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The DC Top 100, v1.0: an interview with Lenny Campello

John AndersonBy John Anderson on Jul 14, 2010 | Add a Comment Add a Comment (6)

The DC Top 100, v1.0: an interview with Lenny Campello

Image of sculpture by Foon Sham.

The various spokes of local social media and the Internets have buzzed about the list of DCs 100 best artists ever since Lenny Campello announced on his blog that he was putting together a book on the subject. In mid June, Lenny put out an APB on Facebook requesting volunteers to help with some formatting of the book and bibliographic editing. I volunteered and within a couple of days I received an e-mail with 21 artist documents waiting to be edited. Since the list has been announced, I was curious to fill in the cracks, and asked Lenny a few questions about the project.

Pink Line Project: How did the project come about?

Lenny Campello: I have a 13 page intro in the book answering that question. Let's just say that when the Mera Rubell 36 studios in 36 hours visit took place, I was disturbed by the negative perception that came out in the Wash Post's write-up about the DC art scene and artists being like the Land of Misfit Toys. It's quite the opposite. So that was the seed for the book.

PLP: Did the publisher approach you or did you approach them?

LC: I approached them with the idea. I sent them a former book proposal in the mail; they responded very quickly.

PLP: What were the circumstances?

LC:The company president then called me and we spoke on the phone for almost an hour. I discussed everything, including a future marketing plan for the book. They seemed very enthusiastic and supportive, and agreed that there seems to be a huge void in the art book market for this regional-city book.

PLP:What was your criteria for selecting artists? Though the tentative title of the book is 100 Washington Artists, some of the artists on the list live just outside the city and some live within a radius that includes Baltimore; how are you defining a "Washington" artist?

LC: 1. Someone who lives in the area defined as the Greater Washington, DC area AND/OR 2. Someone who works, has a studio or teaches in the DC area

PLP: That defines the broader scope of what makes a "Washington Artist." More to the point, how did you compile your list for the 100? What were those criteria? What  were the causes or motivations to include one artist over another artist?

LC: Since the newsmedia's negative reaction to Mera Rubell's studios visit was the trigger idea for the book, I started with her list of 16 artists (minus me, so 15 artists). I figured that the world's best-known American art collector was as good as a starting point as any.

 Then I wrote down a list of artists' names that I felt should be in the book. I started with the best-known names as gimmies (such as Gilliam, Christenberry, Tate, Chao, Sanborn, Rose, Sandberg, Coble, etc.) and worked my way using my own judgment based on 17 years around the DC art scene, a couple of hundred gallery/museum reviews, over 200 curated art shows and countless gallery/studio visits.

As I've done when curating group art shows in the past, my goal was to have the "art stars" as well as emerging artists, who would be my best recommendation for future stardom (as much as that word can be used around the capital region) plus a number of artists "in between" whose work I felt deserved attention. This was all me so far and I had about 60 names.

Then I approached a number of DC-based art collectors, a few DC art gallerists, a few curators and a couple of art critics. I just asked them to send me 10 artists each. I told them that I expected them to send me the "must have 10" in that list (one collector sent me about 30 names). As with any list, I wasn't surprised when only about 30% of the artists were in common, but I was pleased to see names that I should have thought up myself and hadn't. So these lists helped tremendously, as they acted both as a safety check and also as a trigger for names.

Lists are lists and no 10 name list matched or even came close to matching; that confirmed for me that my 100 list wouldn't ever match anyone's list.

I gathered all that, added the new names and still had about 80-85 names. The last 15 were the hardest to decide, as by then I had Facebooked about the project and I was getting a ton of emails suggesting names, including at least 30 artists asking to be included in the book. Even these emails helped me add a few more artists, but almost to the end I had about 7-8 spots left. I was doing this almost on purpose to try to ensure that at the last minute I hadn't left someone important out.

