Artomatic for the people


Artomatic, the Washington area’s irreverent arts extravaganza, is back this spring and, for the first time, is happening on this side of the Potomac River.

Held four times since 1999, Artomatic has grown to become the region’s largest one-of-a-kind multimedia event featuring roughly 600 regional artists and performers under one roof.

Open now through May 20, the free event sprawls 90,000 square feet of space on two levels (six and eight) of a plush Crystal City office building. Visitors are welcome to wander from room to room brimming with original painting, sculpture, photography and other creative work.

Artomatic also features special events, including musical and visual performances, poetry readings, art workshops for kids and adults, and a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Previous Artomatic shows have attracted as many as 50,000 visitors.

“The art that’s down there will knock your socks off,” said Patricia Hartnett, a McLean-based artist who is exhibiting at Artomatic for the first time this year. “Every room you go into, you don’t know what to expect.”

What makes Artomatic so unique is that anyone with the nominal $75 entrance fee can participate, and there is no jury or gallery curator to please. So, there is a wide range of work on display, from beginner to professional, and a whole lot of it.

The free-for-all event is the result of grassroots efforts made by area artists who came together in the late 1990s. Frustrated with the D.C. art scene, they wanted to create a cohesive exhibition and performance opportunity open to anyone, to build an audience for artists, and to highlight the need for artistic space in the area, said Artomatic chair George Koch, one of the original founding artists.

In 1999, the first Artomatic event was held at D.C.’s Manhattan Laundry on Florida Avenue. The name “Artomatic” came as a play on words after the hand-operated “Coin-O-Matic” laundry machines that occupied the Manhattan Laundry building. “Artomatic” was originally hyphenated “Art-O-Matic.” The hyphens were later dropped.

In 2005, Artomatic became a 501(c)3 nonprofit run by a board of directors made up of local artists and supporters and a steering committee of local artists, arts administrators and community activists. The board develops outreach procedures and guidelines to solicit broad participation from artists in the Washington metropolitan area.

From now on, Koch said, Artomatic will be an annual event, most likely held in D.C.

Jesse Thomas, a Tysons Corner-based graphics designer, is exhibiting work at Artomatic for the second time this year. He participated at the last show in 2004 at the old National Children’s Museum in southwest D.C.

The exposure from that event, Thomas said, propelled him to land a handful of additional art exhibits in D.C. and New York. “It was incredible.”

Success also came for 2004 Artomatic artist Frank Warren who circulated blank postcards at the show for people to write down their secrets. He posted the creative responses online, and the site reportedly became the most visited blog site on Yahoo for weeks. In 2005, he got a book deal for “PostSecret.”

Artomatic’s location depends on what space organizers can score for free. Organizers seek out space that is empty for whatever reason and that they can temporarily take over, rent-free. In the past, building space was unoccupied because it was between tenants or in pre-renovation limbo.

This year, the Crystal City Business Improvement District, a public-private partnership between commercial businesses within the BID district of Arlington County, was instrumental in bringing Artomatic to vacant, pre-renovation office space in Crystal City. The BID was interested in the increased foot traffic Artomatic would bring to help promote area business.

McLean-based photographer Ibi Hinrichs is exhibiting roughly two dozen black and white and color photographs at her Artomatic debut this year. She said she wanted to participate in Artomatic to gain exposure and be a part of the community of artists that Artomatic creates.

“[People] get isolated in this day and time and hear only negative things,” Hinrichs said. “Being with all of the other artists is an experience that switches you out of that.”

Koch, the Artomatic chair, said that building a sense of community among artists was one of Artomatic’s founding principles. To help facilitate that, each participant must commit to volunteering 15 hours toward the event. “It’s a chance for artists to get to know one another,” Koch said.

He added that the onus of sustaining a vibrant arts community in the area falls on elected public officials and leaders in the arts community. “If you want to have a vibrant arts community, you have to pay attention to it and you have to do something to make it happen,” he said, such as providing open space.

Each Artomatic visitor will find some work they like and some they do not and that discovery is really what it is all about.

Artomatic 2007 happens now through Sunday, May 20 at 2121 Crystal Drive, Arlington, 6th and 8th floors. Gallery hours are Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, noon-10 p.m.; Thursdays, noon-11 p.m.; and Fridays and Saturdays, noon-1 a.m. Closed Mondays. Cost: Free. Information: