. Public Schools. On the face of it, the agreement looked great for MAC: Wooby would run a multiarts facility in exchange for phased-in rent (from $60,000 the first year to $300,000 after Year 5) and an option to buy the building within 10 years for about $5 million.

Wooby and Lawson say officials at the schools agency assured him that the shelter would be moving soon. But the lease directed Wooby to get rent in the interim from Catholic Charities, which ran the shelter. The shelter, though, was an appendage of the city’s famously ill-managed social-services network, and the quest for rent payments took Wooby through the alphabet soup of D.C. agencies.

According to Lawson, a partner at the Arlington firm of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, negotiations with the city over rent for the gym never got off the ground—hostage to D.C.’s bureaucratic inertia and a big disagreement over a fair rate. “In the real world, this deal would have been done in a half-hour by the principals,” says Lawson.

With the 10,000-square-foot gym space not producing revenue, Wooby says he had no choice but to withhold payment of MAC’s own rent and utilities. “I wanted every square foot of this building to pay for itself—that’s the only way I was doing this,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a nonprofit that had a fundraiser every 15 minutes.” The city, though, didn’t seem to notice the missing payments, even after Wooby protested by turning off the gas and electricity to the shelter for a few days in July 2000.

Throughout its existence, MAC’s balance sheets have run fairly close to even, with small surpluses in later years that are not out of line for the average nonprofit organization. But Wooby’s rent was quickly accelerating according to the terms of the lease, and he would have to find a partner soon if he wanted MAC to grow.

Wooby has long blamed the shelter’s presence for scaring away the Washington Opera, which he says at one point was very interested in using the Randall auditorium and gym as a permanent rehearsal facility and costume shop. WashOp did rehearse in the Randall auditorium for a month in October 2000. According to WashOp spokesperson Jennifer Johnston, however, the Randall space was too small and “never a serious consideration” for the company, which moved to rehearsal space near the Takoma Metro station in fall 2001. By late 2000, Wooby says, he already knew that a partner was a long shot and that MAC was in trouble. “But I had to take a chance,” he says.

The WashOp story is one of several from Wooby that raise more questions than answers. For instance, he says he’s made substantial donations to MAC out of proceeds from America Online stock that he cashed out near the top of the market in the late ’90s. “Hundreds of thousands,” says Wooby of his stock killing. “I was very lucky.”

But Jerry Lopez, an accountant at Kronzek & Co. who has prepared MAC’s tax filings since the center began, says that Wooby has lent and advanced $54,015 to MAC—80 percent before 2001, and almost all of which has been reimbursed to Wooby. (Wooby maintains that he donated much more, but he refuses to name a figure.)

The real problem with MAC, according to many past and present tenants, is that Wooby failed to execute his own dream scenarios or even to lead what MAC quickly settled into: rented space to artists and arts nonprofits; a few visual-art exhibitions a year; and the Meltdown Glass Studio, which shared revenue with MAC but was run separately by artists Tim Tate and Kari Minnick. (Tate left MAC last summer to start the new Washington Glass School.)

“I think he had a great idea,” says one current tenant. “He tried to do it all himself, and he got burnt out.” Indeed, MAC’s staff has seldom exceeded three people: Wooby, who takes no salary; Bob Carter, a volunteer living on a military pension who has worked with Wooby since the original Collector; and Georgi Deneau, MAC’s assistant director, who runs the office, does the books, and receives a $2,000-a-month salary “when she gets paid,” says Wooby.

“Look, I’m dyslexic—I write backwards,” says Wooby. “I’m not going to touch financial records. But to do what I wanted to do, yes, I had the management skills.”

Others speak of Wooby’s capricious decision-making. “He got more secretive,” says a former tenant about Wooby’s moods in recent years. “Screaming and screaming and running up and down the halls. One minute, he’s a sweet little elf. Then, the next moment, you don’t know who you’re talking to.”

Rumors are also flying in the D.C. arts scene about what Wooby has done with the rent money that he collects from his tenants, who are aware that the money isn’t paying for MAC’s own rent. Here’s what the record shows: While MAC has collected an annual average of almost $138,000 in rent from artists for the last three years, its profit-and-loss statements and tax reports show that revenue is matched by the expenses of maintaining a building in decline. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or start crying,” says Deneau, recalling questions about the rent. “Everything has gone back into the arts center. There isn’t a penny left over.”

