Hands down, “But is it art?” is the lamest question anyone can ask about art. When artists Alex Ventura and Victoria Milko host the But Is It Art? fair from Sept. 22 to Sept. 25, they won’t be putting that question to their artists or audience. They know what they’re doing is art. Their DIY fair is asking a pointed question about another art fair taking place over the same weekend: the inaugural (e)merge art fair.

“We can show as strong a contemporary art show without the development,” Ventura says. “I’m not judging, but it’s sort of a friendly ‘fuck you.’ Contemporary art doesn’t need that setting.”

That setting is Southwest—specifically, the Capitol Skyline Hotel, where dozens of contemporary art galleries from across the world will congregate for (e)merge. The event is modeled after Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite events, which draw thousands to South Beach every December. The organizers include Helen Allen, the founder of New York and Miami’s Pulse contemporary art fair, and D.C. dealers Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith. The venue is the Morris Lapidus–designed Capitol Skyline Hotel, which is owned by the prominent Miami-based arts collectors Mera and Don Rubell, one of whom is serving on an (e)merge selection panel.

It’s a pedigreed undertaking, the likes of which the D.C. art scene hasn’t really ever seen—not even with the ill-fated 2007 artDC fair. But Ventura and Milko remain unconvinced. “You hear Corcoran kids talking about (e)merge,” but the fair has nothing to do with them, Milko says. “(e)merge talks about the emerging communities in D.C., but it’s really a national show.”
In response, over the course of the same September weekend, Ventura and Milko hope to show nothing but D.C. artists. The show will take place primarily at Wonderbox, an all-purpose arts warehouse, as well as at the adjacent 52 O St. NW studios.

Stephen Crouch, a resident artist at 52 O, will be building out the warehouse site with walls, lighting, and other features to make it exhibition-ready for the work of about 40 artists.

Ventura—who programs performance art and music for Hillyer Art Space in Dupont Circle—says But Is It Art? will also host about six hours of performances each day. In addition, the curators are seeking permission from warehouse owners near Wonderbox in the Truxton Circle neighborhood to appoint various surfaces with street art.

But why rebel against (e)merge? One explanation could be the anxiety that followed Mera Rubell in December 2009, when during a 36-hour tour of Washington studios she declared to The Washington Post that despite the city’s “wealth of amazing talent,” its lack of art infrastructure left artists essentially in isolation. “There’s nothing to fight for here,” she said. “There’s not enough contemporary art being shown.” That left some local art circles feeling bruised, and a debate ensued on blogs, in Facebook posts, and at a panel discussion (that I moderated).

Now the Rubells seems to be betting on D.C. as an emerging hub of contemporary art—but Ventura and Milko aren’t convinced they’re bringing the missing infrastructure they bemoaned.

“What we’re doing is already going on,” Ventura says, describing the setting for the But Is It Art? fair. “Southwest, a hotbed for artists? That’s just not true.” He says the Rubells engage in a practice of “art tourism” that might be good for the Capitol Skyline and their forthcoming hotel-cum-museum at the former Randall School property a few blocks away at 65 I St. SW, but has little connection to the city’s artists. “There’s a reason [the Rubells] own hotels. They’re not doing it pro-bono. It’s naïve to say they’re trying to help D.C. people out.”

Of course, (e)merge could help D.C. artists who help themselves. Though (e)merge’s selections are still pending, some local galleries hope to participate. Hemphill Fine Arts—which represents artists more established than emerging—doesn’t plan to buy a booth, but the gallery will be involved in some other way. And (e)merge will open communal spaces by application to artists who currently lack gallery representation—a group that could have included Ventura, Milko, and many of the artists assembling under the But Is It Art? banner.

Both Ventura and Milko acknowledge that the (e)merge fair helps them from a marketing angle. Ventura describes But Is It Art? as an unofficial “step-sister” fair; he knows artists applying for both (e)merge programming and anti-(e)merge programming. “Let’s be honest,” Ventura says. “It’s a great opportunity to steal their publicity.”

Nevertheless, Ventura and Milko haven’t reached out to Conner. They presume (e)merge won’t take any notice anyway. “We’re not on their radar,” Ventura says. “It’s nice to do something without asking the powers that be first,” Milko says.

Actually, Conner knows about But Is It Art? and says she welcomes it. “These people have not contacted us,” Conner says, “but I think it’s fantastic.” She says that (e)merge aims to be inclusive and to broadcast other arts events within the city, including, potentially, But Is It Art? “Casting things as mainstream versus alternative—I’m not sure those are the right terms. If like the Armory, if like Art Basel, if what (e)merge is doing is inspiring others, we’re happy that a satellite is happening.”


But Is It Art? may be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the commodification of contemporary art, but the curators believe theirs will be the better show. If the fair doesn’t exactly compete with the international, gallery-directed (e)merge fair, it may serve as a substitute for a different fair that’s gone missing: Artomatic.

“Artomatic is in a mode of rebuilding the organization before going forward with an event of any magnitude,” says Barry Schmetter, co-chair of the Artomatic leadership team. At this time, an Artomatic for 2011 seems unlikely at best, though Artomatic is considering two sites for a fall event.

Efforts to bring about an Artomatic this year collapsed when negotiations with the city to use a closed junior high school near Eastern Market failed. “We’re back to working with business-improvement districts and development companies,” Schmetter says. An Artomatic fair planned for Frederick, Md., has no direct connection with the Artomatic organization—except for permission to call itself “Artomatic Frederick.”

Once upon a time, Artomatic started much as the But Is It Art? fair. Now it’s a destination event that takes three to six months to produce, a draw for attention-starved BIDs, a city-sanctioned guerrilla event. It’s more circus than art fair, and it might be too big for any tent the city has to offer. And in its efforts to accommodate virtually everyone who wants to participate, its appeal as a venue for artists to get noticed has diminished to the point of irrelevance.

With Artomatic tied up in org charts and brand consulting, But Is It Art? cuts closer to the original Artomatic spirit of generating exposure for untested artists. But Ventura and Milko don’t much care for Artomatic, either. “We’re going to err on the side of inclusivity,” Ventura says, “but it’s not just going to be pay $20 and exhibit anything.”

Ventura and Milko don’t want applications fees—or applications. No images, no jury, no CV: They’re asking for emails from interested artists and curating it from there.

Even an event as hostile to authority and tongue-in-cheek as But It Is Art still costs something. What Ventura and Milko lack in resources, they more than make up for in connections—the ultimate DIY knowledge commodity. For permits, Milko says that But Is It Art? will tap the “basic artistic-political channels that exist in this city.” They expect they’ll need less than $1,000 in total for build-out costs, and they say they’ll find in-kind donations or materials on the cheap.

In the true D.C. DIY spirit, Ventura and Milko want to make But Is It Art? a success without tapping D.C.’s most established artists. “We’re trying to show that strong art can be the people you know—the bartender, the person who works at the coffee shop.” Check and check: Both of them Bloomingdale residents, Ventura is a former Big Bear Café barista, and Milko tends bar at Sticky Rice.

“I like that we don’t have big D.C. art names at this point,” Milko says. “Hopefully names will be born out of it.”

Clarification: The article originally listed Mera and Don Rubell among the organizers of September’s (e)merge art fair. And although selections are still pending, the application process was closed before the story ran.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery