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WANTED: Restless directors of nascent museum seek domineering benefactor for hard-core discipline and fantasy fulfillment.
You haven’t heard of the Washington Arts Museum (WAM), and there are plenty of good reasons. The cultural-treasury-to-be has no space, no director, no endowment—not even a benefactor. But WAM does have about $16,000 in the bank, an unlikely pair of founders, an ever-changing board of directors, and a mission to show current and former Washington artists: old and young, living and dead, obscure and, well, less obscure.
Last week, with a handful of volunteers and not much else, WAM creators Renee Butler and Giorgio Furioso opened the museum’s first show, “WAM BAM No. 1,” in the windows of the old Woodward & Lothrop building downtown. The streetside exhibition of paintings by four current and former D.C. artists fills the building’s retail vitrines at F and 11th Streets NW through September, thanks to a loan from the building’s owner, Douglas Jemal. (Butler called Jemal one day and asked; Jemal said yes.) With this show, Butler and Furioso hope to raise visibility and money, and, if dreams come true, to attract a benefactor or two.
But right now, WAM could use a sugar daddy. The organization’s overworked board members wear many hats: director, curator, even window-washer. “This is not a good idea,” Furioso says. So the museum’s principals are looking for help from someone, anyone—a donated building from among the District’s surplus stock, perhaps, or megabucks from a latter-day Duncan Phillips—to fulfill their fantasy of a museum dedicated to D.C. art.
Butler, a local multimedia installation artist who describes herself as a shoddy fundraiser, dreamed up WAM a few years ago during a chat with an acquaintance about the city’s up-and-coming art scene. Butler loved the idea of opening an art museum exclusively for works by locals, although she wanted no part in developing it. But her friend kept bugging her, and she eventually partnered with Furioso, a developer known for renting studio space to artists. “I told Giorgio we should do something,” Butler recalls. “And he actually agreed with me.”
So far, WAM seems to be the stuff of dreams—and perhaps of dreams only. By mid-1998, Butler and Furioso had assembled a working board of directors comprising seven people, among them Washington Review Managing Editor Mary Swift and sculptor Duncan Tebow, but they have had trouble keeping folks interested and getting them to attend meetings. They enjoyed a healthy turnout for a brainstorming session back in September 1998, but many of the people at that meeting never came back. And there’s also the matter of finding a building, which Butler explains using the chicken-and-egg riddle: “If we had a space, we could get money,” she explains. “If we had money, we’d get a space.”
Without a major source of cash and a fair bit of buzz, the museum’s prognosis isn’t good. But it looks as if WAM’s first foray into public consciousness may garner attention. The paintings currently pressed against Woodies’ scratched windows include a handful of powerful and potentially inflammatory works by local painter Steve Lewis. One of the artist’s massive canvases depicts a half-naked Bill Clinton slinging a decapitated nude woman over his shoulder; another features a donkey-headed man straddling a woman in “I § Power” underpants. It’s provocative work, and not exactly family-friendly. Furioso doesn’t mind if the canvases raise some hairs: “I selected what I thought was the best from his studio,” he says. “I’ll defend it…any day of the week.”
WAM purports to answer local artists’ nagging question: Where do we show in the District? In a city where national and international artists get plenty of play in major museums, D.C. artists feel shut out of the city’s main cultural institutions. The city once bragged about Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), which, in 1995, was absorbed by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Currently, WPACorcoran is little more than an arts lecture series.
“[Washington] doesn’t need another WPA, [which] has a run and then dies,” Furioso contends. “[We need] something to live longer than 10 to 15 years.” This is a city of institutions, the developer says, and he intends to build one. Furioso hopes that WAM will prevent the great artistic exodus that’s plagued Washington for decades. Art greats like Color School painter Kenneth Noland in the ’50s and, more recently, sculptor Martin Puryear have left for greener pastures. “The Martin Puryears of this world [see that] there’s no next step after you have a show at WPA,” Furioso says. “[WAM] would afford that.”
