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Q&A: Artomatic Director Discusses the Never-Ending Venue Search

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Photo: Alexis Glenn

Turning an office building into an art gallery is no easy task, let alone trying to do it in a three-week period. That was the task for Artomatic, an art fair that features work by more than 1,100 artists and performers.

Each iteration of the event takes place in a new venue. For this year's event, which runs through June 23, Artomatic took over an 11-floor office building in Crystal City, Virginia, slated for demolition. The event has grown over the years; the last time it was in Crystal City, in 2007, it operated from two floors of a building. Artomatic event director Barry Schmetter spoke with BizBash about the search for the perfect venue.

Your venue changes every time you host the event. Why?
That's part of the nature of the event. Artomatic doesn't own a building or lease a particular space. We're nomadic. What we're looking to do is either find a warm, dark shell—a building that has been built but really has not been built out. We know with the ups and downs in the economy, there are always a number of buildings that have been completed but don't have tenants yet, or the tenants will not be moving in for some time. What you've got is a shell, and it does have a core: the elevator and basic amenities like HVAC and electric. Other times we go into a space that is going to be renovated, maybe an older office building. It really is a challenge. Every space is different, and we're dealing with different developers and groups of people who may have different requirements.

How far in advance do you start scouting the venue?
We are always scouting for buildings. The organization exists year-round, although we generally would put on an event approximately every other year. It really is a long process because there are a lot of sites that we start out investigating. There's generally a fair amount of requirements on both sides of the negotiations. It's not easy to find a space that works for everybody.

This is your largest venue ever, at more than 380,000 square feet. Did you go into it knowing you wanted something that large?
The last event we did prior to this had been our largest event, a nine-floor building in the District. We swore after that we weren't going to do anything that big. Well, as it turns out when you're looking around it's really hard. We don't necessarily have the luxury of specifying the space we're in. In this case, we got a space that was an 11-floor building. We generally want to use the entire space if we can. It does present a lot of challenges to scale up what we do.

What did the space look like before, and what kind of buildout did Artomatic or individual artists have to do?

We had originally found another building in Crystal City, and for some reason negotiations just weren't able to move forward. So we got this building really at the last minute with a short turnaround time. ... Each floor has a different layout. It's been built out in areas suitable for small offices and conference rooms. We provide an infrastructure: six performance areas or stages, and most of the space is going to be gallery space for 2D and 3D art. We had to turn offices into galleries. One big challenge we had was we had all these doors. People are flowing through the space and for fire safety reasons and crowd flow reasons, you don't want to have doors all over. We were brainstorming one evening and came up with the idea, let's use them as building materials. They went into just about everything we built. All of our stages are built from doors. We built cafe tables out of doors, and bars and desks. We have a pop-up cafe and it's built out of doors. We had to get creative.

What kind of budget do you have for the venue?
Our budget is between $300,000 to $400,000 for the event, which is a bare-bones budget when you think of a five-week, six-weekend event that is going to have more than 70,000 people attend. So we're looking to economize. We're a volunteer-run organization and we try to contract out for the minimum of what we do. The event is a gift to the community; we don't charge for people to attend.

You have several national sponsors. How are they featured at the event?

Here's an example: Heineken is sponsoring three of our music stages. One neat thing we can do that is unique to the event, we have a number of street artists and muralists. We normally have them paint murals and street art around the stages and other public areas. This year they worked with Heineken to incorporate Heineken branding into the art that surrounds the stages. It is something that is a little bit different from a sponsor printing up materials that may be done by their art department. You get a different spin on promoting their brand.

How long does teardown take afterward?
Our teardown will be one week including two weekends. We have never had such a big show and had to tear down in such a short time. It's going to be another challenge for us to get the show out. We have over 1,100 artists that are going to be removing their material from the building and one freight elevator. We try to choreograph things like this very quickly so we can maximize efficiency of people loading in and loading out. Everyone knows we're on a short timeline.

What else makes the venue search unique?
When we look for a venue, we know a lot of people want to take public transportation to the event. We have a priority list, and being close to the Metro is very high up on the list. It's not easy if we're talking about finding a fairly large space that is located in an area where we want to be and has the infrastructure to support the event. We try to shape the event to fit the space. It might be possible that the next event we do is six floors. You never know what's going to turn up. That's one of the reasons why we have to stay flexible with how we do the event.