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Gloria Valdés has been painting for 23 years, but she hasn’t sold a single one of her canvases. So when she heard through an acquaintance that the Kennedy Center’s employee canteen showed local art on its walls, she did what any ambitious artist would: She pounced. A captive viewership for a month and a half, the name “Kennedy Center” on her résumé—what could be the downside?

“I was very excited, content, and feeling lucky,” says Valdés. “Even if it was in the cafeteria.”

And a poorly secured cafeteria, at least at the time of her exhibition. Valdés’ painting Mystic Ecstasy—which she had priced at $2,500—was stolen off the wall within two weeks of display. Ever since then, the artist’s initial excitement has been curdling into fury and frustration.

Kennedy Center security has failed to locate the canvas or identify how the painting was taken. The center’s legal department turned down her claim for damages and informed her that she couldn’t sue the venue, because it’s a federally funded institution. “I can’t tell you how many—I have spent so many hours working on this,” says Valdés. “Filing papers. Lots of stress. Not painting a lot. And they make me feel guilty.”

“I work for one month on the painting,” she adds about Mystic Ecstasy. “I want my month back.”

Valdés is a short, 49-year-old fireball who’s stubborn about the value of her work. More than 160 of her paintings fill her modest Vienna town house—portraits of Mexican heroes and film stars in Warholian poster colors, as well as bigger, more outsiderish canvases with Daliesque eyes weeping sperm and headless women whose arms taper into coral snakes.

She labors on each new work for up to four months—previously after coming home from jobs as a dental assistant or a cashier or a canvasser for the Census Bureau, now after physical therapy sessions for an injured leg and hand. “I want the right price,” Valdés says, her eyes flashing. “You have to charge for your time, ideas, and materials.”

Even though Valdés hasn’t found a market for her work, a few area galleries have shown it. She also recently finished a commission to paint one of the 5-foot-tall avian figurines for Birds-I-View—a Prince George’s County public art project.

When she found out about the Kennedy Center canteen gallery, Valdés got in touch with Stephen Bates, a Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra clarinetist, who’s been the curator of the space since it started showing art 18 years ago. Bates—himself a painter—visited Valdés several times and finally chose five of her works, including a portrait of Emiliano Zapata done in oranges, mauves, and every imaginable shade of green. The paintings went up for a 45-day run in the canteen on March 17, with titles, prices, and Bates’ contact information listed for interested buyers.

Two weeks later, on March 31, Bates noticed that the 16-by-20-inch Mystic Ecstasy was missing. After contacting Valdés, Bates on April 2 reported the theft to Kennedy Center security. Three days later, Valdés met Bates at the center and took the rest of her work back home.

“[Bates] told me before the show: ‘We have cameras, we have a security system, we have our own police officers—there’s nothing to be scared of,’” says Valdés. Bates disagrees slightly with her account. “There are no security cameras in the canteen,” he says. “I said that they probably will be safe because the doors [to the canteen] will be locked at certain times. I might have assured her, but I didn’t use the word ‘guaranteed.’ This is the first time in 18 years that there’s been an incident.”

During Valdés’ exhibition, the basement canteen was in a state of flux. A construction project had displaced a locker room upstairs, and some early-shift employees were using temporary lockers in the canteen. A normally locked access door was left open for these workers.

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“It’s my speculation that somebody slipped in at a funny hour,” says Bates. “I feel the renovation of the space might have resulted in a vulnerability, and that I hadn’t been informed before putting up the exhibition that the doors would be open at different hours than I had told [Valdés].”

The canteen is operated by contractor Restaurant Associates, which the Kennedy Center holds responsible for the area’s security. “We understood that Restaurant Associates was dealing with Ms. Valdés in this matter,” says Tiki Davies, a Kennedy Center spokesperson, “and we’re talking to Restaurant Associates now to resolve the matter.” Aiden Murphy, general manager of Restaurant Associates for the center, says the contractor has been “having conversations” with Valdés about who’s responsible for the theft.

Valdés says that she hasn’t spoken with Murphy since June, when he denied responsibility for the incident. Valdés recalls Murphy telling her to take her complaint to Kennedy Center security.

But when she followed that advice, Valdés hit another brick wall. A Kennedy Center lawyer denied her damages claim and then called her home three times to dissuade her from suing the center, according to Valdés. “[The lawyer] said, ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t fight,’” says Valdés. “‘We are a federal institution, and you can’t sue us.’”

Desperate, Valdés approached Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA), a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal referral services to artists. Patrick Tracy, a WALA volunteer lawyer who met with Valdés, says that she could indeed have sued the Kennedy Center or Restaurant Associates in the U.S. Court of Claims, but that legal fees would have wiped out the $2,500 she might have recovered.

Instead, Tracy advised her to sue Bates—which is what Valdés did in D.C. small-claims court on July 2. When she saw Bates bring a painting into the arbitration hearing, she got excited. “I thought it was my painting!” she says. No—in fact, Bates himself had painted it and was offering it to Valdés as a settlement.

“I was offering art for art,” says Bates, who adds that the offer in no way implied culpability for the theft. “If I were to sell [the painting he offered], it would be more in the area of $700 to $800. Artistically, I regarded [the two paintings] as equal. It occurred to me: Maybe if I do this…instead of her being angry and the world being a difficult place for her—here’s something to change the current.”

Bates hadn’t just selected any random piece from his works. “I chose the colors based on her colors—vibrant—to suggest that, instead of going around trying to sue people, why not get back to work as an artist?” adds Bates. “The whole agenda was in the offer of the painting.”

Valdés, however, had her own agenda. She wanted to visit Bates’ house, peruse his entire oeuvre, and walk away with a painting of her choice. Bates countered by offering to present four among which she could choose. Valdés balked at the reduced menu. The arbitration broke down, with Valdés losing the case soon thereafter. Bates calls the whole suit “uncalled-for.”

“I was trying to help her,” he says. “I thought it was really inappropriate to ask

the person who was really her promoter to take the heat for this loss, which I didn’t

have any control over. She put a rather large [monetary] figure on the painting, and she’s suing somebody in the same boat she’s in—another artist.”

Valdés is defensive when talking about the suit. “I feel bad for him—he gave me a chance to exhibit my work,” she says about Bates. “But who else can I go after? I don’t hate him at all—I have nothing against him personally. They just closed all the doors on me.”

Meanwhile, the doors have been secured at the canteen and the temporary lockers removed. But art has yet to return—and might not, according to Bates. “[Restaurant Associates] informed me [Monday] that, for the time being, it’s off the table,” he says. Should Restaurant Associates someday allow the exhibitions to continue, Bates is ready with a release form for artists and a plan to supervise their pricing. “The average price [of past works] ranges from $150 to $600 to $700,” he says. “In that space, [Mystic Ecstasy] was a bit overpriced.”

For her part, Valdés is planning to apply for art grants and embark on a new portrait cycle of 40 canvases of subjects “who changed the world”—all while trying to cope with the aftereffects of hand surgery that she says left nerve damage and gives her trouble dressing and picking things up. “I can still paint and do everything, but I have to go more slowly,” she says.

Unhappy with her doctors, she knows how she’ll get her revenge. “In art,” Valdés says. “I’ll make a painting out of it.”CP