Art-O-Matic’s most recent venue may not have been the greatest place to show or to see art, but it was an ideal place to steal it. That’s because although the word “immersion” comes to mind when you scatter the work of 700 local artists—plus musicians, dancers, poets, and cabaret folk—through 100,000 square feet of space on three floors of the old Environmental Protection Agency headquarters at 401 M St. SW, the word “inundation” may be more to the point. With so much going on, and little to no security, somebody’s bound to help himself to something.
At least four artists who took part in Art-O-Matic report having items stolen from their installations. Artist Matt Sesow lost Ben and Flopsie, one of several small works measuring 4 by 6 inches. “Somebody just pulled one off the wall,” Sesow says from his Adams Morgan studio. “People who wanted to buy them pulled them off the wall, but [they] left money in my biography box. Somebody else forgot to leave the money.” Fortunately, he says, he was asking only $20 for the stolen piece—which depicts a cat and a rabbit, he notes—whereas he was selling most of his works for $65. “I didn’t put any of my expensive stuff up there,” he says.
D.C. artist Dale Hunt brought 10 pieces to the show, but one didn’t go back out with him: Someone stole a 6-by-8-inch abstract acrylic painting titled Adobe, priced at $400, from Hunt’s allotted space on the third floor. “It was the smallest piece,” says Hunt. “It crossed my mind that it was vulnerable.”
Sound artist Derek Morton sends all his spite to whomever took $150 worth of CD and DVD equipment from his installation Protective Goggle Room. But hey, there’s an upside: “They could have taken two to three grand worth,” says Morton, who lives in Arlington. “There was a lot of equipment to be stolen.”
One photographer is said to have lost five pieces to thieves. None of those interviewed have filed a police report. “I heard about a lot of people who’ve lost things and didn’t report them,” Hunt says. “Nothing can be done about it. It was difficult for people to keep an eye on things.” He recalls that a guard kept watch by the building’s main door, but surveillance otherwise fell to Art-O-Matic’s volunteers.
The plan called for 20 to 25 artist volunteers to be watching the exhibitions during the busy evening hours—though a few inevitably spaced out from time to time. “Some people come in thinking there’s a ‘they’ to take care of things, but they’re the ‘they,’” says event spokesperson Tara Campbell.
Art-O-Matic’s organizers did make a rule that once installations were final, nobody was to walk out the door with art—even his own—until the last day, Nov. 30. “The odd thing is that we’re not talking about Van Goghs that were stolen,” Campbell observes. “It’s hard to figure out why people would bother.”
Sesow, at least, believes he’ll see Ben and Flopsie again—because, he says, his work carries a voodoo curse. “It’s, like, a good one or a bad one depending on whether you pay for it or not,” he warns. “Eventually, that person will return it after some bad events in their life.” —Bradford McKee