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Saturday, Feb. 20, 1999, 10 a.m., Manhattan Laundry:

On this clear and frigid morning, the temperature barely hits 40 degrees inside the concrete walls of 1346 Florida Ave. NW, one of three now-vacant buildings originally built as an industrial wash-and-fold. (One building’s art deco façade remains emblazoned, in crimson, with the words “Manhattan Laundry.”) George Koch, of the nonprofit A. Salon group, which rents art studio and exhibition spaces, presides over a walk-through of the 90,000-square-foot complex that he hopes to turn into a contemporary art gallery-cum-performance space for 350 artists during the month of May—although time constraints are leading to talk of pushing back to June.

Koch got the space from his landlord—developer Douglas Jemal, from whom A. Salon rents two of its gallery buildings—by promising to bring folks into it. For now, the building holds a curious amalgam of its previous tenants’ detritus: doors labeled “Marketing” and “Director” remain from its days as BET’s studios; yawning rear truck ports represent vestiges of its industrial-laundry past.

About 20 wool- and leather-clad art-scene types, dwarfed by an expansive red linoleum-tiled foyer, brace themselves against the chill. Their winter-pale faces look weary and astonished after poking around the maze of hallways, stairwells, niches, and nooks.

Koch, his burly frame enveloped in a thick coat, addresses the group, which includes developer Chris Reutershan, Downtown Arts Committee Project Director Anne Corbett, 9:30 Club manager Norm Veenstra, and WPACorcoran Program Director Nadine Gabai-Botero. Koch’s vision for the Manhattan Laundry Show—its working title—is for a bigger version of 1985’s rollicking All-Washington Show, when artists hijacked the fallow Central Liquor building at 512 9th St. NW and installed their work in a free-for-all unencumbered by curatorial conceits.

Koch would like to see the Laundry eventually converted into artists’ live-work space. “The big issue in D.C. is that we don’t have any recyclable space” where artists can work, he laments. “It’s a matter of who’s willing to get behind it and put money into it,” Koch concedes.

Like a dedicated college senior organizing undergraduate PETA rallies, Koch closes the meeting with arms extended toward the gathered. “Let’s make a commitment that we’ll all be here again next Saturday at 10—and tell your friends,” he implores. “I’d like to have double the people at the next meeting.”

After the meeting adjourns, small reconnaissance missions break out for more exploration. Gabai-Botero jokes, “You’ll need to leave a popcorn trail to find your way back out.”

Wednesday, March 10, 5:30 p.m., Manhattan Laundry Steering Committee Meeting:

A handful of artists trudges into a large meeting room in the offices of the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). Koch, dressed today in brown work boots and an olive-drab shirt-and-pants ensemble, establishes himself as the focus of a circle. Corbett, seated to his right, sports a smart black suit. Although intermittent stragglers continue to slip into the room’s blue ergonomic chairs, Koch begins….

The event needs a name. District photographer Annie Adjchavanich and arts impresario Stacy Bond propose calling the event the Washington Art-O-Matic, owing to the building’s laundering history; they also hope to approach Maytag and detergent manufacturer Procter & Gamble for sponsorship. Although there are some dissenters, most of the 15 or so attendees approve.

Painter Ellyn Weiss interrupts the discussion: What of those unable to attend steering committee meetings? How will they have input?

Koch raps his knuckles on the table. His blue eyes turn to ice as they peer over his half-size reading glasses. “We must respect decisions that are made along the way,” he intones. “You snooze, you lose.”

Wednesday, March 24, 5:30 p.m., Art-O-Matic Steering Committee Meeting:

Folks wander in. Papers are distributed, shuffled, reshuffled. A latecomer asks if he can use the Xerox machine. More shuffle, more paper. Fifteen minutes later, when the group comes to order, Koch is ticked off. In a low voice directed at no one in particular, he asks: “Is this a vision of things to come?”

Could be. Heads bow to read a proposal by former Washington Project for the Arts Director Don Russell for an exhibition within the Art-O-Matic sponsored by New York’s Museum of Sex. He requests a series of contiguous rooms where artists selected by himself and the Museum of Sex staff will “create deeper understanding of human sexuality and…break down conceptions of sex that are repressive, shameful, inhibited, fearful, or sinful” through an “installation span[ning] all media, incorporating sound, sight, touch, and smell.” Russell himself is not present. The room explodes with opinion.

Adjchavanich doesn’t like it; she envisions potential sponsors balking. “I would no longer feel comfortable seeking corporate sponsors” if the sex exhibition were included, she explains.

“They’re going to want to know what we’re showing, and I’m not going to lie to them. I’m trying to build up relationships with these people.”

A voice pipes in from across the room: “What about next year? What if they won’t sponsor us again?”

Lars Torres of the Center for Collaborative Art and Visual Education (better known as CAVE), a local grass-roots art education and gallery space, returns the volley: “Who said anything about next year? This is a one-time event as far as I know.”

Kathy Keler, a District artist, looks aghast: “Is this the same Museum of Sex that they’re doing in New York?” she asks accusingly. “The one with Alison Maddex and Camille Paglia?” Nods all around. “Because if it’s the same people, then we’re in trouble. Those people have public relations people who will just promote the hell out of it, and [the rest of the artists in the show] will get totally lost in the shuffle.” The room falls silent; eyes dart.

Finally, painter Judy Jashinsky bursts: “We’re artists!” she exclaims. “We’re supposed to be OK with this stuff.”

Koch, checking his watch, says, “Let’s table this issue.”

Wednesday, April 7, 5:30 p.m., Art-O-Matic Steering Committee Meeting:

The gathered are awash in self-congratulatory buzz about the Washington Post’s coverage of Art-O-Matic, which brought more than 80 people to last Saturday’s walk-through. Koch calls order.

