Arts Desk

Artomatic 2012: First Impressions

Walk through Artomatic for two hours and the effect is what you might expect: It's dizzying. Draining. Eleven floors, 10 of them busting with artworks from 1,300 contributors. Some floors are labyrinthine; others are wide-open displays of sculpture and installation, interrupted by a stage and bank of chairs. Like the last time Artomatic was in Crystal City, this year's show is housed in an old office building. The carpet looks cheap; the drop ceiling feels cheaper. The lighting is mostly fluorescent. It is everything a museum or a gallery shouldn't be. And that's the point, because it is neither.

Consider what it is: a six-week event by local artists for local artists, run almost entirely by volunteers in a vacant building. There are the stages: poetry on the 11th floor; Heineken (one of the sponsors) has stages on the 10th and eighth floors; the ninth floor has a dance stage. If it isn't the largest volunteer-run arts organization in the country, it's probably near the top. What makes it so appealing is its democratic ethos, which is also one of the reasons it's mocked: Yes, there's some bad work here.

But, let's get one thing straight. Not all of the art in Artomatic 2012 is lousy. A lot of it is really good, and it runs the gamut: There are illustrations, murals, furniture design, collaborative pieces encouraging people to tell stories and doodle on the wall. Sure, the quality of the space leaves something to be desired—as does exhibiting next to a stranger who paints the wall without using painters tape—but that shouldn't distract from the simple fact that Artomatic is swarming with talented people.

Like in years past, the "serious" artists registered early and scored the "better" spots on the top floors. Start at the top of the building and work your way down to ground level. Some stuff on the middle floors is skippable, but there are surprises throughout the exhibit—a prize on every floor.

But the truly innovative thing about Artomatic 2012? Its social-media savvy. You can check in. Tweeting is encouraged. But most compelling is the forthcoming Artomatic mobile app. With it, iPhone and Android users can see floor plans, an event schedule, find artists by their space numbers, and create their own guided tours for other people to follow. It means that now more than ever, attendees don't need to rely on critics and "old" media to lead them through the maze. For a show that's never been hung up on the old ways of doing things, that's smart, and true to form.

Artomatic 2012 runs May 18 to June 23 at 1851 S. Bell St., Arlington. Free. Photo by Flickr user camerafaces used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Monica de Gastyne

    The main floor has a cafe set up by Busboys and Poets. There is a sign that says "open" or "closed" , but you can still enter the room when it is closed to see the artists rooms behind the cafe, don't miss out!


  • Sidney

    I went on Saturday and Sunday and did all 11 floors! The good stuff truly is spread out. My favorite floors were the 10th, the 4th, and the 2nd.


  • Maryann Pranulis

    I was one of the early registrants and deliberately chose to be on the first floor -- not the 11th which is overloaded with a maze of small spaces. All of the other artists that I know who chose the 1st floor were also early registrants -- we did not get the left overs. Maybe you should suggest that visitors START on the first floor and work their way up as they return again and again to take in the whole event instead of trying to run through the entire 11 floors in 1 or 2 hours and get overwhelmed. I hope you will return with a fresh eye and see the art instead of the carpets and ceiling. Maryann