Credit: Illustration by Emily Flake

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Adams Morgan painter Matt Sesow adores Artomatic. “It’s the greatest thing we have going on in D.C., other than the Smithsonian,” he says. Artomatic began in 1999 as an effort to showcase local artists and bring their work to the public free of charge. For the inaugural event, Artomatic’s Web site says, 350 artists “colonized” the Manhattan Laundry building on Florida Avenue NW, drawing more than 20,000 visitors in six weeks.

This year, Artomatic’s in Crystal City, occupying two floors of the former U.S. Patent and Trademark building at 2121 Crystal Drive. Approximately 3,900 people visited Artomatic on its opening night, says Artomatic chair George Koch. “It’s like an encyclopedia, a refresher, our own biennial, a democratic, open one,” says art blogger and critic Lenny Campello. As always, Artomatic is unjuried, which means anyone can participate, as long as he or she pays a registration fee and volunteers some time to make the event function.

Volunteering is a crucial part of Artomatic, says volunteer coordinator and Artomatic artist Rebecca Gordon. Every year, the artists double as bartenders, greeters, and garbagemen, ushering the public into the building and hauling empty beer bottles out. “It’s one of the mechanisms by which we build community among artists and across artistic disciplines,” Gordon writes in an e-mail.

Sesow especially likes the do-it-yourself spirit of Artomatic. On opening night, he and his girlfriend, fellow painter Dana Ellyn, doled out Red Bulls at one of Artomatic’s makeshift bars. “My girlfriend and I just did what we said we would do,” Sesow says.

Many Artomatic artists weren’t as diligent. That night, only nine of the 18 people scheduled to close the space showed up. Four volunteers shirked their responsibilities in the shift immediately before that one, and a handful of artists were no-shows on Saturday. Now, the organizers are considering barring delinquent volunteers from participating in future Artomatic events.

Getting artists to volunteer has never been a problem in the past, Gordon says. “It’s too early to make dire predictions, but it makes me sad to see participating artists flout the rules,” she writes. According to Gordon, all Artomatic artists signed up for volunteer shifts. Visual artists (there are about 400 this year) are supposed to contribute three five-hour shifts; the 200 performing artists are expected to contribute one. All volunteers get e-mail reminders 48 hours before their shifts are scheduled to begin, and they can alter their schedules at any time.

But only one of the no-shows contacted Gordon to cancel, which meant volunteers already at the space had to take on additional shifts and other artists who were there to have a good time wound up spending the evening tossing trash and stocking toilet paper. “It leaves their fellow artists holding the bag and if it continues, it begins to reflect badly on everyone and it’s certainly going to affect the overall morale,” Gordon writes.

Jim Tretick, an artist who served as Artomatic’s Event and Program Management Committee chair, says he found the number of no-shows dispiriting. “When we spend hours and hours and hours setting up a system and then we have to scramble to find bodies to serve beer, it’s frustrating.”

Gordon says she is stumped by the high number of no-shows. “Do we have an unusually large group of artists who don’t feel a sense of responsibility to their fellow artists?” she writes. “Was it a mistake not to make punitive action for missed shifts a more prominent issue at registration? Do we need to do more PR about the volunteer nature of the organization?”

She worries that Artomatic is deteriorating into an us-vs.-them mentality. In an interview, she says a few “whiny” artists complained about their exhibit space: “They said, ‘My wall space would be bigger,’ ” she says. But “there is no ‘they.’ There’s only we.”

Sondra Arkin, Artomatic’s president, has also heard divisive talk. “Yes, I’ve seen this us/them thing creeping into AOM,” she writes in an e-mail, “and while there are many explanations, partly the Board is at fault because a lot of our role (certainly mine as president) is organizing us better and protecting the brand.”

One artist, who asked not to be named, says Artomatic’s steering committee amounts to an in crowd with privileges when it comes to exhibition space and installation schedules, complaining that the disciplinary e-mails for missed shifts were too harsh. “I felt like the art Gestapo was e-mailing me and calling me to tell me I missed my shift,” the artist says.

Kathryn Williamson, a Rockville performance artist, says she was instructed not to install a wooden sculpture due to fire codes. “I think it’s sort of turned bureaucratic,” she says. “Some artists say they want to do something, and they say ‘No, no, no.’ ”

In 2004, for the first time, Artomatic’s steering committee elected a volunteer Executive Committee, which became the first board of directors. The reason, Arkin says, was Artomatic had a surplus of money and needed to deposit it in the bank. So it became a 501(c)3, complete with a nine-person board. It also applied for trademark protection. After all, Arkin says in an interview, while the organization is all about spreading Artomatic’s mission and ethos, “we don’t want someone to come around in five years and say we’ve trademarked the name, and you can’t do Artomatic anymore.”

Since 2004, Arkin writes, she has worked hard to “make it seem like there is someone in charge,” but she wonders whether attempts to strengthen and streamline the event have had the unintended consequence of alienating some artists by making it seem like an institution was making the decisions. To counterbalance the sense of centralization, Arkin says she and fellow board members have sought to “empower a broader steering committee.” Anyone can join Artomatic’s organizing committees, and each committee chooses representatives to participate in the steering committee.

Whatever the cause for the shift-shirking, Artomatic’s organizers are planning to address it. “The biggest option on the table is banning them from the next Artomatic event,” Gordon says. For the all-inclusive arts extravaganza, those are fighting words. “It’s a difficult discussion we’re having. It’s painful. You don’t want to tell people to take their toys and go.”

Arkin says the board isn’t ready to ban artists—yet. This week, she says, she will “cajole and lay out some amnesty approach.” And that approach may already be working. On Sunday, Gordon says, 35 out of 36 volunteers showed up for their Sunday shifts. “Maybe word got out.”

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