It’s time to start figuring out which artists will occupy which spaces. Procedures for registration and lottery-number assignment, slated for Saturday, April 10, must be finalized. All three buildings have been mapped and renamed—1346 is now “West,” 1328 has become “East,” and the rear adjunct is “South.” Every room, hallway wall, closet, and niche has been labeled with codes like “W-2-GG” indicating building, floor, and room. The group establishes that every participant must gallery-sit four times in four-hour shifts during installation and the run of the show.

Finally, Koch resurrects the Museum of Sex proposal.

Jashinsky puts in two more cents: “After saying this was all-inclusive, now [we] reject the first proposal!”

But by introducing a curator, which the Museum of Sex proposes, Koch explains, “You’re putting someone in charge of decision making” and destroying Art-O-Matic’s egalitarian premise. Wearing a burgundy-and-black velvet-swirled scarf, Koch concludes: “My concern is, How would [Douglas Jemal] feel about this? All he needs is four or five people calling him, and he’ll be asking me why I’m doing this.” Decision made; there will be no sex show.

Saturday, April 10, 9:45 a.m., Manhattan


A clot of aspiring participants has gathered outside by West’s entrance alcove. At 10 a.m., the Laundry’s doors will open up to a riot of organizational devices: Numbered, step-by-step instructions and colorful signs line the walls alongside sheets logging gallery-sit hours. Stations for payment, lottery-number allocation, and sign-up dot the room. Neat piles of stapled registration forms rise up from a sturdy folding table. Koch, Corbett, and others preside.

By 10:30, the line to turn in the $25 registration fee snakes around several pillars. District artists Manon Cleary and Annette Polan share the line with about 30 others, including 27-year-old Helen Stovicek and two of her friends. Today is lottery-number registration, Stovicek explains, but next week, registrants must bargain among themselves to get the spaces they want—lottery numbers will determine who has priority. “It’s going to be a big brawl,” Stovicek jests. “Maybe I should wear some kind of combat gear.”

Today’s final step is the line to pick hot-orange lottery tickets out of an oversized white plastic Target bag. Each artist looks instinctively at the number he draws, but no one will know ’til next week whether it’s a good number or bad.

Saturday, April 17, Manhattan Laundry:

At 10 a.m., when the day began, the space allocation process threatened to rival the 1889 Oklahoma land rush. “Everyone was off [when the doors opened] like a cross-country race,” reports artist Peter Krebs, his lanky frame in worn jeans. “There was a bottleneck at the staircase going up to the second floor.”

Choice spots near windows and natural light are sought after, as are small enclosed rooms. In W-2-D, a bright room with windows on two sides and high ceilings, the competition for space heats up. University of Maryland undergraduate Kelly Towles, a sculptor who requires only floor space, is watching painters and photographers duke it out for precious inches of wall. “It’s giant painter wall-space envy,” he observes. “People are getting really frustrated.”

When, as instructed, artists approach Art-O-Matic facilitators (those responsible for parceling out space within the handful of rooms in their charge) nearest their room of choice, many are told to keep looking. “I suggest you go somewhere else,” rings from facilitator lips from E-2-B to W-2-G.

But the morning’s few skirmishes end amicably, even as occasional gripes echo through the concrete warren. Photographer Eileen Colton, defending territory in W-2-D, grumbles: “The annoying thing is, [Art-O-Matic’s process is] grass-roots in the original sense of the word: There is no institutional structure to buffer against personality conflicts.” Colton explains to facilitators Jashinsky and artist Krebs, with whom she’s vying for space, that she’s also proxying for her brother-in-law, who makes 5-by-8 rugs. Where will his work go?

Saturday, May 8, 12:30 p.m., Manhattan


Day 3 of art installation. The smell of fresh paint permeates the building. Artists buzz in and out of the front doors spread wide, carrying wooden frames and ladders on their backs like ants preparing the hive. Upstairs in W-2-B, an artist has painted a perfect 5-foot black square on his wall. W-2-H already hosts black-and-white photographs of Asian street scenes, soft-focus oils of flowers and interiors, and a totemic chess-pawn-like wooden sculpture with an eerie oculus surveying the room.

Artist Richard Dana kneels on the gray-carpeted floor behind the doors of the former BET “Conference Room,” readying the 10-by-12-foot room for his installation. He participated in the All-Washington Show—the city’s last big art show in recycled space—14 years ago. “It was a salon des refusés for a [simultaneous] show at the Corcoran…that District artists felt excluded from,” he recalls. “My recollections of that show and the Ritz Hotel show in 1983 [a curator-free group show in the abandoned Ritz Hotel] is that they were great while they lasted, but they didn’t have any lasting impact.”

Thursday, May 13, 2:15 p.m., Manhattan


Artist Jay Townsend carries a shorn-headed nude across the catwalk into the East building and places the sculpture on the bed of hay he’s arranged in E-2-B. Although Townsend designed Art-O-Matic’s graphics and secured an announcement card printer, his day job in Tysons Corner precluded him from attending task force meetings.

“I don’t envy those folks at the meetings,” Townsend says. As Art-O-Matic grew bigger, he observes, logistical issues and costs mushroomed. An original plan for 10,000 announcement cards grew to an 86,000-count print run. For Townsend, having dozens of people involved meant obtaining as many approvals: “Everyone had to agree on the text and the design of the site map.” Budget maven Bond, winking behind her Catwoman eyeglasses, figures snafus are inevitable: “This show is impromptu and just for fun. Kind of like an arts rave.”CP

The Washington Art-O-Matic opens Friday, May 21, at 6 p.m. and runs to June 19. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. A listing of events throughout the month is posted at www.washingtonart.com.