The Washington Project for the Arts, which has survived more perils than Pauline and shown more risky art than many a museum, scheduled a party for last night, full of pride and hope and sleaze -- to be held in a laundry. The WPA's Tenth Anniversary Event was to be fishy in a lot of ways. Fishiness, in fact, was its o-fish-al theme.
Black-tie bland was out, "tropical sleaze" preferred. Guests were asked to dress in fish masks, fish heads, fishnet, wet suits, swimwear or "pirate chic." Day-glo was the color theme. Artist Sal Fiorito, the party's head anchovy, promised "actual weirdness."
One very fishy fact about the WPA's 10th anniversary is that the Washington Project for the Arts isn't 10 years old at all. It's 11. It was born, in fluid chaos, in May 1975.
The hope expressed now is for the institution's future. The WPA, which might have lost its present home at 400 Seventh St. NW, has, it now appears, saved it in the nick of time, and, with luck, it will remain there for the next two decades. The pride is for the past. What years they have been.
Remember "The Biggest Cowboy Boots in the World," which Bob Wade built at 12th and G? They were 30 feet from heel to toe and four stories tall.
WPA's first storefront home, at 1227 G St. NW, had awkward stairs and creaking floors and crummy pegboard walls. Yet founder Alice Denney, that encourager of anarchy, and Adolpho Victoriano (Al) Nodal, the tireless and lovable scavenger of genius who replaced her as director, somehow made it work. Washington is in their debt. Land thereabouts now sells for $1,000 a square foot, but the buildings that lined G Street then were decrepit, dusty shells. WPA's artists, short of cash but rich in energy, helped revitalize downtown.
They showed a turtle, which just swam around, and a bucking bull, which threw you. They put on annual art auctions -- which lately have replaced the Corcoran's area exhibitions as the best and broadest survey shows around.
The WPA's group shows often have been picked by artists. It was Keith Morrison, the painter, who curated "Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970," the scholarly exhibit that opened there last year. The late Gene Davis and Mary Swift did an "Options" show together. Ed Love and Joe Shannon curated another. Shirley True chose 400 photographs, most of them from Washington. Chris Gardner and John Van Alstine showed "Flat Works" done by sculptors. The WPA put on "Poetic Objects," arranged by Walter Hopps, and "Stacking/Rigging/Binding," picked by Howard Fox.
Even if you never went into its galleries, there was no way you could miss the art the WPA promoted. Many of its strongest shows spilled into the streets. There was the neon show downtown, the phone booths of Mr. Apology, odd artworks on 14th Street and Alice Aycock's "Game of Flyers" with its towers, flames and graves.
From the day it opened, the place was filled with artists. They worked all day and night. They hung the shows, painted walls, sanded floors, hammered and then painted walls again. It cost nearly $100 million to build the National Gallery's East Building. The WPA relied instead on volunteers, scavenged goods and sweat. Its hangings now look clean and crisp, but pigeon skulls and droppings and piles of rusting trash littered all the floors of 400 Seventh St. NW. when the WPA moved in.
Remember Nancy Rubin's trash tornado made of TV sets and toasters and the response that it elicited from the condominium owners whose view it, um, enhanced. "It is our opinion," they wrote, "that this so-called work of art is nothing but an ugly, unsafe, illegal pile of garbage."
They never asked for only raves at the WPA.
The events that they put on there often have been raw or slightly dopey. They sometimes made us fume. They were either too "establishment" or not "establishment" enough, depending on your point of view. They included too much, or not enough, conceptual art, video, photography and book art, performance art and dance. The town is full of artists who are absolutely certain they could have much improved the WPA's programming and policies if given half a chance. Some have picketed the shows there, or resigned, fed up, from the board, though thanks in part to recent policy adjustments, those conflicts have abated. WPA now pays every artist who exhibits or performs there, and artists now fill half the seats on its 32-member board. And its staff now gets a living wage: officers, who three years ago earned only $14,000, now get $26,000.
