David Quammen, MOCA Gallery
David Quammen, MOCA Gallery

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Georgetown has never been known for its eroticism. But in the brick courtyard of Canal Square—an upscale piece of real estate nestled between M Street NW and the C&O Canal—gallery owner David Quammen, 70, has carved out a space for the risqué. Since 2005, Quammen’s MOCA DC has exposed Georgetown passersby to paintings of childbirth, photographs of Playboy Bunnies, and sketches of Quammen’s own nude body, all via the gallery’s 12-foot-long front window.

But next month, the gallery may very well shutter its doors over a pair of nipple pasties. Why now? The modesty-preserving devices appeared on the breasts of a live woman, not in a work of art. “I think that having live nudity at an opening reception is akin to having it on the wall,” Quammen says. “But a lot of people don’t like what I do.”

Quammen has never figured out how to move very many nudes in Georgetown. So over the years, he’s learned to supplement his exhibitions with exhibitionism. Three times a year, the gallery hosts opening receptions for shows of figural art: “Erotica” in March, “The Celebration of the Figure” in July, and “Heads or Tails: Fine Art Portraits and Tasteful Backsides” in November. In the gallery’s front room, Quammen displays works by local artists. In the back, he conducts live erotic events.

MOCA’s rear room has hosted belly dancers, swimsuit competitions, walk-in body painting (one memorable human canvas had the words “Warning: Choking Hazard” painted on his sizable stomach, complete with an arrow pointing to his penis), live nude statues, and even Playboy model Angelina Leigh, who’s posed naked for photos on a MOCA rug. Quammen keeps the party lubricated with six flavors of boxed wine.

Quammen’s openings have survived by keeping the business in the front and the party in the back. But MOCA’s parties—which can draw hundreds—can’t always be contained.

On March 5, Quammen celebrated the opening of his “Erotica 2010” exhibit by staging a burlesque competition hosted by local strip-tease star Kitty Victorian. During the performance, participants and gawkers were confined to the gallery’s modest rear room, where their activities were shielded from unsuspecting Georgetown bar-goers. But at some point in the evening, one of the amateur competitors managed to wander out into the open-air courtyard wearing little more than a pair of strategically-placed tassels.

Soon, Quammen got wind of some corporate backlash from the courtyard display. Beyond MOCA DC, Canal Square also hosts a few more traditional art galleries, Sea Catch restaurant, and the offices for R B Properties Inc., the real estate management company which rents Quammen his gallery. On March 10, Quammen drafted a letter to Ted Vogel, vice president of real estate for R B Properties, in an attempt to preempt any pastie-based concern. “I understand…that there was a complaint about one of the performers last Friday night going outside without proper clothing,” Quammen wrote. “While she was not nude, her attire was improper and not authorized to be anywhere but the rear portion of the gallery.” Quammen promised to rectify the situation by installing a guard at the gallery’s front entrance to help herd scantily clad attendees toward the rear.

On April 7, R B Properties replied to Quammen’s letter with a list of administrative complaints. “While you recognized the inappropriate attire worn by MOCA participants on March 5th, there were other issues that we find unacceptable that were not addressed in your letter,” the response read. Beyond the pasties, the MOCA party represented an “unauthorized use of the plaza area.” Some MOCA patrons had also utilized the Sea Catch restrooms, which proved “very disruptive to the restaurant’s business” that night.

“We look forward to many well-managed events by MOCA…and appreciate your cooperation and attention for years to come,” the letter finished.

That was before R B Properties discovered it wasn’t stuck with MOCA for the long haul. This summer, Quammen learned that MOCA’s lease with R B Properties—which Quammen had overseen for the gallery’s former director, painter Michael Clark, since 2005—had been a month-to-month arrangement all along. So Quammen approached the company to negotiate a long-term lease in his own name. He got his reply last month, when Vogel arrived at the gallery to tour the space with a new potential renter. On June 24, R B Properties gave Quammen a notice to vacate the premises by July 31. Calls to R B Properties were not returned.

Quammen is convinced that prudishness is to blame: “For being a liberal city, there’s a lot of conservatism here,” he says. After all, R B Properties hasn’t always been leasing to an “adult” gallery. For more than a decade, Clark had run MOCA DC with a focus on contemporary art, with the occasional phallic piece. The nudity began in earnest in 2002, when Quammen established his Figure Models Guild to connect local artists with nude models. Since assuming director duties in 2005, Quammen has heard plenty of snide dismissals of the gallery’s increasingly disrobed offerings. Of the Canal Square galleries, “MOCA is the pig of the bunch,” says Quammen. But for nearly six years, he scraped up enough rent to make sure it stays that way. “Eroticism is the carrot that God gave us for going ahead with this thing, having some children, and raising them,” he says.

So when Quammen received his notice to leave the space, he sent out a call to the gallery’s 1,400 member contact list, asking them to help the gallery keep doling out carrots. Last week, Quammen held a meeting in the gallery to discuss MOCA’s future. Unlike his erotic displays, the administrative event was “short on attendance,” Quammen says; one friend stopped by the space, and a few more participated via live-streaming Internet video.

Meanwhile, Quammen’s own body threatens to fail him. He wears a black eye patch over his right eye to mitigate a childhood injury; recently, his left started going, too. Over the past two years, he’s fought both prostate and colon cancer into remission. After two heart surgeries, walking a block leaves him winded. “Even with that, I have managed to do more than many half my age,” Quammen wrote in a letter to R B Properties. He’s now seeking out more expensive locations in Arlington and Dupont Circle. He hopes to supplement the price hike with a PBS-style pledge drive. How many are willing to pay a monthly fee for Quammen’s previously gratis events remains to be seen.

The July 31 quit date will, at least, provide Quammen an excuse to throw a party. “As far as the artwork is concerned, I’ll make a statement. I’m going to put the most brazen things out front I can find,” Quammen says. But he remains dedicated to keeping the live demonstration under wraps. “I’m going to respect the right of people, who are coming into the courtyard for other reasons, not to have somebody shove nudity in their face,” says Quammen. He will, instead, use his own face as the scene of the protest: In place of the eye patch, Quammen plans to affix a nipple tassel over his right eye.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery