D.C. Arts Center to hold an ‘experience auction’ fundraiser

Selling contemporary art is one thing. Selling performance art is another. But selling performance art for charity is nearly unheard of.

Yet the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan is betting that it can not only build a fundraiser out of performance, it can make a performance out of a fundraiser.

(Kelly Towles) - Graffiti artist Kelly Towles, whose work is shown, is participating in the DCAC Experience Auction.

On Thursday, DCAC is hosting its first experience auction — a live auction in which experiences, not things, will hit the auction block. Attendees will have the opportunity to bid on everything from a mushroom-hunting expedition to a session with an Albert Einstein impersonator.

“Like any arts organization, we’re always looking for some way to put some money in the coffers,” says poet Buck Downs, who conceived the experience auction. He and other fellow DCAC board members decided to ask artists and performers to lend their time, expertise and imagination — instead of their work — to support the organization.

Melissa Krodman, one of more than 35 donors tapped for the auction, answered DCAC’s call. A performer who appeared in multidisciplinary shows at DCAC in 2008 and 2010, Krodman will teach her winning bidder how to make friends.

“Some of what I want to do with this person — if anybody bids on this auction item — is to talk to that person about friendship,” Krodman says. “It’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek donation in some ways, but it’s really authentic in other ways. That’s the way I intend for it to be taken, as a genuine opportunity.”

Krodman says that she will meet with the winning bidder for a pre-workshop assessment to gauge that person’s friendmaking readiness. Then she will build out activities for a friendship session accordingly. She conceives of the experience as a collaboration to examine “analog” methods for keeping friends, such as sending postcards.

“We just thought it would be interesting and exciting to offer the experience of art and creation, as opposed to purchasing something that sits on your shelf or your wall,” says choreographer Kelly Bond, a member of the committee tasked with putting together the performances.

Some of the experiences up for auction come with tangible returns. Performance video artist Jefferson Pinder and filmmaker Rob Parrish will help auction winners create original new video works. Psychedelic art-punk rocker Amanda Kleinman will create portraits of her winner — for both that person’s outer and inner selves. And the auction will offer one high roller an opportunity to see his or her property vandalized by graffiti artist Kelly Towles.

There are experiences on the block for bidders less interested in putting themselves, or their property, out there. Architects from the firm Perkins & Will have donated a tour of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the adaptive-reuse site they are transforming into the future homes of the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard. D.C. restaurateur Barton Seaver will treat a bidder and friends to a meal and lecture demonstrating his ideas about sustainable food sourcing. Matthew Evans, senior landscape architect and horticulturalist for the architect of the Capitol, will give a tour of the gardens on the Capitol grounds.

Even these non-art experiences lend themselves to the notion of a broader performance. The serious lots will share an auction block with an opportunity to feed artist Jon Lee a Stouffer’s stuffed green pepper — the artist’s favorite — in silence.

Inasmuch as DCAC is hosting a happening of its own, its decision to go for the ephemeral is a response to economic pressures on Washington artists.

“The charity art auction is a real staple here in the Washington area,” Downs says. “As we got to talking about it, we wondered what kind of value proposition the auction really is.”

Downs echoes complaints that many D.C. artists have registered in recent years: Nonprofit art organizations support D.C. artists, but nonprofits also depend on artists to provide them with artworks, gratis, that they can auction off to support their programs. Transformer and the Washington Project for the Arts are among the organizations that turn to artists on an annual basis.

Artists worry that auction results may distort the market value of their work, Downs says, while art collectors may not consider artworks surrendered for auctions to be “top-shelf” work. Last November, a coalition of D.C. art dealers asked the heads of D.C. art nonprofits to approach their artists through the galleries.

Yet DCAC’S experience auction reflects upticks in the art market, too. Some performance artists, including New York-based Jamie Isenstein (who is not affiliated with DCAC’s event), sell performances that may be repeated at a buyer’s beck and call. Like the experience auction artists, she eschews the older model of staging a performance just once and selling documentation, such as photographs of the event.

DCAC garnered the support of some Washington luminaries, such as D.C. choreographer Liz Lerman and painter Sam Gilliam, who agreed to participate in the experience auction. Yet other figures DCAC approached declined.

“If we had wanted to do a traditional charity auction, they would have been happy to give us an object,” Downs says. “Trying to get someone’s time and attention is so much more valuable than any painting or song they could make.”

Another market consideration could throw a wrench into DCAC’s plan: competition. Whether it pays off depends, in part, on how much the audience for DCAC intersects with that for the Washington Ballet and International Arts & Artists — both of which are hosting fundraisers on Thursday.

Capps is a freelance writer.

DCAC Experience Auction

Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy-Warren club building, 3133 Connecticut Ave. NW. Visit www.experienceauction.com.

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