Arts Desk

Dawson’s Creak: Reflections on “Real Art D.C.”

In case you missed it, last week The Washington Post announced Steven Silburg as the winner of its Real Art D.C. contest. It's an honor to be the top dog in any race, but this prize is a little dubious—and not just because of the title, which evokes two reality shows that create more court jesters than kings, The Real World and Real Housewives.  Seventeen thousand Washington Post readers voted in the contest, but 75 percent of the votes were split between Silberg and runner-up Stephanie Booth. Silberg barely stayed on the island with a 200-vote margin.

While this competition was no doubt spurred by art patron Mera Rubell's December observation of D.C.'s "artists in isolation," the Post's Jessica Dawson—as the (presumed) lone judge and jury before the final round—blurred some boundaries: Should a critic also be a judge? Sure, art criticism and contest judge are subjective exercises (bound by bits of objectivity). However, being an arts writer for a major newspaper requires, at the very least, to withdraw from criticism if there is a conflict of interest. Does judging affect her objectivity for future criticism, or did past bits of criticism and show-hopping cloud her judgment regarding who was selected as a finalist? Since the goal of the contest was to "discover the Washington region's newest talents,"  I can't say she was effective at bringing new talent to the table… and in some cases she should have known better.

Of the 10 finalists, six were already familiar—if not yet fully exposed—talent. Lisa McCarty, Kristina Bilonik, and Silburg have exhibited at the larger regional nonprofits over the past few years, and a couple of them have been written up in Post pieces by Michael O'Sullivan. Joel D'Orazio's been around a lot longer. Adam Dwight has had quite a bit of buzz throughout the year, and Travis Childers was a Sondheim semifinalist in 2009.

That Keinyo White is an illustrator might create a bias against his craft from a fine-art perspective, but his selection as a finalist will broaden his audience and blur those fine art-commercial art boundaries. Recent graduates Jenny Yang and Chloe Watson (despite whatever exposure they may have had from Corcoran and MICA) and public school art teacher Stephanie Booth are also welcome newcomers to the WaPo readership.

But the contest had other problems. If you wanted to judge for yourself and traipse through the 4000-plus image entries submitted to the site, it would have taken at least 90 minutes on a DSL connection. Fast math says that each image would then get less than a one-second glance, though 50 percent of the time that was too long for any of a number of reasons: the slide was a duplicate, the work wasn't really qualified to be in the competition, or the artist was overqualified. Even submitter "Prince George" recognized his work didn't belong, stating, "there is some good art on this site. This is not one of those sets..."

To clarify, roughly half of all work entered had one suitable place: Artomatic. Perhaps it is elitist to declare that the conversation of contemporary art has no space for micro-lens floral photos and poorly rendered graphite celebrity fan art, but it is the truth. The only spaces for such work are waiting rooms and refrigerators (respectively). As for the artists who were more-than-qualified: It's sort of embarrassing that six people from Lenny Campello's top 100 (Laurel Lukaszewski, Carol Brown Goldberg, Matt Sesow, Dana Ellyn, Tim Tate, and Renee Butler), not to mention the book's author, all submitted work. And simply because they were not among Campello's hundred doesn't excuse submissions by Christopher Sims, Ryan Hill, Katherine Mann, and Trevor Young.

Of the rest that remain… well, there was a lot of academic stuff that I wouldn't be surprised to find in galleries named Apex or Pinnacle (not that that's a bad thing). But that's not to say those academic submissions weren't at least mildly interesting, especially when bookended by Obama art. Of the remaining art that was arguably decent, about 50 artists caught my eye. In the spirit of the competition, I'll give a list of 10. This is not to discredit the finalists. In fact, I don't even know if I would classify these as finalists, since I won't ruminate heavily over them. Consider this my "in addition to." Here are there usernames (some of them neglected to fill out a profile). I'll spare them less-than-constructive suggestions and snarky/snide quips to summarize their efforts:

  1. dant2
  2. kraghvon
  3. 1armywife
  4. gbdriggers1
  5. chezkevito
  6. topperfiona
  7. billyfriebele
  8. singersus
  9. mahajohn
  10. croft58

On the whole, the Real Art D.C. experiment contained some fun. One major criticisms of the D.C. art scene is that the Post needs to be the paper of record when it comes to the art in and around the nation's capital. Support of the local art scene by a national paper with the fifth largest readership in the country helps solidify the region as an art destination. To see the energies of Dawson and the Post invested into the region with this contest—not to mention some of chief critic Blake Gopnik's recent forays into D.C. galleries—has been welcome and refreshing. But the experiment had plenty of flaws, too—and they don't entirely belong to the Post. Some rest on the shoulders of art faculty at the two dozen or so area colleges and universities for not encouraging their talent to submit to a contest partially designed for them.

Still, if exercises like Real Art D.C. are executed enough times, and end up energizing new talent, and the Post continues to pay attention to that new talent, then maybe the museums and galleries of Washington, D.C., can stop revisiting the Washington Color School every three yearsand dusting off Gene Davis' corpse every time their gift shops need to make a buck.