Butler and Furioso envision WAM as a place for “performance as well as visual arts,” Butler says. They envision an incubator including studios and residences alongside exhibition space—”a research rather than a storage area.” They would have pieces from their collection hanging in empty lobbies and storefronts when they’re not on view in the museum.
They have gone so far as to have local architect and advisory board member Stephen Muse develop, pro bono, a “Facility Needs Space Analysis” for the institution. This prospectus describes the ideal WAM as having three galleries, media rooms, a library/archives, a performance space accommodating up to 160 people, meeting rooms, classrooms, offices, and eight live/work studios for artists. The entire package adds up to between 22,000 and 24,000 square feet.
Anne Corbett, project director of the Downtown Arts Committee, which aids artists and art organizations, is skeptical about the project’s viability given the way things stand today. “Thus far, they have yet to position themselves so that they’re salable,” Corbett says. She nods to the worthiness of WAM’s cause but wonders whether the plans are overscaled.
Butler makes her case for the museum by looking backward. “We’ve got history here in D.C.,” Butler explains. She cites the long-gone Institute of Contemporary Arts: Incorporated in 1947 by Robert Richman and backed by movers such as Duncan Phillips, the ICA staged exhibitions, concerts, and readings. Butler forks over a wad of documents—ICA this, ICA that—to prove her point. “No one knows the history here,” she says, exasperated. “If people knew some of this,” Butler contends, “then they’d get excited.” She may be right. The ICA, which went under in 1970, had Frank Lloyd Wright, Martha Graham, and Joan Miro, among others, on its advisory board.
But for all her excitement, Butler has yet to generate even a skeletal museum budget. “I’ve been talking to [Butler] and [Furioso] about a business plan for over a year now,” Corbett explains. “That’s a concern.”
In early May, Furioso ushers me into his ground-floor office in a condo building at 16th and Church Streets NW, which he renovated several years ago. The space is all shiny wood floors and sleek, flat-backed computer monitors. Track lights illuminate the paintings, photographs, and drawings by local artists—Tim Makepeace and Lewis among them—lining the walls. He owns Signal 66’s cavernous Blagden Alley space and has developed several buildings in which artists can both live and work, including the Mohawk at 4th and M Streets NW and King’s Court in the Lincoln Park section of Southeast.
He pulls out the portfolio of limited-edition prints that WAM is selling in conjunction with “WAM BAM No. 1.” The four artists chosen for this first show represent the several kind of folks the museum aims to spotlight: Lewis is the up-and-comer; Renee Stout is well-established; Rebecca Davenport is an expat; Tom Downing is dead. Furioso figures that WAM will raise a total of $50,000 from sales of the portfolios. He plans to produce similar portfolios once a year.
Even with this potential cash infusion, WAM’s future looks dicey so long as it remains a museum by committee—particularly a committee so disengaged. “Museums are spearheaded by individuals and countries,” Furioso says. “You don’t get a museum from a community.” Furioso, truth be told, would like nothing more than for someone with a heck of a lot of money to take over. “It just takes one person,” he says. “I’d love to be that person, but I don’t have the wherewithal.”
Furioso has been trying to urge the city government to step into a leadership role in his project. He thinks the District is missing out on some major money. “Art is an incredible economic engine….Look at the Getty [Center in Los Angeles].” With WAM, Furioso claims, “the city has a great opportunity.” But as for getting through to government officials, Furioso maintains that he and Butler are getting the runaround. “We’ve gotten zip.” He puts his hands in the air as if to make a gesture of supplication. “I think we have a better shot at winning the lottery.”
The stairwell leading to Butler’s third-floor Adams Morgan loft looks like a museum itself—a Tom Downing painting stretches down the wall, and a wood Louise Nevelson sculpture hangs just below the landing. Inside, WAM’s promotional brochures, titled “Well It’s About Time…#,” huddle next to announcements for Butler’s recent video installation on a table by the entrance. A little group assembles around a distressed wooden dining table for a WAM board meeting. It is mid-May; “WAM BAM No. 1” will go up in a matter of weeks. Butler pours red wine.
