The buzz at last month's open house for the new Washington Convention Center's public art collection wasn't so much about the art.
It was about how the public will never be able to see the art again.
Not true. But not entirely off base, either: If you're not a conventioneer, you can't just waltz into the center and check out the nearly 100 pieces, which together cost $4 million and include everything from intimate photographs to towering installations to a "Shaw Wall" dedicated to that neighborhood.
Under a policy that's still being negotiated between the Washington Convention Center Authority and the collection's curators, you'll need an appointment to see the artworks close upand then only while accompanied by a curator. If you're part of an organized group, you might even have to pay admission.
The reason? Terrorism, of course. "The art program was designed pre-9/11," says Tony Robinson, the convention center's director of public affairs. "After 9/11, everything's different. In this environment, we simply can't [allow the public unfettered access]."
Until earlier this week, the center had planned to require not only an appointment, but also a fee. Fees for individuals have now been dropped, according to Robinson, but any group that itself charges for a tour of the convention center's art will still have to pay up.
Public art collections have recently become a bauble of choice for new or recently expanded convention centers across the country. But such facilities in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore., don't restrict access to their artwork to
appointment-only tours. Nor do they charge any fees.
Robinson dismisses such comparisons. "It doesn't matter what they do in Denver," he says. "We have to deal with the security concerns that people now have. The building is there to serve as an economic generator for the conventioneers and for the District of Columbia." He adds that allowing art lovers to come and go at will would inevitably interfere with large conventions.
Of course, you can also look at the art in passing on one of the bimonthly tours of the center itself, which are limited to 25 people. Or you could sneak a peek if you attended a public event at the center.
But you wouldn't be able to see much. "There's a pretty high security presence in the building, so you'll be asked to go back if you've wandered away from the car show," Robinson says. "We would prefer that people come to the guided tours."
That policy makes it practically impossible to view a large fraction of the collection, which is widely scattered over the four floors and 2.3 million square feet of the convention center. Conventioneers and public-show attendees can get brochures that have photos and locations of each work, but Francoise Yohalem, a public-art consultant and curator of D.C.'s Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space, thinks the center should be doing a lot more.
"Philadelphia has tours with docents and encourages art teachers to bring groups of children," she says. "It would be nice if 'the largest public-art collection in the city' would really be open to the public."
Joel Straus, a Chicago art consultant who helped select the center's artworks, says that he and representatives of the Convention Center Authority are having "active discussions" about additional programs and tours.
"We've briefly discussed having tours for maybe the spouses of conventiongoers," he says. "There are many scenarios that could happen. The next step is to have a more concrete discussion about them."
In the meantime, Robinson disputes the idea that the restrictions make the center's public art less than public. "Having the art decorate that facility is important to its
mission," he says. "But we are not an art gallerywe are a convention center. And people have to understand that distinction."
GET THE PAPERWORK STARTED
Little Pink guitarist and lead singer Mary Battiata doesn't need her good name back.
She just wants Pink to let her trademark it.
Lawyers for Battiata and the Philadelphia-born pop star have been negotiating for 16 months over Battiata's trademark application for "Little Pink." According to Battiata, Pink's lawyers want her to put a version of her own name in front of the group's, which was inspired by the alt-country musician's favorite Band album, Music From Big Pink. They also want her to make sure Little Pink's CDs never end up confused with Pink's in record stores.
A slight name change Battiata can live with. It's the bin patrol she can't. "If my new record is carried by Tower Records in New York, I'm going to be under L. I'm not going to be under 'Pink,'" she says. "I'm not going to be making any hiphop records, but I can't control how [my music is] marketed."
It all started in August 2002, when Battiata got what she calls a "quite intimidating" letter from Pryor Cashman Sherman & Flynn LLP, a New York law firm representing Pink's music publisher.
The letter opposed the trademark registration Battiata had made that summer, also demanding that she destroy all copies of Little Pink's debut CD, Cul-de-sac Cowgirl, released in 2001 by local indie Adult Swim. The Arlington-based 40-something, who had never heard Pink's music, is now negotiating with the singer's lawyers over what it would take for them to drop the matter.
"It's an issue that we're hoping to resolve amicably," says Rob Litowitz, Battiata's attorney. "There's no reason not to. The parties have coexisted for several years without any confusion." (Pink's lawyers didn't return phone calls.)
"If they gave me $10,000 to change the band name, I'd do it," says Battiata, who adds that Pink has just refused that request in the last week. "I'm broke. If you play music at this level, eventually you erode your savings and you don't have the resources to start over. It they were to somehow make me start over, it's over."
"It's horrible. I don't know how it's going to turn out," she adds. "I want to come up with an agreement that's reasonable, and then I don't want to hear from these people again."
In the meantime, Battiata has finally seen one of Pink's performances, on a recent episode of the Late Show With David Letterman. And she liked it.
"She was great," Battiata says. "She's the successor to Madonna. She writes good songs; she's a good performer. [But] it was kind of painful, this whole thing. It's hard for me to believe it's happening."
HOT, HOT ART
Loading a large nude self-portrait into the back of her family's Subaru wagon in Dupont Circle made painter Virginia Isbell a little self-conscious earlier this month.
But it was only later in the evening, after an estimated $15,000 worth of her paintings was stolen from the car, that Isbell realized the nude might have been what attracted the thieves in the first place.
Isbell, a Chevy Chase native who lives in Paris, was in town to visit family and show her work to Victor Gaetan, owner of the Alex Gallery and Gallery A, on R Street NW near the Phillips Collection. At about 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6, Isbell brought Gaetan a number of her canvases for him to consider, including the 39-by-20-inch nude.
Before going in to talk to Gaetan, Isbell double-parked on the street, blocking in a light-colored van that had taken a spot moments before. When she finished up about an hour later, the van was still therewith people in it.
"They watched us load everything into the car," recalls Isbell. "I didn't think about it at the time."
Instead, Isbell drove up Connecticut Avenue to meet her family for dinner in Cleveland Park. She discovered the theft12 framed pieces as well a portfolio of about 25 works on paperwhen she returned to her car, which had been parked on Porter Street NW. The stolen art represented a year of work for Isbell.
"They didn't take my bag or my cashmere sweater," she says. "And they left only two paintingsstill lifes, which were not as good." The artist, who shows frequently in France and had a show earlier this fall at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center on New York Avenue, believes the Subaru might have been tailed from outside Gaetan's galleries.
"This has never happened in 17 years at this location," says Gaetan. "It's very bizarre."
But the gallerist, who says he has not yet agreed to represent Isbell, thinks the painter's theory about being followed might have some merit: She did, he points out, leave the nude leaning against the van for a few provocative moments while packing up the rest of her work. Robert Lalasz
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