Arts Desk

The Naked Truth: MOCA DC Has Faced Crisis After Crisis, but Its Real Problems Might Be Chronic

Quammen, in 2010

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.

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  • paul

    really nice man, really cool spot. a lot of people in this town have gone through the same process

  • m. bertrand harris

    As a photographer I have exhibited and shot a MOCA-DC a number of times. Dave is great to work with. He is tough minded and to be able to have an open gallery for all artist doing all types of work is great. the opening and closing parties are a blast. I just wish more artist would seek out MOCA-DC to show their works.
    It is edgy but Dave does not censor the work so edgy people know they can exhibit there, so can conservative one too.
    As for it being a shooting studio it has Speedtron strobes, umbrellas, and professional backdrops. This is the best value in town for photographers. And working with new models they are more comfortable going to MOCA-DC and not someone's house.

  • Stephen K

    I suppose I'm a charter member of the Figure Models Guild, having been there from its organizational meeting (and having already been an art school model for several years before then). And I've been a supporter of MOCA, as providing venues unavailable elsewhere.

    Yes, I know. David Quammen can be stubborn and difficult to work with. I've had my run-ins with him over the years; even now, I take issue with some of what he does, and find it difficult to make my case to him when he'd rather not hear it.

    But you know what? It probably took someone like David--someone of his personality--to do what he's done. And he HAS done good things. At least one teacher has told me that models didn't used to know what they were doing, but that's changed since David and the Guild. And it's certainly been a way for models to network and share experience and such; that did not exist before (for most of us, anyway).

    About the naked parties! To set the record straight, most of the events at MOCA (apart from the art sessions with live, nude models--and there are many organizations in town that have those) do not involve nudity--don't even entertain the possibility of nudity. It's usually only the events connected exhibits that are about that--the annual, month-long Erotica exhibit, for example (and certainly MOCA is not the only place that's ever had erotic art exhibits).

    In just a few minutes, I'm going to his latest opening. When his events involve nudity and body painting, I'm usually one of those on display nude and body painted. When I anticipate that, I bring a change of old clothes to wear home.

    You know what? I'm not carrying that change of clothes! Because with this event, as with the majority of MOCA events, I fully expect that everybody will be keeping their clothes on. Yes, even I will keep my clothes on at MOCA tonight.

    While David might consider changing the way he does business (and I don't know--I hope NEVER to be in a position of "doing business"), I hope he doesn't change the vision of the Guild or of MOCA. Both provide something not available anywhere else. It would be a shame if either one changed into just what everybody else is doing.

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  • paul

    JULY 1st @ MOCA DC

    ACE 12 & BEN B

    & more

  • David R. Quammen

    When Kriston approached me about doing an article, I was honest and straightforward in all I said. But when I read the result, it became obvious that he was not a journalist at all; rather, he has created his own spin not with an eye to the truth, but merely to take words out of context, stretch the truth and in some cases, incorporate outright lies in his fabrications. Not someone I would ever want to be around.

  • Roger

    ah this brings back memories of the hatchet job on Lenny Campello

    David, if it's any consolation, people who have lived in DC for any length of time don't rely on the City Paper for reliable's like expecting FOX news to get the facts straight

  • Rosalba Negrete

    This is not a nice article, I dislike your comment. David love art and in this economic times he like many others galleries are fighting for have the doors open, will be better that you put more effort in support this fight for the art.

  • Mark

    Dave has done a wonderful job of providing an alternative in Georgetown to the uppity chic prevalent elsewhere. If you are offended by nudity, simply do not attend. As mentioned by others, not all shows involve nudity and those that do are clearly designated as such. Why go after an art gallery when we are having our environment raped and being poisoned by ingredients in our food that aren't even on the label!

  • Ginny

    How can you fault MOCA for struggling to survive when so many galleries are struggling and not making it. Dave offers a very alternative type of experience that's open to ALL- no one is excluded- the valuable access and community he provides far exceeds MOCA's operational problems. Think you should take a second look...

  • Pam

    Did you really need to talk so much about his personal and private issues like his health? He has given his all to this project, and instead of tearing him apart, why don't you support him? And I'm sorry, but the part where you write about the gallery "gravitat(ing) away from the artists who typified the Georgetown scene, trading in the polite and painterly figurative work..." just shows you that the town NEEDED this gallery to shake things up from the "typical". Who wants typical?

  • Michael Schaffer

    This article prompted a sharp letter this week from its subject, David Quammen. The letter reads:

    To the Editor:

    Kriston Capps’ article (“The Naked Truth,” 6/3/2011) wrongly states that MOCA DC has never had a board of directors. In fact, I have a list of board members going back to 1995, the date that MOCA DC was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation with the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. I am certain that you understand that this agency requires a board of directors as part of the conditions under which the corporate standing was authorized. Contrary to Mr. Capps assertion, MOCA DC has complied with this requirement.

    Another key point is the tawdry image that Mr. Capps weaves in describing our dedication to the figurative arts in some of our exhibits, and some of the live-entertainment during these exhibits. MOCA DC is the only gallery in the region with a regular exhibit of figurative art, an art form that historically receives the kind of negative image that Mr. Capps tries to attribute to any display of it. To the contrary, the nude figure is a time-honored expression of art that some of the finest artists throughout history have seen fit to hang their reputations on.

    My final point of contention is the characterization of me as being obstructive to changes that would put the gallery on a more steady financial footing. To the contrary, I have introduced drastic changes. The gallery remains in operation only through the changes that I have implemented. I am proud of that record, and stand on it now and will resist any who may want to make the gallery into just-another gallery like all the rest.

    David R. Quammen

    Quammen’s complaints about the story prompted City Paper to to re-examine the reporting. What we found was that when Capps had interviewed Quammen—an interview he recorded—he indeed asked whether MOCA ever had a board. Quammen replied, “tried once,” before explaining how a previous election had failed to produce a board. Based on that interview, and interviews in this story from others associated with MOCA, Capps wrote that that there was no board. It now appears that either the question, or the answer, led to some significant confusion. As Quammen notes, MOCA has consistently filed a list of board members’ names with the city government, as is required of nonprofits.