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Two naked women and a handshake led David Quammen to Georgetown’s MOCA DC gallery. In 2000, Quammen, who at 60 had just begun his career as a figure model, was just kicking off his effort to organize members of his vocation. That’s when he got a call from artist Mark Clark, who needed an order filled.
“He called me and said, ‘I need a black and a Santeria or a Latino for something.’ I had a couple of black models, and I also knew one from Australia—she was a real bohemian,” Quammen says. “And I said, ‘How about a black model and a Gypsy?’”
One good turn deserves another, and so Quammen, a former advocate for the homeless, asked Clark for suggestions on how to start his figure models guild. Clark referred him to his brother, Michael V. Clark, founder of the inaptly named Museum of Contemporary Art DC. “So I said, ‘My name is’ and ‘here’s what I’m trying to do,’” Quammen says. “And all he said was, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, stop by Monday, and I’ll give you a key.’”
Now the gallery’s director, Quammen feels locked in. It was less than a year ago that MOCA faced eviction over a rowdy party that saw semi-nude models spilling out into the Canal Square plaza. MOCA dodged that bullet and kept its space. But in a May 19 email, Quammen outlined the gallery’s current woes to a handful of supportive members: MOCA has less than $400 in the bank, owes $209 to Comcast, and expects $400 in projected income through the end of the month. With a boost from Quammen’s own Social Security income, MOCA still needs $845 to meet the $2,625 June rent.
In reality, the problems that plague the gallery loom larger, and go back further, than rent and public disturbances. The gallery, a membership organization, doesn’t support itself traditionally: Its fees are too low, and its sales too few. As it stands, MOCA’s books don’t even show how many members the gallery has. MOCA has been registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization since 1995—but its fundraising typically involves Quammen’s testy emails, like one published on the blog Daily Campello Art News on May 21. The current lease doesn’t have Quammen’s name on it, and the problems get worse for him personally: At 72, he has suffered prostate and colon cancer (both are in remission) and a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis. And he can’t quit MOCA without finding someone to give it to—and somewhere else to go. He appears to be living in the gallery.
He’ll make June rent, he says. It’s hardly the first time he’s released an apocalyptic dispatch on the state of the gallery. But even having nearly emptied his savings account keeping the gallery afloat, as he says he has, Quammen still refuses to budge on the things that need changing.
“The whole thing is just a comedy of—not errors, but everything keeps going and going and going,” Quammen says. “I think I’ve got more guts than brains.”
Quammen took over MOCA in 2005, guaranteeing the rent for Clark, who left following his separation from his then-wife and gallery co-director Felicity Hogan. By that time, MOCA was one of the oldest galleries in Georgetown’s Canal Square, having resisted the move to decamp to 14th Street NW or beyond. But it had begun to gravitate away from the artists who typified the Georgetown scene, trading in the polite and painterly figurative work of painters like Manon Cleary (who showed at MOCA) for a focus on the figures themselves, through nudes and erotica.
Quammen’s interest was always in the models. “Every time I would go modeling, I heard the artists complain about the models. They wouldn’t show up, showed up late, couldn’t hold a pose if they knew what one was,” Quammen says. “Anyone who would take their clothes off for money was called a model, and they made the same rate as 30-year veterans. That seemed to me a little off.”
Quammen’s gallery may have fewer members than his Figure Models Guild, a free, professional registry that he says boasts 135 members today. Quammen doesn’t know. That’s in keeping with MOCA’s free-for-all spirit. Its current members cherish the space as an affordable alternative to not showing at all. All MOCA shows are non-juried; the $40 annual membership fee represents a bar so low that artists could hardly be said to be paying to show their work—the common criticism levied at vanity galleries.