Michael Alford, a marketing vice president for a local Internet consulting firm, and Juli Staiano, development manager at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, sit across from Butler, who is now munching on a Popeye’s chicken wing. They’re plotting a tie-in with Barbara Franco’s City Museum, slated to open in the Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square in 2003. Franco is the director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and intends to have a neighborhood focus to her local history museum. Linking art to nuts-and-bolts history seems reasonable, they figure.
Franco has met with Butler and Furioso, and she sees a future for WAM in partnership with her project—the City Museum could house exhibitions in its temporary space. She even regards WAM’s lack of a permanent site as a potential asset. “Museums of the future will be less…bound by space,” Franco says. Which comes as good news to Butler and Furioso.
And now, just a few weeks after Furioso’s frustration, the city is pricking up its ears at the concept of WAM. The museum crossed its first hurdle in lobbying the Williams administration earlier today, when Furioso and Butler met with Judi Greenberg, a special assistant in the office of Deputy Mayor Eric Price. Apparently, the meeting’s tenor left Butler and Furioso feeling optimistic. “I don’t even know her, and I almost kissed her,” Butler says. Furioso thinks he actually got through to Greenberg in describing the benefits of a District arts museum. Furioso hopes to find a city-owned building or site that WAM could buy for $1.
But when discussion heads toward the upcoming show, Furioso’s mounting frustrations surface. He has devoted several hours each day to the windows project, and he can’t keep sparing so much time. “We’re running ourselves down,” he says. “The board is getting smaller and smaller.”
“By the way, where is the board?” sculptor Duncan Tebow asks. Someone checks the time. It’s almost 8 p.m. The board meeting was supposed to start at 7:30.
The six people at the meeting plow through their scattered agenda, which includes vows to write a business plan. Later, the phone rings, and Butler answers it. It’s Bill Wooby, another arts entrepreneur, who is trying to get his fledgling Millennium Arts Center off the ground in a former school in Southwest D.C. (“School of Hard Knocks,” 12/3/99). Furioso leans in to the receiver and asks Wooby: “Wanna be on the board?” Caroline Orner, the board’s secretary, submitted her letter of resignation earlier that evening. Tebow suggests refusing her request. “Tell her we don’t want her to quit,” he says. “We need her desperately.”
Now talk returns to the impending show. They have secured the art as well as the insurance needed to cover it. When they get around to the show’s young newcomer, Furioso pipes in: “I’ve got a beautiful and rather caustic set of Steve Lewises,” he reports. “So be prepared.”
Some observers worry that WAM’s first public outing may earn it a bad-boy reputation and alienate potential funders. Spin-minded Corbett is among them. “If you’re like [Butler], you have got to be business-savvy and position yourself well,” Corbett says. “[And] if you’re in the public realm, you have to be considerate…[because] then everybody has [the art] in their face.” An image of Clinton in a U.S. flag diaper may not qualify as “considerate,” but it sure gets attention.
On a Thursday night, pedestrian traffic by the windows flows steadily. Passers-by Joan Harris and her sister, Margaret Haywood, stop before the Lewis canvases. Harris spotted the work the day before and has brought Haywood down to see it. They’ve already been around the block, touring the polite Downing dots and Davenport paintings. They’re now scrutinizing Lewis’ dense canvases with the attention usually reserved for a Bosch at the National Gallery. I ask Harris what she thinks of the art. “This has got to cause a row,” she says, smiling. “It’s provocative…[and] I think it’s a great idea,” she adds.
It looks as if WAM will get some new folks interested after all. Perhaps a young Mellon or Carnegie will happen upon the 1000 block of F Street during his lunch hour and want in on the project. Whoever he or she may be, the young philanthropist need not worry about an intellectual property dispute—Furioso will gladly relinquish his claims. “Anyone [who] wants to take our idea and run with it, they’re welcome to,” he says. “We’ll pass it on.” CP