With Herb's about to disappear, and the Botswana about to open, it is time to add a footnote to that frequently discussed but never-written book, "Making Art and Hanging Out: A History of Art Bars."
A color reproduction of Manet's "Bar at the Folies-Berge re" would be a perfect frontispiece. Drawings by van Gogh, paintings by Renoir and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec might illustrate the chapter on other Paris dance halls of the 1890s, the Moulin Rouge, for instance, or the Moulin de La Galette. Sketches by Picasso, or perhaps a photo of the metal sign he placed above its door, might decorate the pages on Els Quatre Gats, the far-out bar in Barcelona where, at age 18, he first encountered modernismo. To represent L.A., one might include a photograph of Ed Kienholz's "Barney's Beanery." De Kooning's "Woman I" or a drip painting by Pollock could accompany the chapter on Manhattan's Cedar Tavern. And works by younger New York artists or even by Bob Dylan might illustrate the section on Max's Kansas City.
The book could have a chapter, too, on artists' bars in Washington. But it would not be thick. Tasso's would be mentioned. So would the Ben Bow and the Don.
Tasso's flourished in the '60s. Not a booze bar, but a 17th Street coffeehouse, it was regularly patronized by hippies of the arty sort and by actors from the Washington Theater Club nearby. The Ben Bow, nicely placed beneath the Connecticut Avenue studio of Bob Stark and Lucy Clark, was a gathering place for painters. So, too, for a while, was the Cafe'don. Two factors made it popular. One was its location, just across the street from the Beverly Court, a building filled with artists on Columbia Road NW. The other was Herb White.
Between 1978 and 1980, Herb White owned the Don, and it was there he began earning his reputation as a publican devoted to all sorts of artists. (The much-remembered "Laundry Show," arranged by Leslie Kuter, was mounted just next door at White's invitation.) Then, in 1982, at the center of the P Street Strip, White opened Herb's.
He filled the walls with posters and photographs of artists. He hired writers, painters, singers, choreographers and comedians. He kept his prices fairly low. He put the receipts from his jukebox into a "Jukebox Fund" for artists. And he encouraged, as he puts it, "a lot of stuff to happen." The Washington Sculpture Society, District Curators, the Washington Independent Writers and other artists' groups often met at Herb's, and art events of various sorts -- a Valentine's Day auction for the New Art Examiner, a poetry reading, a show for "Big Al" Carter -- were held there all the time. The Twisted Teen Age Plot, the artists' band, twice performed at Herb's, says White, "and emptied the place both times."
But those good old days are ending. The building has been sold and is being expensively refurbished. As of Dec. 31, Herb's will be no more.
It someday may be reestablished elsewhere in the city. "I'm looking around," says White. And the bar that will replace his at the same location, the Cafe' des Beaux-Arts, may continue to do various good deeds for the arts. Only time will tell.
For those who cannot wait, now comes the Botswana, opening tomorrow night as a "work in progress" at the Washington Project for the Arts. Unlike public art bars -- d.c. space, for instance -- Botswana is a private club run for -- and by -- artists. It will occupy -- at least for now -- a third-floor bar-cum-gallery at 404 Seventh St. NW. But it may not be there long, for the WPA's building has also just been sold.
At first it will be open as a drinking place only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. Anyone can join. Membership fees are $10 a year for WPA members, $20 for the rest of you. Since artists do not have much cash, that might sound a little pricey, but then drinks at Botswana will cost only a buck.
Artists will decorate the place. Suzanne Codi, Jeff Spaulding, Charlie Sleichter, Evan Hughes, Tom Ashcraft, David Brown, Peter Wynant, Sal Fiorito and others have already been at work. Exhibitions will be held there, but no curators will be involved. The participating artists will be on their own.
A bar has been constructed, chairs and sofas have been put in place and, to separate the club from the WPA, a rolling metal door, of the kind that guards garages, has already been installed. The first show to be mounted there -- it begins tomorrow night at 8 -- will be an "Artists Trade Show," "trade" here as in "swap." Everyone attending will be expected to bring something for exhibit -- a drawing or a print, a found object or whatever -- and all the objects on display will then be traded one-for-one.
A word about Botswana's history: It owes a major debt to the late, lamented Tentacle Room, a private club for artists organized in Washington by a footloose (but farsighted) publican and painter named Michael McCall. He ran it in his studio at 930 F St. NW. Its members were given photo IDs and "Tentacle Room" T-shirts, too. Its decor was pseudo-tropical, its fishing nets, glass floats and painted crabs suggesting some unlikely mix of "Miami Vice" and Trader Vic's. McCall -- who ran the place as part saloon and part salon -- disappointed many when he distributed its accouterments and left town for L.A.
A word about Botswana's name: Because, when he departed, McCall took "Tentacle Room" with him (and, in fact, has lately opened a Tentacle Room West), another name was needed. The search for one that seemed even vaguely fitting caused much consternation. "Idea Lounge," "Re-Bar" and "Reactor" were floated and rejected. Then one day a few weeks ago -- this is how these things happen -- Lynn McCary of the WPA walked into the construction site wearing round her neck a scarf with a label that read "Made in Botswana."
"It caught on," she says. "I don't know why, but it did." Brief researches conducted in the next few days made it seem appropriate. "Botswana," explains McCary, "is a small, landlocked African country separate from, but dependent on, South Africa. Botswana, the club, is separate from, but dependent on, the WPA. People escaping oppression in South Africa often head for Botswana; it's a kind of a neutral territory. We want the club to be a kind of a transition zone and a place of refuge, too. South Africa is outrageously restrictive. Botswana is much less so. The club will be a place where artists can meet, and talk and show without restrictions. Botswana is a poor, tribal country. Artists are a sort of tribe. And they don't have much money. So that seemed to fit, too."