Both ingredients of Wooby’s personality—the generous arts altruist and the mercurial, detail-averse flake—came to a boil in his protracted and ultimately disastrous merger talks with the Corcoran. By early 2002, the Corcoran needed storage space and a transitional home for its School of Art and Design, which would be displaced by the construction of the Corcoran’s planned new Frank Gehry–designed wing; Wooby was still looking for a partner for MAC.

In an April 1, 2002, letter to Wooby, Corcoran President and Director David Levy proposed to divide the Randall building’s space roughly in half between them, with the Corcoran plowing $12 million into renovations and a panoply of new facilities for everything from welding to papermaking.

Levy also proposed that the Corcoran and MAC merge, that the Corcoran assume MAC’s liabilities, and that Wooby continue to run MAC as an independent contractor. Levy’s letter was ebullient. “What a great artist complex this would be!” he wrote. “I think it would be unique and unmatched by any artist’s space in America!”

But even Levy’s abiding enthusiasm for the project couldn’t keep the negotiations from deteriorating. MAC’s negotiators—which now included pro bono lawyers from the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter—say the Corcoran flexed its muscles. “It was obviously a David-and-Goliath situation,” says Lawson. “The Corcoran acted like a big bully from Day One, saying ‘We have the power to get what we want, and you better get out of the way.’”

Corcoran officials had been talking about their plans for Randall with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his administration as well as Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, whose ward includes the Corcoran, and Ward 6’s Ambrose, whose newly redistricted territory included Randall. Wooby and his lawyers say Ambrose and Evans came down hard on MAC at an Aug. 8, 2002, meeting. A lawyer for MAC recalls: “[Evans and Ambrose] told us that we had to do a deal with [the Corcoran] or they would shut us down….The threat was more on the inspector side—‘We’re going to send people down there to shut you down from the regulatory side.’”

Evans and Ambrose deny making such threats. “At no time was I in a meeting where anybody said, ‘We’re going to send in the inspectors and shut you down,’” says Evans. Ambrose concurs: “I’m sure that I said, ‘Look Bill, there are building-code violations in there that must be taken care of…because there are 150 people a night sleeping in that building.’”

The inspectors arrived at Randall on Aug. 28, 2002, and have been back at least eight times. Among their findings: missing fire doors, office equipment obstructing corridors, no working sprinkler or fire detectors, and no certificate of occupancy for the building. Ambrose says she’s called for inspections of Randall only twice, and she insists she doesn’t have a vendetta against Wooby. But she makes no bones about backing the Corcoran. “Bill Wooby is a bad tenant for the city—he hasn’t paid his rent,” says Ambrose. “From my first conversation with the Corcoran, it was my understanding that the Corcoran wanted to partner with Bill Wooby and make Wooby whole in terms of his lease obligations, and that struck me as an eminently good solution to the use of that building that would benefit the community enormously.”

Soon after the inspections began, Wooby and Ambrose also got into a nasty confrontation in front of the Harbor Police station at 500 Water St. SW. Wooby says he told Ambrose: “Get off my back and I’ll get off yours—and you don’t want me on yours.” Ambrose, who has called the confrontation “scary,” says it had nothing to do with the continuing inspections.

“Having seen Bill do that,” says a former MAC tenant of Wooby’s outbursts, “I can just imagine what it was like with Ambrose.”

Wooby and the Corcoran finally signed a 60-day letter of agreement in October 2002. The Corcoran’s offer seemed more than generous to Wooby and Deneau: $200,000 in back pay, plus three years of salary for Wooby ($90,000 annually) and Deneau ($50,000 annually) to continue running MAC in renovated office space at the facility. The new glass facility would be named after Wooby, and wall plaques would honor his work for MAC. Existing artist-tenants would be allowed to stay, although perhaps not in their original spaces and at slightly elevated rents. Wooby would set up a new nonprofit that would make up to $5,000,000 from any sale of the building. And—perhaps most important—the Corcoran agreed to assume MAC’s liabilities to the city, which had mounted by January 2003 to about $735,000, including $318,000 in unpaid utility bills.

The narrative of the agreement’s collapse is a Rashomon of recrimination. Wooby says he never went back on the deal, even though he didn’t think the Corcoran was offering him enough money or really protecting his tenants. “They never had any plans to keep the nonprofits or make it a truly multiarts center,” he says.