One or two artists on the list also dropped out in the process. One artist just couldn't get the materials together by the deadline, even with four extensions; another pulled out because he/she "was having a mental breakdown trying to decide what images to have in the book." I also left one spot open to the last minute in the hope that a growing "group effort" would convince Sam Gilliam to be in the book.

 When it didn't, I inserted an artist who had missed the deadline, but had nonetheless sent in the materials.

Cause and motivations to include one artist over another? That's a terrific soup of loads of ingredients and spices. A few of those ingredients: Activity in DC art scene (shows, etc.), Presence in DC art scene, presence in the nation in other galleries, shows, etc. (such as the DC artist who has been in two Whitney Biennials but rarely shows in DC), nepotism, how well I knew one artist's work over another, prizewinners (Trawick, etc.), as well as a healthy dose of artists I thought deserved more attention.

 At the end, I was surprised by a few things:

1. There were a considerable number of artists in the final list whose work I personally don't "like" but I recognize that they deserved to be on my list.

2. They were 2-3 artists whom I personally can't stand as people, but see (1).

3. In one way, form or another, I was from (a) very familiar to (z) familiar with all 100's artwork.

As soon as I posted the list I was once again deluged with suggestions and so far I have at least 5-6 artists whose names should have been on the list, so no one is perfect and thank God for volume II.

PLP: Nepotism...  I could see that could even be a motivation for some of those surveyed. Gallerists and curators I imagine might have given some predictable responses per their own stables, as would DC collectors have promoted the works of those they collected? As a former gallerist, someone who I assume has represented artists at various art fairs, and an individual who also has a small collection of artist works, did you also find some of your decisions swayed by "nepotistic" preferences? Is there really anyway to avoid subjectivity?

LC: With as many evidence and "secrets" as I have on nearly all DC area art writers and art critics I can tell you that I know of no one in the Greater DC area art scene who is objective in their writing. In fact, I would submit that it is humanly impossible to write about art objectively all the time... perhaps most of the time, but not most of the time - especially in a small region such as DC.

No human can do it.

And it is impossible to put a list of 100 DC area artists objectively. The only difference is that I am willing to admit it openly, while many other curators, writers and art world symbiots pretend to be objective. Problem is that DC is a very small town, so we all know about the art blogger who reviewed a show glowingly, forgetting that a year or so earlier he had discussed what good friends he was with the artists and that he'd been hired to write the essay for their show catalog (same blogger who got busted giving a negative review to a show that later was proven that the blogger had never seen). And we know about the critic who wrote a glowing review of an artist thinking that we didn't know that he/she was in a relationship with the said artist. And the critic who acquired artwork in a show and then gave that show a rare glowing review. And the writer who blasted another writer for curating a show that included that writer's own work and then curated a show that included most of his own friends. Or the writer who wrote about the DC art scene in a very respected outlet and included a write-up about his/her significant other's artwork... the examples are too numerous to list - but the answer is: no one can be objective when it comes to art and politics in DC.

I would say my own collection is more than small - one can only put up so much artwork... but you have given me a good idea about the next volume. I should check my own collection and make sure that my DC art collection is given a fair share (or should I say unfair share) in the next book.

PLP: What are the thoughts on the next book, anyway? 100 More Washington Artists? I00 Washington Artists Strike Back? How had you initially pitched a series of books, and how have your thoughts evolved since that initial pitch?

LC: Tentative title is "Another 100 Washington Artists" which i think works better since I don't consider that by the time the list is done, that there will be "lesser" artists in the book. I may even convince Sam Gilliam to be in it by then! Already the list has begun, as people have been suggesting and discussing names that are missing from the first list and should have been there according to them.

Initially I pitched a series of books based on how the first one went as far as preparation, timelines, and actual work in assembling it. That process was pretty brutal, as dealing with 100 creative minds is quite a challenge, and a lot of people can't follow directions and most artists tend to ignore deadlines or leave everything to the last minute and then panic. However, I have a lot of lessons learned and I am pretty sure that I can make the submission process almost semi-automated for the next book.

John Anderson Add a Comment (6) | Like this Item Like  


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