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Online commentator Anna Maria Gambino-Colombo was known by nearly everyone in the D.C. art world. But who was she?

Webmistress Anna Maria Gambino-Colombo was a woman with a mission. For three years, she maintained www.dcgalleries.isonfire.com “to help the local Washington art scene and its many talented artists, most of whom are sadly ignored by the local press and media.”

On the quirky and comprehensive site, Gambino-Colombo provided capsule reviews of nearly 400 artists, along with links to “All the Washington artists on the web.” She ranked the “The Top Ten Art Galleries” in the District, “The Ten Best Washington Artists,” and “The Best Emerging DC Artists.” She was unafraid to proclaim the Fraser Gallery “The best gallery in Georgetown!” and gushed with praise over artists that she favored: “brilliant,” “elegant,” “the true definition of the ‘modern artist.’”

She also reviewed other local reviewers: If she thought a critic was “caustic” or “collegiate,” or had “an odd agenda,” she’d say so; if she thought his or her work had gone downhill, she’d say that, too. In 1999, she even gave out the “Annamaria Art Awards” for criticism, curation, and art.

And her opinions were hardly limited to her site. Gambino-Colombo was a regular letter writer to curators and editors, telling them if she thought a show was of high quality and recommending favorite photographers, sculptors, and painters she believed should be written up. She also engaged in episodic e-mail correspondences with a number of local artists, complimenting them, cajoling them, and giving them the what-for if she didn’t like their work.

But Gambino-Colombo maintained a shadowy presence in the D.C. art world, revealing herself only in print and only when it suited her. She claimed to be a lawyer, “the partner of a law firm in northern Virginia which specializes, among other things, in copyright and fine arts law.” She said that her site was maintained with the assistance of interns at her firm and that she had been educated at Columbia University, Utrecht University, and the Georgetown University Law Center.

“I enjoy attending gallery openings and make it a point to visit as many openings as possible,” she wrote. “I have averaged purchasing three pieces of original art by local Washington artists each year.” Though none of the half-dozen gallery owners interviewed for this story recalls having sold Gambino-Colombo a work of art, all of them are familiar with her relentless criticism of the local scene.

Last December, however, a small block of text appeared on her site: “Maintained in memory of the person here known as Anna Maria Gambino-Colombo (1953-2001).” She had died, according to the site, at age 48 on Dec. 18, “after a very long fight for survival.”

That brief epitaph finally conceded what had long been suspected by dcgalleries.isonfire readers: that “Anna Maria Gambino-Colombo” was an elaborate charade, a nom de plume used to shield the identity of a secretive art-world denizen with axes to grind and aspirations he or she could not realize as him- or herself.

So, as the site tells us, the person known as Anna Maria Gambino-Colombo has passed away. But who was she in the first place?

“I thought I may have had some kind of telephone conversation with her,” says Malik Lloyd, the founder of D.C.-based Internet information service Find Art Information Bank, of his contact with his Web colleague. But then he hesitates: “I’m not sure that I spoke to her. I was thinking that I spoke to her, but it was such a long time ago my memory is kind of gray.”

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Michael Clark, co-director with Felicity Hogan of Georgetown’s Museum of Contemporary Art, has a vague but persistent memory of meeting Gambino-Colombo. “I think I told people that I met this Gambino woman. She was just out in Canal Square at this really crowded opening. It was almost like she had a mustache. She was very plain-looking, real dark hair, didn’t really say anything,” he recalls, adding that she was “Italian-looking, Sicilian-looking.” Still, he says, “I couldn’t swear I was actually introduced to that woman. No one else has ever seen her.”

Much to their perplexity, Clark and Hogan, who work together as artists, regularly received reviews from Gambino-Colombo. Indeed, she ranked them No. 3 on her list of D.C.’s best artists. Yet the couple never seemed to be in their gallery when she visited. “We were getting reviews for a while, but this woman has never come in,” says Clark. “How do you review if you never come in?”

When people reached out to Gambino-Colombo, she tended to beg off with claims of physical maladies and international trips. When artist Barbara Januszkiewicz invited her to an opening in January 2001, Gambino-Colombo politely declined in an e-mail, saying, “Unfortunately I will be in bed several months from now, as I have a broken femur and am thus in a body cast.”

Gambino-Colombo continued to use illness as an excuse with Januszkiewicz later that summer, writing, in a July 4 e-mail, “Thank you for your very nice note. Sorry it took so long to answer….I left Washington for a while to spend some time in Sicily with my family and get away from the muggy summers as it really makes my problems (bones) worse. I’ve received two transplants so far and [am] still recuperating….My laptop died on me here, so I’ve had a whole new computer bought and changed a bit so that it is easier for me to write from bed…”

Besides dcgalleries.isonfire, Gambino-Colombo left remarkably little in the way of online traces. Multiple e-mails to the Webmaster of the site went unreturned. And Gambino-Colombo is not listed as a practicing attorney by the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator database, which maintains comprehensive listings of lawyers across the country.

Indeed, according to Georgetown University records, no Anna Maria Gambino, Colombo, or Gambino-Colombo has ever attended or graduated from its law school. If Gambino-Colombo practiced law, she certainly never made the news. The single newspaper appearance she makes within the database of papers and magazines maintained by LexisNexis is as a writer of an April 16, 2000, letter to the editor of the Washington Post promoting her Web site. And sources at the Post suggest that normal procedures for confirming identity were not followed with this letter.

“The bottom line is that we did not verify her identity,” says Michael O’Sullivan, an art and film critic at the paper. “In other circumstances, [the letter] would lend credence to the fact that she exists, but in this instance, it doesn’t.”

Although the Post never gave its mysterious letter writer an obituary, it did recently note the death of one of its former contributors: arts writer Michael Welzenbach. He died, according the Post, on Dec. 18—the same day as Gambino-Colombo—”at the home of a friend in Arlington. He had congestive heart failure and liver failure resulting from hepatitis C.”

Like Gambino-Colombo, “he was sick for a long time,” says his friend Gail Enns, owner of Anton Gallery in Dupont Circle. Also like her, he spent time in Italy, according to Enns. And like Gambino-Colombo, he was born in 1953.

“It is odd,” says Enns, who gasped when she heard the similarities in the birth and death dates. “He’s just clever enough to have done that.”

Some who knew Welzenbach from the art world believe he could well have been Gambino-Colombo. “It definitely sounds like something that he would do,” says Annie Gawlak, owner of G Fine Art in Georgetown. “He was this very opinionated person and liked sharing his opinion.”

In recent years, though, Welzenbach would have had to have been as much of an undercover operator as Gambino-Colombo to maintain the site. Welzenbach left Washington in the early ’90s and spent the last half-decade working for the Canadian version of Reader’s Digest. Though he was a contract writer who could have lived anywhere, he lived in Canada beginning in 1995, says Murray Lewis, his editor-in-chief at Reader’s Digest Canada. Besides, says Lewis, “Michael was not a big Web person. Michael didn’t even e-mail very much….Instead of e-mailing you, he’d phone you until he got you. He was not very Web-savvy.”

And Welzenbach returned to the D.C. area only about six weeks before his death. “Nobody’s seen him in recent years,” admits Gawlak. “If he had all this info that he was sharing, I don’t know if he was picking it up firsthand.”

In addition, the style of writing on Gambino-Colombo’s site makes others who knew Welzenbach doubtful that he was involved. “The only reason I wouldn’t think it would be Michael is that his comments were much more pithy,” says Carol Brown Goldberg, a painter who spoke at Welzenbach’s memorial service in mid-February. “Michael wasn’t so interested in the people….I don’t think he cared so much about galleries; the commercial aspect wasn’t so important to him.” A part of dcgalleries.isonfire labeled “Opportunities for Artists in the D.C. area” stands out as particularly incongruous, she says: “He couldn’t care less about that.”

But if not Welzenbach, then who?

For years, many artists and gallery owners have suspected that F. Lennox Campello, co-owner with his wife, Catriona Fraser, of the Fraser Galleries in Georgetown and Bethesda, was the man behind Gambino-Colombo.

“People keep telling me that the person behind it is Lenny Campello,” says George Hemphill, owner of Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown. “He comes to all the shows.”

For his part, Campello revels in the attention even while denying the charge. “I’m the prime suspect; my wife thinks the same thing,” he admits cheerily. “I’m not her. The main excuse that I have is that it’s a lot of work.”

The circumstantial evidence that points to Campello, though, is significant. The Fraser Gallery located in Canal Square in Georgetown is surrounded by the Parish, Alla Rogers, and Okuda Galleries and MOCA—all of which receive high praise on dcgalleries.isonfire. So do their artists: Two of the 1999 Annamaria Art Awards went to Fraser Gallery. And the site lists Catriona Fraser as one of the 10 best artists in D.C.: “Astonishing, atmospheric, almost sinister B&W infrared landscapes of Scotland as well as some brilliant figurative works,” it reads. “In my opinion the best photographer in Washington, DC.”

The suggestion that Campello is responsible for Gambino-Colombo sounds plausible to those who know him. “He’s a real super computer guy,” says Clark of Campello, noting that the critic is a former U.S. Navy cryptologist. “He’s like a spy.” (As for the Gambino-Colombo he thinks he met, Clark says, “I figured that Campello was just using this woman as a beard.”)

O’Sullivan says that he once confronted Campello about the rumors, back in the fall of 2000, but Campello claims that he has no recollection of the conversation and defends himself with good humor. “On the 10 Best Artists page,” he says, “my wife is in there. In her mind, why would someone consider her one of the 10 best artists unless it’s me?”

Campello’s best defense lies within the site itself: Gambino-Colombo’s description of his wife’s career contains several factual errors. “Anna Maria says she first burst upon the D.C. scene after moving from England in 1996,” he explains. “Now, I’m a Virgo, so everything has to be perfect. Cate opened the gallery in 1996, but she moved to the U.S.A. in 1992, and her photography business was not in England, but in Scotland.

“There’s a couple of artists [listed] there in the Top 10 whose art I can’t stand, and even the ones I did like, I would have ranked it differently,” he adds.

Like any good suspect, Campello tries to cast suspicion onto others. “My own theory?” he says. “First, I thought that it was a woman who used to publish a magazine called Art Calendar. She’s sort of disappeared from the scene. The other person was an artist in Washington who’s also a Web designer. I thought it was him, but he moved to San Francisco. He used to do the Web site for MOCA and Clark. I also thought maybe it was Ken Oda; he used to publish KOAN, a newsletter that did reviews of gallery shows, little minireviews much like a lot of the things that you have [on dcgalleries.isonfire]. Then he stopped publishing KOAN and went strictly on the Internet.”

Goldberg also points to Oda—and to Clark—as possible suspects: “I wonder if this isn’t Michael Clark,” she muses. “He’s colorful and creative….Or Ken from KOAN?…Ken Oda is terse and succinct. [Gambino-Colombo’s site] is terse and succinct. KOAN art newsletter was really a wonderful magazine, and they used to do the top artists, top galleries, and so on, so all of these artists could have been taken from Ken.”

Clark, however, denies that he’s behind the site. “I can’t even turn on a computer,” he says. “And I’ve got plenty of people who can be my alibi.” His wife backs him up on this point. “He completely hates the Internet,” says Hogan. “Absolutely hates it. Won’t touch it with a barge pole. So for him to actually sit down and write an e-mail…it’s not his cup of tea.”

Oda also denies being Gambino-Colombo and even seems unaware that her identity was thought to be pseudonymous. “I never met her personally, but my understanding is that she was like a collector,” he says.

“I had an e-mail exchange with her. I never met her.” CP