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Dogs in spacesuits, photographed by a renowned artist and hanging in the Metro station nearest the National Air and Space Museum? Launch this puppy of an art project now, right?
Oh, no. Not when the city gets involved.
In early 2001, artist William Wegman had just finished photographing his trademark Weimaraners in authentic NASA spacesuits for an agency-sponsored mural. When it turned out that not all of the compositions the New York–based artist created for the project were used, NASA Art Director Bert Ulrich offered the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) two of the leftovers: Ready and Howdy, a sugar-sweet pair that together make the dogs look as if they’re gazing at each other through a spacecraft’s portholes.
The DCCAH in turn approached Metro, and the commission and NASA agreed to spend an estimated $80,000 to turn the photos into 10-foot-diameter porcelain-enamel murals and install them above facing exits at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Metro’s board gave the project an immediate thumbs-up. And everybody involved—including the artist and his wife and gallerist, Christine Burgin—says they felt weightless with happiness.
But over two-and-a-half years later, the Metro versions of Ready and Howdy still haven’t been fabricated. And surprisingly, the issue hasn’t been money: The funding was long ago earmarked by the DCCAH and NASA, and Wegman asked for only a token fee of $3,000.
Instead, according to Michael McBride, manager of Metro’s Art in Transit program, the sticking point has been the DCCAH’s inability to coordinate a contract that could meet Wegman’s expectations for quality. Though Wegman won’t be making the murals himself—the Tumwater, Wash., firm Winsor Fireform LLC has been tapped for the work—the artist wants “to retain a very high level of quality control,” says McBride.
“The Wegmans would be concerned that the piece is duplicated to a standard that is consistent with the original work,” McBride says. “I think the commission is trying to be cooperative, but it’s probably new territory for them.”
DCCAH Art in Public Places Coordinator Sherry Schwechten blames the delay on the difficulty in getting approval from all the appropriate D.C. agencies for a “nonstandard” contract with an artist who isn’t fabricating his own work. Burgin agrees, adding, “There were never any deadlines, so none of us rushed, and it got stuck on the back burner.”
“Everything is [now] moving along swimmingly,” she says.
But the light-years wait just to OK a new contract has frustrated Ulrich and McBride. “This is the longest delay we’ve had on a [NASA] mural project,” Ulrich says. “We wrote a letter to [the DCCAH] asking what the heck is going on….It’s a wonderful gift for the city. To have somebody of the caliber of the Wegmans doing a mural installation, it’s a rarity.”
McBride says DCCAH Executive Director Tony Gittens has told him that Ready and Howdy are now slated for installation in September 2004, more than three years after Metro gave the project the green light.
“Unfortunately,” says McBride, sighing.
Wanna sue that bar owner who stiffed your band? You might want hold off for just a bit.
Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA), which has referred thousands of local artists to pro bono legal help since 1983, has just started accepting new cases again after a two-month hiatus caused by a funding shortfall. The deficit has also forced the group to lay off its paid staff members.
“The past couple of years have been very tough on us financially,” says Carl Settlemyer, president of WALA’s board of trustees. The group has relied mostly on donations from law firms and individuals as well as membership dues, all of which fell off during the recent slackening of the economy. Settlemyer estimates the group’s deficit to be around $30,000, although he says new fundraising efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
“People don’t quite [understand the importance of] legal services for artists,” says Eric Easter, who was WALA’s executive director until leaving in October of last year. “The production of the art is always sexier than the life of the artist, so those organizations that help people produce the art get the money.”
Using a pool of about 350 volunteer lawyers, the nonprofit group holds arts-law clinics, helps arts organizations get tax-exempt status, and refers individuals for representation in cases from the mundane to the absurd—from garden-variety disputes with landlords to the case of the jewelry designer who tangled with Hasbro over her use of Scrabble pieces in bracelets.
Easter suspects that WALA’s very mission has actually worked against the organization financially. “People ‘graduate’ from WALA,” he says. “People who come there are at the cusp of success. Once [an arts organization] gets to $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue, they get a lawyer on their board, so they stop being members.”
At the moment, WALA is regrouping with an all-volunteer staff and will be targeting arts organizations for fresh donations. “We’re trying to bandage the wounds and move on,” says Settlemyer, who thinks a name change might help, too.
“When people hear ‘Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts,’” he says, “I think you could form a mental impression that we are admiring Rembrandts and harumphing into our brandy snifters over the latest Shakespeare production.” For the group’s new moniker, Settlemyer says he’s thinking of something a little less upper-crusty: “‘Washington Area Legal Services for the Arts’ or something like that.”
IF THE NAME FITS…
The first rule of PR: If your client has a past, admit it. Then start the snow machine.
At least the National Building Museum got the second part right. In its promotion of its new exhibition, Gil Garcetti’s “Symphony in Steel: Ironworkers and the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” the museum doesn’t mention that the artist also used to be Los Angeles County district attorney.
Holy Menendez brothers! The Gil Garcetti who masterminded the failed prosecution of O.J. Simpson for double murder in 1995? The Gil Garcetti whose agonized face we saw every night on the evening news for months?
Yup. So how did Garcetti the lawyer become Garcetti the photographer? Don’t ask the Building Museum: In its two-page, single-spaced press release for “Symphony in Steel,” it ignores both Garcetti’s legal history and his 35-year career as an amateur photographer.
Instead, the press release posits Garcetti as a guy who drove by the construction site of the celebrated Frank Gehry building in L.A. and then decided to come back and snap a few photos—which then somehow ended up in two new books, Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Frozen Music, as well as in the exhibition. You’d never even know that Garcetti’s work has been featured in four previous shows, including one at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
Building Museum spokesperson Jill Dixon says the museum is merely focusing on the work itself. “[His past] wasn’t something that was purposely left out,” she says, adding that the show’s bio for Garcetti does touch on his previous life. For his part, Garcetti says that if a recent guest lecture at the Harvard Design School is any indication, he’s finally overcome the “double-edged sword” of his past celebrity. “I didn’t get one question about the Menendez brothers, O.J., or Michael Jackson,” he says. “When I walked out, I said, ‘I have finally turned a corner—I am now a photographer.’”
Of course, there is another selling point for “Symphony of Steel”—to Washingtonians, at least: The Disney building looks much like the architect’s curvilinear design for the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s new wing. If the Corcoran can’t raise the money to build the long-delayed $120 million addition, “Symphony of Steel” might be the closest we’ll get to experiencing it. —Robert Lalasz
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