The place is broadly, fiercely loved. It is easy to see why.
Imagine what we would have missed, imagine how much duller the art scene here would be, had there never been a WPA.
Its birth was almost casual. Few who knew it in its raggedy and raucous days expected it to last. Artists' spaces come and go. Think of ACE (Active Cultural Exhibitions) and MOTA (the Museum of Temporary Art), of the artists' space in Georgetown and of Leslie Kuter's Laundry Shows. The WPA had a future as uncertain when it stumbled into being. It was Alice Denney's dream.
No one has done more for new art in this city. A gadfly and a giver, she's been busy on the fringes here for nearly 30 years.
In 1957, Denney helped create the old Jefferson Place Gallery. Among the locals she exhibited was the unknown Morris Louis. She showed Kenneth Noland, too. "People used to come and gawk," she says. "They'd ask me, 'What is that?' " The Jefferson Place struggled. "Nobody would buy," she says. "I couldn't even sell prints by Jasper Johns for $75 each."
Denney ventured on. In 1962, convinced the city needed a museum of modern art, she began putting one together. The Washington Gallery of Modern Art opened that October. The next year she arranged a pop art show for Washington that's become a sort of legend. "We got everyone," she says, "Oldenburg and Warhol, Rosenquist and Johns. John Cage came to town. The Judson dancers danced. Oldenburg did a happening. So did Robert Rauschenberg -- at the roller rink in Kalorama. He called it, nicely, 'Pelican.' He danced with parachutes, on roller skates."
In 1966, Denney arranged her also-legendary "Now Festival." "Rauschenberg performed again; his piece was called 'Linoleum.' We had Andy Warhol, too, and his Velvet Underground and Cage and Robert Whitman and Red Grooms' 'Shoot the Moon.'
"In the early 1970s, I was lecturing at the Smithsonian when a nice young man approached me. Merle Steir was his name. He was working for the RLA, the Redevelopment Land Agency. He said, 'Mrs. Denney, what you need is a building.' He had one in mind on G Street. It was then I started organizing the WPA.
"Artists' spaces just popped up in the '70s. We didn't even know each other existed. But in retrospect it seems we had similar ideas. I wanted to see all the arts -- dance, theater, photography, video, painting -- together under one roof. I didn't want it slick. I liked those pegboard walls."
Al Nodal learned to hate them. He used to say their black eyes winked. "I'd go to paint them and find we had no paint. I'd go to hang a show and find we had no nails. My first show at the WPA had an installation budget of $18."
"I hired Al the moment I met him," Denney remembers. "He was absolutely right. I loved his madness. He had incredible energy. I didn't. I moved on."
Since 1975, more than 800 artists, most of them experimentalists, have been involved in shows at the WPA. More than 300 participate in its annual Open Studio. And just consider all the locals, many of them well-known now, who were chosen to receive their first significant exposure by the WPA.
Here's a partial list: Kendall Buster, Big Al Carter, Yvonne Pickering Carter, Steve Cushner, Claudia de Monte, Sherman Fleming, Nancy Galeota, Chris Gardner, Simon Gouverneur, Tom Green, Nade Haley, Lee Haner, Greg Hannan, the Impossible Theater, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Patrice Kehoe, Walter Kravitz, Liz Lerman, Ed Love, Steve Ludlum, Ellen MacDonald, Michael McCall (who founded the Tentacle Room, Botswana's predecessor), Rob McCurdy, Jerome Meadows, Ethelbert Miller, Gayil Nalls, W.C. Richardson, Henry Leo Schoebel, Genna Watson, William Willis, Maida Withers, Yuriko Yamaguchi and sculptor Alan Stone, now the WPA's chairman of the board.
Until only a few days ago it was feared that the WPA, its building being sold, might have to move again. But a rescue now seems possible. If the details can be arranged -- and perhaps $1 million raised -- it may stay right there on Seventh Street for the next 19 years.