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  • Anon

    You forgot to mention that this "contest" was a pure and simple rights grab for images for them to sell in their "photography store". If you read the fine print, it says so, right there. Many, and I mean many of the top artists around here didn't enter for this very reason.

  • Lenny Campello

    Some excellent points and a lot of good issues to think about... Including the previous comment - which I highlighted in DC Art News

  • John Anderson

    Oh, I didn't forget to mention it; I made a deliberate choice to omit.

    First, Anon, it depends on what your definition of "top" is. The purview of the contest seemed (to me, at least) to find the unknown-unknowns. So, there is no motivation for anyone from, say, Lenny's 100 to enter (despite 6 doing so... which would have amused me for the irony had there not been 4K img submissions).

    As for the rights grab... I kicked that around in an earlier draft, but more for the purposes of making fun of the paranoia on the Interwebs regarding WaPo's legal jargon. While their wording was poor enough to allow the WaPo to make t-shirts and giclee reproductions of artist works, I think it is rather unreasonable to believe that they would do anything but republish the works in newsprint, magazine, or web. And, considering the quality of half the submission, who would want them?

    "Pure and simple rights grab?" I think not. WaPo would find a better revenue stream holding a bake sale.

  • Lenny

    Considering how their circulation keeps going down, a bake sale may not be out of the picture (pun intended) in the future of the WaPo.

  • Anon

    It doesn't matter what WaPo's intention's are. The clear black and white fine print says that they now own the copyright to each and every image that was submitted.

    Also, most of these folks have had shows in this area. They are not unknowns and this was not a contest for unknowns. The text says, "calling all artists" and "newest talents". Considering the argument in the art world over what constitutes an emerging artist these days (age, shows, education?), newest is a vague term at best.

    I do recall your previous mention of WaPo's ridiculous rules now that you've mentioned it. Glad you covered that. I know it got a fair amount of raised eyebrows on the facebook and such.

    If the artists who entered are ok with giving away their work, that's fine for them but in the long term they damage the professionalism of all artists. We are already expected to work for free too often. This "contest" did not help. I hope there aren't any more unless WaPo cleans up it's copyright act.

  • Lenny

    From (April 9. 2010), here's the small print in question:

    8. Submitted Entry Materials will be posted on, and may be included in both print and online features and promotions. In addition, by entering you grant Sponsor a license to publish, reproduce, use, transfer, and otherwise display your Entry Materials in any medium and for any purpose in Sponsor's sole discretion.

    I had a little trouble digesting that condition, which essentially all but gives the copyright of the image to the Washington Post and I am not sure why the WaPo would want to "use" the artists' entry in "any medium and for any purpose", unless they're planning to put some images on T-shirts and sell them at the next Crafty Bastards fair (not a book though, as rule 20 clarifies).

    Since I don't think they're planning to do that, I sort of think that this is a general lawyer paragraph to cover all their possibilities and chances under this "license" which I guess is technically different than transferring the actual copyright.

  • John Anderson

    Paranoia over the rules is a potential limitation to some. Hopeful insistence that the WaPo discontinues such contests pending further review and correction of their contest rules is as misdirected as those rules are ambiguous. Consider that the mere mention of a lesser known artist within our local art scene to the circulation of 500,000 readers of the print edition is a boon to both the artists and the art scene.

    As for damaging the professionalism for all artists... It's not like we're engineers and doctors who have to be concerned with professionalism. We're not heads of state. We're artists.

    Thanks to dwindling art programs in institutions of primary and secondary education throughout the country; and dwindling civic and private funded art projects; and the dwindling amount of arts coverage in popular media; not to mention how most people can't conceive how a vitrine of vacuum cleaners, or a man masturbating under a gallery floor while publicly describing his fantasies of the gallery viewers could possibly be art (thanks in part to all the dwindling, and a divorce from the dialogue on contemporary art); you are afraid that an artist submitting a 72 dpi image on a newspaper website - potentially sacrificing his or her rights to that 72 dpi image, something he or she might do anyway by posting the same image on his or her personal blog - ruins artistic professionalism? I comprehend your concern, but I can't embrace it. I think there are far greater issues for artists to be concerned with than freely licensing lo-res images to the local paper (with great national reach).

    Real Art DC was, for all its faults, a good thing. I hope the Post continues it in the future – perhaps on a biennial basis – and builds off the public criticism.

  • Lenny

    The more the WaPo does for the local visual arts the better. And I agree 100% that "Real Art DC was, for all its faults, a good thing."

    And kudos to Jessica as well, for taking up this tough and hard-to-please-everyone task.

    I'm starting to look at all entries by the way... lemme see if I can come up with my own top ten.

    I'm also gonna try to "order" a WaPo image from my favorite "Real DC" artist (once I find him or her) from the WaPo to see what happens.


  • John Anderson

    Kudos indeed! The effort was generous: all those studio visits.