The Corcoran’s lawyer in the talks, Richard Newman of the D.C. firm Arent Fox, says that Wooby and Levy fell out over the Corcoran’s unwillingness—and inability—to get liability insurance to keep the tenants in an unsafe Randall during the planned renovations. “Bill was trying, to his credit, to find a place for the artists to work,” Newman says. “We had a deal but for…these building-safety issues.”

Levy, however, contradicts Newman and completely blames MAC. He says the real reason the Corcoran pulled back was a Jan. 21, 2003, city notice of default and intent to evict sent to MAC that listed MAC’s real liabilities—more than twice what Wooby had led the Corcoran to believe, Levy says. Levy also maintains that Wooby had misled him into believing Wooby had invested $200,000 of his own money in MAC. And, he says, Wooby had started behaving bizarrely. “I began to feel that I was not getting straight info,” says Levy, “and it made me very nervous, because I have responsibilities to the institution, the board [of trustees for the Corcoran], and various people.”

Horse hockey, says Lawson. “[The Corcoran] came into our meetings having had meetings with the city about what was owed, having met with the city council about possible waivers, having had meetings about code violations,” he says. “They were the big boy here….For them to turn around and say Bill was springing things on them, that means they were not doing their homework.”

“We took their rent numbers,” counters Levy, who insists that they were inaccurate.

At a meeting at the Corcoran on Jan. 22, 2003—a day after the eviction notice—Levy, Newman, and some members of the Corcoran’s board of trustees told MAC that the letter of agreement was off the table. Six days later, Wooby’s lawyers received a new offer from the Corcoran: $100,000 or $150,000 (depending on whom you talk to) for Wooby to walk away from the building. Stunned, Wooby rejected the offer out of hand, and the two sides never resumed face-to-face discussions. Levy says the Corcoran is still interested in Randall, although he denies cutting a deal with the city for it and says he’s “pretty much” through talking to Wooby.

The pissing match between MAC and the Corcoran has continued for a year. Among Wooby’s many accusations: (a) Levy is conspiring with Ambrose and the city to oust MAC; (b) Levy is telling other potential MAC partners that the Corcoran will soon get the building; and (c) Levy is spreading rumors that MAC lacks insurance for Randall. (It has multi-million-dollar fire and liability coverage.) Levy, in turn, charges Wooby with poisoning the minds of MAC’s artist-tenants against the Corcoran. He sent the artists two letters in early February 2003, assuring them that they would have space in a renovated Randall. “Somehow or other, [the artists] can’t take yes for an answer,” says Levy.

The tenants and other local art professionals say that Levy has long been rude and dismissive toward local artists—traits that made it difficult for anyone at MAC to trust him. “Levy took the measure of [Wooby],” says painter Dana. “And being a rather arrogant fellow, filled with too much hubris, he felt he could squash Bill, could get it all for himself.”

Throughout Wooby’s fights with the city and the Corcoran, MAC tenants have gotten familiar with city inspectors, whose visits have continued. “Here I am trying to do good things in the community, and I didn’t know whether we were going to get shut down the next day,” says Jeff Campbell, who directs Hungry for Music, a nonprofit MAC tenant that distributes donated musical instruments to disadvantaged children. “It’s like they’re fucking with you.”

“The fire marshals came and threatened to put a chain across the door,” says Barbara Kerne, a printmaker and MAC tenant. “There was a point in October [2003] when our attorneys said if we needed anything in the short term, we should take it out of our studios.”

And with all the interruptions, MAC’s tenants can barely keep track of all the legal wrangling over their decrepit home. MAC filed for bankruptcy on Feb. 20 of last year to protect itself against eviction, and it has sued the city for back rent for the shelter. The city, in turn, has sued MAC for back utilities, 20 percent of which MAC must pay under an interim ruling by Judge S. Martin Teel of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia.

Both sides have also petitioned for the right to evict the other, and Teel is expected to rule shortly on the shelter rent issue. To top off the legal circus, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs served Wooby on Oct. 3 with a notice to discontinue using the premises because of unresolved code, zoning, and certificate-of-occupancy violations. “We’re seeing a classic squeeze play,” says a lawyer for MAC.

MAC’s tenants have largely been put in their position by a crisis of affordable work space for artists in the District. And invisible throughout MAC’s ordeal has been the city’s arts agency, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. A decade after gentrification began forcing individual artists to leave the city, the commission still hasn’t developed a policy on how to stem the flow.

Tony Gittens, director of the agency and the mayor’s official adviser on the arts, acknowledges the problem. But although Gittens has inquired into MAC’s status, he says his commission can do very little about it.