The first two shows paid for themselves, Quammen says, “but I knew it couldn’t make it as a gallery.” He implemented some changes, renting studio space to photographers (from $25 to $35 an hour). He added a stage with pull-down backdrops for photo shoots and live-model body painting. The erotic emphasis of the gallery certainly hasn’t slipped: Celebrations for its annual May and November erotica-themed shows and other erotic-art parties—contained to the gallery’s back space these days—still feature nude body painting, adult-genitalia balloon art, tattoo and piercing contests, and other modes of exhibitionism.
Those erotic parties will continue. So will the low membership fee, even though it’s a fraction of the fees at comparable galleries, such as Touchstone or the Foundry, where artists pay to participate. Even as he claims he has personally spent almost $25,000 of his own money to support MOCA, Quammen won’t touch the gallery’s mission: Anyone who wants to show there probably can, and can probably take their clothes off at some point, too.
“I haven’t been able to find people who are willing to—and I’m not asking for much—to just take some of the burden,” he says. “I’ve just come to a point where, sunk costs be damned, I’ll just yank the rug out of everything.”
Some MOCA supporters say the most frustrating aspect of Quammen’s dilemma is his refusal to recognize the people authorized to bring about the changes he wants: a board.
In 2007, MOCA held a contentious election of officers. Owing to a dispute with one board member‑elect over the gallery’s expenses, Quammen refused to seat board president Jerry Harke, a fine-art-nude photographer who has showed at MOCA, or any of the other half-dozen members of the board. “I said, if that’s the case, I just won’t seat the board. [The board member] said, ‘I think we already did,’” Quammen says. “I told them, try. They had no authority. It hadn’t been filed with the D.C. government.”
Brett Kitchen, an artist who has exhibited at MOCA twice since becoming a member last fall, was involved in new efforts this March to organize a new board. “We wanted to try to get a board together to take over the gallery. [Quammen] is physically incapable of running it, let alone the financials,” Kitchen says. “But it was like herding cattle to pinpoint a place to meet. We couldn’t even get the meeting together to organize the board.”
At least one supporter has suggested a change to MOCA’s demeanor. About a month ago, figure artist Lamine Hamdad brought in a friendly contractor to discuss potential changes to MOCA’s physical space to make it a destination for high-end fashion designers and shows. The contractor was willing to work for the cost of materials alone. But Quammen resisted every change.
“I’m not sure if he’s a little bit stuck up in his older ways, or if he’s afraid that it might change people’s perceptions of the gallery,” says Hamdad, who hopes to rescue MOCA from its reputation as Georgetown’s destination for R-rated art. “It needs to be a nice place to generate attention.”
Cosmetic or constitutional changes might not be enough.
A public records search lists 1054 31st St. NW, the gallery’s location, as Quammen’s current physical address. Quammen says he lived recently with a model in New Carrollton but cannot provide another current permanent address. Though he says that he has put at least $25,000 of his own money into the gallery, at least some of that might be considered his personal rent. A friend of Clark’s lived at the gallery for some time up until 2007, according to Quammen.
Despite the fact that the property owners, R B Properties Inc., rescinded the eviction notice they served MOCA last July, the parties have not renegotiated the lease, which has been month-to-month for years, to change it from Clark’s to Quammen’s name. (R B Properites did not return a request for comment.)
Facing an illness that he says will eventually prove terminal, Quammen says that he has ambitions beyond MOCA. He hopes to write books, he says. But while he has couched his pleas for help with the programming and financing at MOCA in a desire, or perhaps a threat, to walk away from the gallery, he has resisted efforts to transition himself out—and may not be personally able to.
Many of the MOCA members interviewed for this article say they still support Quammen and the space, and Quammen says that upcoming shows on the calendar are big gets for the gallery. Indeed, the present crisis notwithstanding, Quammen is still reaching out to artists to organize shows for the summer and fall.
“Anything I get involved with, I don’t take lightly,” Quammen says. “I go like a bull in a china shop.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Correction |July 27, 2011: This article originally stated that MOCA has never had a board. A letter from David Quammen and a response from City Paper Editor Michael Schaffer provides further explanation.