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How many people did it take to write Lenny Campello’s book about his 100 favorite D.C. artists? One, right?
Try about 125.
Longtime D.C. art dealer, blogger, and booster F. Lennox Campello is assembling an encyclopedia whose title says it all: 100 Washington Artists. It’s a tome, coming to stores next spring from Schiffer Publishing, that he hopes will raise the profile of several dozen D.C. artists, most of whom have eluded national prominence. “I think we have a pretty damned good art scene here,” says Campello, 53. “Those people, even artists, don’t necessarily realize it.”
They should. The 100 artists whom Campello selected for the book are its first line of contributors. Straight out of the gate, 100 Washington Artists doesn’t qualify as a critical text. It’s something more like a crowd-sourced yearbook. “I asked every artist to send me a statement or something about their works that I could edit or reword as I pleased. Something noncopyrighted,” says Campello. Along with the statement, he asked for four to seven images, to be displayed over two-page spreads. “I put my own twist in it and forever claim it’s mine.”
But cataloguing the book’s subject-contributors glosses more than just artist profiles. Surveying the concept behind the book tells you something about the Washington art scene’s neuroses—as well as the ethical tics of its foremost cheerleader.
Campello was inspired by a December 2009 episode that got people in the art scene talking. Shortly before Christmas, Miami-based art collector Mera Rubell—who with her husband, Don Rubell, is of the most significant collectors in the United States—paired with the Washington Project for the Arts for a weekend marathon in which she visited 36 artists’ studios over 36 consecutive hours to select participants for the WPA’s 2010 Annual Art Auction Gala.
Consider Rubell the first ghostwriter of 100 Washington Artists. The first 15 artists Campello selected for his book were 15 of the 16 artists Rubell picked for the auction. (Campello, a draughtsman, was the 16th, but he disqualified himself from consideration for his book.) Add chance as another author: The 36 artists were selected at random from more than 200 applicants angling for a studio visit from the influential Rubell.
The Washington Post’s galleries critic, Jessica Dawson, is not one of the authors of 100 Washington Artists, per se. Dawson’s Post write-up of the Rubell stunt (for which both Dawson and I were embedded as journalists during different legs) set fires on Facebook and other outlets. And so Dawson became Campello’s muse. “What really triggered it in my mind was when I was reading what Jessica wrote about it, and how some of the artists were complaining about the lack of an arts community,” says Campello. He says he considered Dawson’s write-up a fair reflection of what artists told her—even if he disagreed with her analogy comparing Rubell’s visit to D.C. studios to Santa’s trip to the Island of Misfit Toys.
(Disclosure: At the WPA’s invitation, I moderated a panel that discussed the kerfuffle in early January, hosted at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, one of the Rubells’ D.C. properties.)
The seed planted, Campello reached out to his own network for many of the book’s remaining authors.
“Some curators, a couple of the usual-suspect, big-name art collectors,” Campello says. “Maybe two gallerists. One museum director…type.” He assured this group of about a dozen art-world figures anonymity in exchange for recommendations of at least 10 names. “There wasn’t a single list that matched by more than four or five names.”
Campello understands that anyone who works in the art world would be unable to provide a full and faithful account of her artist faves without revealing the artists in whom she has a stake. Hence the anonymity—which, problematically, albeit democratically, disguises both the book’s shadow contributors and their connections to its selections.
In a twist on transparency, though, Campello is putting his own conflicts into the book. His Christ-like logic is as follows: Let he who is without conflict of interest cast the first stone.
“If anybody tells you they can put a list of 100 artists in Washington together objectively, they’re full of shit,” Campello says. “I think people who think they can be objective are fooling themselves. I reject that. This town is too small for that.”
In a strict sense, Campello has included artists from whose work he has benefited finacially. As a curator and a dealer, he’s shown 100 Washington Artists selections Lida Moser, Andrew Wodzianski, Tim Tate, Michael Janis, Joseph Barbaccia, and many others—primarily with his then-wife Catriona Fraser when he co-operated Fraser Gallery, a partnership that ended in August 2006. Fraser still maintains the Bethesda gallery space.
“I’m a PR machine for the people that I do like. I do try to spread that,” Campello says. As much can be ascertained from his blog, D.C. Art News, where he has written for years about artists he admires (and represents). “I have zero commercial relationship with them.”
That’s not wholly true. Since his time at Fraser Gallery—and following a brief stint in Philadelphia as a private dealer—Campello has worked as a curator and consultant for Alida Anderson Art Projects, a gallery with ties to Philadelphia and Norfolk that represents his own artwork. Through Alida Anderson, he has taken work by Janis and Tate to a number of art fairs. Campello earns a cut from sales of their work. “I have a big interest in people like Tim [Tate],” Campello says. “But I’m putting this book together, and I shouldn’t penalize this artist. So long as I’m out in the open about it and don’t try to hide it.”
And so he hasn’t. His recent unveiling of his 100 Washington Artists list on Facebook and his blog has drawn suggestions from the woodworks—a three-paragraph post on Arts Desk yielded a heated debate in the comments section, including discussions about the book’s omissions. And so the Internet may yet add another 100-plus authors to Campello’s series if he follows through with plans to draft at least one sequel detailing another 100 Washington artists—a reflection of his catholic tastes and his desire to include damn well everyone who wants in.
Not every Washington-based artist jumped at the opportunity. Artists Jim Sanborn and Sam Gilliam refused to participate; Yuriko Yamaguchi never responded, says Campello, even after he mailed her postcards. He says “another artist had a nervous breakdown thinking about which image to send.” But other respected and nationally recognized artists from D.C. are playing ball—Dan Steinhilber, Maggie Michael, and Molly Springfield among them.
Practically speaking, it’s tough to say that Campello stands to benefit massively from his interests in the book. For his work, which he says has cost him “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours,” he’s not receiving any advance. Schiffer is a small specialty press whose recent titles include The World’s Rarest Movie Poster and Bridal Flowers: Bouquets – Boutonnières – Corsages.
And the gains may be limited for the artists, whose peers are many, and who compete for a vanishingly small slice of the pie. Half of Campello’s selections appear in the WPA’s Artfile, a browsable archive where member artists upload artists’ statements and images—a lot like what Campello is offering. Until recently, the WPA Artfile was published in print: a guide, not a game-changer.
Campello is determined to see that his book is the latter. For this unflagging fanboy of Capital City artists, the fight for visibility trumps profit, or interests, or ethics.
He says the perception of conflict alone—however small or large the stakes involved—will not keep Campello from carrying the standard for District art as he sees fit.
“It’s Lenny Campello writing the book,” he says. “It’s my book.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery