MY MAPPLETHORPES...

My linkage to Robert Mapplethorpe began in conjunction with my move to DC in 2000. I had been hired to help a small edgy little theatre company raise an astronomical amount of money to build them a new theatre space. It was a dream job and a huge risk. The theatre was Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Woolly’s offices and stage space were in this grungy warehouse at 14th and Church Street, NW. At the time, we already knew that we were leaving — being displaced in order to make way for luxury condos which would be a better clientele for the much-anticipated Whole Foods opening one-block away. 

The first show when I joined the staff was Holly Hughes’s Preaching to the Perverted. Holly Hughes was one of the NEA 4 — along with Karen Finley, Tim Miller and John Fleck. All artists who had proposed arts grants to the National Endowment for the Arts but were denied their funding because the subject matter of their artistic endeavors was deemed indecent in June of 1990. Very similarly, in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe’s show The Perfect Moment was cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art based on political pressure stemming from the content of his photographs. So, it was upon my arrival in DC — onto the block of Church Street between 14th and 15th Streets, NW in 2000 — that I was introduced to Robert Mapplethorpe.

  

It was a brief encounter at best. It took another 20 years and a move back to 14th Street to meet up with Robert Mapplethorpe again. This time our connection became much more involved. Perhaps obsessive — at least on my side.

  

So fast forward 20 years. In 2015, I become the Chief External Affairs Officer at Whitman-Walker. (Ironically, Whitman-Walker’s 1525 location is literally across the street from Church Street — Woolly’s former home.) From time to time in conversation, I would hear that Whitman-Walker has one — maybe two — Mapplethorpes. It’s never confirmed, and it continues to be a mystery as to where these highly valued artifacts of artistic expression, gay liberation and the work of an artist gone far too soon because of the AIDS epidemic exist. This lore feels a bit like a fiction created by staff who heard from staff. But it is a story that I hear multiple times. It involves the former Executive Director Jim Graham. Some accounts say he took them; some say he purchased them; some say they were donated by wealthy benefactors. No one has a definitive answer. It’s a mystery. One that I assumed would never be truly solved. 

But then on a random day — as I typed away in my tiny office in the pre-developed LIZ — aka Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center (ETMC for short), I was visited by our Senior Director of Compliance Judy Jenkins. She was holding something with what looked like a golf towel over it. And she said something to the effect of: “I just found this on the top of the file cabinet in the storage closet. I think you should hold on to it.”

 

I peeled back the towel. And there it was. There they were — Robert Mapplethorpe and Ken Moody. I started to shake. I instinctively knew I was holding something valuable. A value that transcends monetary gain. Here it was. The story was true. Whitman-Walker really did own an original artifact from a time that birthed the organization. Whitman-Walker really did have the guts to own something that many would see as controversial or risky. While an edgy theatre company to a healthcare provider may seem like an odd leap career wise — this moment was yet another confirmation that both institutions had guts. It was personally glorious.

  

And frankly a bit scary and unreal. The photograph was not in any type of frame. It was bare and without the flimsy golf towel, exposed to the elements. Judy was right. I needed to hang on to this. It was a mission I would accept. And so, it became my Mapplethorpe. I had it wrapped by our lovely friends at the Hemphill Gallery. I kept it hidden away both from light and elements that could damage it. I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. I got to know Robert Mapplethorpe. 

A few weeks later, I got a call from my boss Don Blanchon. Jim Graham wanted us to pick up something from his home. It was a second Mapplethorpe. I took on this mission much like the last. A few days later — our beloved founding leader passed away. His last gesture to Whitman-Walker was to re-gift the second Mapplethorpe back to us. It was a beautiful gift in a truly ugly frame. I took it gingerly to Hemphill Gallery. I had it wrapped professionally and squirreled my second Mapplethorpe away with the first in a secret location. And until The Corner came into existence, I kept watch over these sacred items. 

 

It feels almost unreal that my first Mapplethorpe — Ken and Robert are part of this show. I have this strange feeling about it — a little anxious because I want to keep them safe but also so happy that this beautiful photograph is finally getting its coming out party. 

I am excited that Holly Bass is the artist working with Ken and Robert. I have admired her work as an artist and a journalist for many, many years. We met at Woolly, too. 

All roads seem to have led to this moment. Please take care of Robert and Ken. The mystery has been solved. 

 

ABBY FENTON

 

 

©The Corner at Whitman-Walker 2020

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The Corner at Whitman-Walker

1701 14th St NW

Washington, DC 20009