How the future WPA will change that changing neighborhood is anybody's guess. But one thing is just right -- its location. The new Gallery Place is just across the street. And 406 Seventh St. NW, a building filled with commercial galleries, is immediately next door. If you stroll from the Mall to Chinatown, or from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to the National Portait Gallery or the National Museum of American Art, you have to walk right by it. The WPA functions as a kind of bridge between this city's galleries and national museums. It ties downtown to the Mall.
Commercial galleries seek profits, that's why they exist. The museums serve the nation as a whole and the history of art. The WPA does neither. It is a peculiar institution, not easily described.
It used to be known as an "alternative space," but alternative to what? It's not really a museum -- Jock Reynolds, the director, bristles at the word -- for it does not collect. It is not a commercial gallery either, though the art that's put on view there is frequently for sale. It does have a bookstore, but its bookstore sells much more than books. It also has a bar, a members-only hangout, a sort of in-house autonomous region known, bafflingly, as Botswana. It has a small apartment, too, for visitors from out of town. In Germany the WPA might be termed a kunsthalle. Reynolds likes to call it "a downtown artist-run multidisciplinary artists' exhibition space." But try to say that all at once.
There are some who still describe it as an "avant-garde institution." That's an oxymoron, true. But the WPA is avant-garde, at least by current standards. It is an institution, too.
In 1975 it had a staff of five and a measly annual operating budget of $37,500. By 1980, its last full year on G Street (its old building has since been replaced by a new Hecht Co. ), it had a staff of seven and a budget of $200,000. In fiscal year 1984, the budget was $423,733; in 1985, $552,861. It now has a full-time staff of 11.
Its projected 1986 budget is approximately $650,000, and its debts have been erased.
This is where it gets its money (the following figures are projected for fiscal year 1986): From project and advancement grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, $118,000. From the D.C. Commission for the Arts, $25,000. From its membership, $50,000. From board members, $48,000. From corporate gifts, $86,000. From foundations, $75,000. From special events, especially its annual art auction, $145,000 (though half the auction's take is returned to those artists who provide the objects sold). From the bookstore, $100,000.
There is something peculiarly Washingtonian about the WPA. In many other cities, the art fringe and the center, thriving on their enmity, snarl at one another. But that is not the case here.
The WPA has had, from the beginning, significant support from the federal government, the District government, from "competing" art museums and from the community at large. Its private sector patrons include dentists, lawyers, scholars, real estate developers and many corporations, among them the Oliver T. Carr Co., CBS, Time Inc., the Ford Motor Co., Gannett, Hecht's, Hallmark Cards, the Adolph Coors Co., Woodward & Lothrop, the John A. Quinn Co., IBM and the Washington Post Co.
One reason the WPA has prospered is that it extends an old tradition. Institutions run for artists, and by them, have been a part of Washington for more than 50 years.
The little art school, begun by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips at their private art museum, was among the first. The Corcoran's school has functioned as a sort of artists' place for years. Then there was the artists' workshop founded by Ida and Leon Berkowitz, and the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, which spun off worshops, too, and Lou Stovall's open print shop. The artists of this city long have felt the pressure of the national museums. Perhaps it is no wonder that so many have so often worked together to survive.
The WPA has just published a large volume surveying its first decade. Its accomplishments are many -- the book's detailed chronology lists hundreds of exhibits, performances, events. But if you want to think a gloomy thought, imagine raising something approaching $1 million -- that money to be spent on equity participation in its soon-to-be-renovated building -- and then finding an additional $650,000 for operations every year.
"I think the WPA is going to make it," says Robert Lehrman, 34, one of the most generous of the WPA's trustees. "But we have our work cut out for us. We have to raise a lot of money. We have to struggle to find the right mix between experimental art and traditional painting and sculpture, between art produced in Washington and art from out of town.
"I sometimes get discouraged. But then I imagine the WPA prospering on Seventh Street. Wouldn't it be fine if all those lobbyists and attorneys, wandering downtown, could stumble on the bookstore, or walk into our galleries, and find there something new that would really make them think."