Patrons’ Show scales back to meet building code

Patrons’ Show scales back to meet building code
(Courtesy Photo)

By Missy Schrott |

After celebrating its landmark 50th anniversary last year with its most successful show yet, the Art League’s Patrons’ Show returned on Feb. 17 this year with slightly less zest.

The Patrons’ Show is the Art League’s biggest fundraiser. Each year, it features more than 600 works of original art donated by Art League artists, Art League faculty and Torpedo Factory artists. The night of the show, ticketholders are randomly called to select a work of art to take home.

This year, the Art League scaled back the seating and ticket sales for the event due to occupancy code at the Torpedo Factory. After selling 673 tickets last year, it capped tickets this year at 606.

The Art League also adjusted seating to comply with the occupancy code. In past years, patrons have primarily been seated throughout the first floor, in studios and at upper-floor railings that overlook the first floor. This year, the railing seating was removed, and about 250 attendees were seated in outdoor tents. In addition, the Art League limited the number of couples tickets – two seats and one work of art – in order to cut back on the number of seats required.

“We had some changes since the city’s taken over permanent management of the building,” Suzanne Bethel, executive director of the Art League, said. “They had some changes that they wanted to make in terms of how we occupy the building during the Patrons’ Show. Most of it was just about traffic flow.”

While the Torpedo Factory’s building code has not changed in the past year, the existing code wasn’t being enforced, according to Brett Johnson, director of the Torpedo Factory.

“From our standpoint, the event is run by the Art League,” Johnson said. “We’ve only asked that they follow protocol which has been in place for a number of years, but it hasn’t really been enforced as much in the past.”

Johnson said the city has been reviewing emergency protocol and building safety since it temporarily took over operations of the art center two years ago. That temporary management became permanent in November.

“We updated our policy for all emergency protocol about a year ago,” Johnson said. “We worked with the fire department, with the police department, Office of Emergency Management, to update all that and make sure everybody understood what it was, what the protocols were. It’s just basic safety. We wanted to make sure that we’re safe.”

Bethel said she learned that the format of the 2019 Patrons’ Show would need to change shortly after the 2018 event.

“For the most part, what we found is we kind of had to ask ourselves a few questions – did we want to significantly reduce the number of people that could attend the event, [or] did we want to change up the seating?” she said. “Ultimately, we decided we’re going to try to keep the spirit of the event as much as we can, because part of what makes it exciting is the energy and the number of artworks and the number of people.”

Bethel said some patrons were wary of the seating changes.

“I think that for some people who have come year after year, that they wish that we had done it in the way that we’ve done it in the past,” she said.

Connie Benson, a resident who has attended the show sporadically since the 1970s, said she heard negative feedback from the patrons who sat outside.

“The people that I talked with … many of them had been inside before and so going outside was definitely a change,” Benson said. “It was cold, and then of course the weather wasn’t good, so it was wet. There was water coming down through the inside [of the tent.]”

Steve Roberson, a patron who has attended the show for the past seven years and sat inside this year, said the event lived up to his expectations.

“It obviously wasn’t as packed, but I think the crowd was still boisterous and fun,” Roberson said. “It didn’t feel like it was all that different.”

However, he acknowledged that he may have felt differently had he purchased one of the outdoor tent tickets.

“There is something to be said for being with the big group of folks,” he said. “I would’ve had a little apprehension if we could only get tickets in the tent, only because part of the fun of the event is the crowd and people reacting … so dispersing people has the potential to detract from it. It didn’t seem to that much this year, at least from my experience, but it might have for others.”

Despite the complaints from some of the patrons seated in the tents, Bethel said this year’s show had been a learning experience that would inform how it’s structured in the future.

Next year’s event is already slated for a major venue change: Bethel announced on Tuesday that next year’s show would take place on the Cherry Blossom, the Potomac Riverboat Company’s white and yellow sternwheeler that is regularly docked on the waterfront.

“We think it might be a good solution for our current seating challenge and a fun way to incorporate a local business,” Bethel said in an email. “I think our ticketholders will like it and find a riverboat setting kind of appropriate for the gambling spirit of Patrons’ Show.”

Bethel added that if the show ever took place in the Torpedo Factory again, it would not use outdoor space.

Despite the challenges event organizers faced this year, Bethel said she was happy with the outcome of the show. The Art League is still calculating total funds raised, but Bethel said the final yield is likely within $10,000 of last year’s $174,000.

“For the most part … Office of the Arts, the staff of the Torpedo Factory and the Art league are working together to make sure that we maintain some of the activities that we have in the building that people really enjoy,” Bethel said. “I will say that it was a great event for us, we have wonderful patrons that come year after year and they all-in-all pretty much embraced the changes with some alacrity.”