“The issues are beyond us—tax issues and a bunch of other issues we’re not suited to be involved in,” Gittens says. “If it had been a shoe factory, it would have been the same situation.” Gittens says that reserving space for artists is now largely up to the District’s developers and that his agency has at last set up a committee to recommend solutions.

“The commission becomes irrelevant if we don’t have any artists,” counters Michael Berman, director of the Downtown Artists Coalition. “They don’t deal with studio spaces—they just want to do [popular public-art projects] Party Animals and panda bears.” Adds Judy Jashinsky, a painter and MAC tenant: “The major money [for D.C. arts] will always go to institutions rather than small nonprofits. We’re always so happy with the crumbs we get.”

But it’s more than crumbs that are at stake with MAC now, since an October 2003 District reappraisal of Randall’s building and lot put their value at approximately $16 million—a threefold rise since Wooby moved in. After years of foot-dragging, the city has assured Ambrose it will relocate the Randall Transitional Center by April 1. The city’s development boom has finally reached MAC’s corner of the world: Nearby Arena Stage has planned a $100 million theater renovation; the city is sketching a redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront; and the art-rich Rubell family has bought the Best Western Capitol Skyline hotel down the block with plans for exhibition space there.

Suddenly, Randall looks like a hot property. Even D.C. school-board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz cited the rising value of Randall, in a February 2002 letter to Tim Dimond, then-director of the city’s Office of Property Management. In asking Dimond to evict MAC immediately so that the school district could sell the building, Cafritz wrote: “We must make certain…that the children of D.C. are not short-changed by giving this building to the Corcoran for any amount less than a [real-estate services firm such as] Cushman & Wakefield could sell it for on the commercial market.”

A hot rumor around town is that Wooby is now holding out for maximum return. Wooby denies he’s in MAC for the money, although both he and Ward 2’s Evans say that the Office of Property Management offered Wooby $1 million in November to leave the building—a figure Wooby says he rejected.

“I never though of it as a real-estate deal—as a valuable piece of property,” says Wooby. “We’ve had tons of developers come to us, and I’ve turned them all down, because they wanted to tear [the building] down.” But MAC has already filed a motion in bankruptcy court to assign its lease to Jeffrey Epperson, a local real-estate developer. Wooby’s lawyers say MAC would sublet a portion of Randall from Epperson, allowing him to find an arts tenant for the rest of the building. (Deneau confirms that Epperson made a $120,000 contribution to MAC at the beginning of 2003 to put toward rent and utilities.)

Evans, who says he was once MAC’s biggest supporter, is torn about any thought of buying out Wooby. “I find it a little appalling that Bill could walk away with $1 million to $2 million in his pocket,” says Evans. “But Bill’s attorney had made some reference about possibly accepting a buyout, and I said, ‘Buy him out! It’s a lot cheaper to buy him out than it is to continue litigating.’”

In fact, if there is a driving force behind the city’s thrust to evict MAC, it’s Evans. “Should [the facility] be for Bill, the Corcoran, the city—or maybe the neighborhood?” he says, stretching the last word to the syllabic breaking point for emphasis.

The artists at MAC are waiting for the sword to fall, one way or the other. “These are established Washington artists,” says painter Stewart of her fellow MAC tenants. “A few did the Party Animals project….I don’t know where we’ll go [if MAC closes]. To worse neighborhoods or out of the city.”

Meanwhile, Wooby says he’s been turning away potential tenants and exhibitors because of the uncertainty. If MAC survives, he says, he says he’d like to run it for another six months or a year, then move on. About the project itself, he vacillates between wistfulness and regret.

“Lots of people in this town didn’t do anything,” he says. “At least I tried….The developers in this city are the visionaries, and they’re the ones who run the city. Other cities let arts people take over abandoned buildings for a dollar.”

“‘He made an arts center work for four years with no money,’” Wooby continues, as if writing his own epitaph. “But not doing anything for the last 12 months is driving me crazy.”

Some of Wooby’s friends are worried about him. Cathy Ehrman, who sits on the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, remembers getting a call from Wooby last fall.

“I didn’t get to the phone fast enough,” Ehrman says. “I go to retrieve my messages, and I hear Bill saying, ‘I’ve just called to tell you that I’m at wit’s end, and I’m at the Duke Ellington Bridge and I’m jumping…!

“It scared the shit out of me,” she adds. “And I called and called, and then I finally got him, and he said he was just kidding.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.