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Tales from the Patrons’ Show: Todd’s Story

At 45 years old and going strong, the Patrons’ Show — The Art League’s beloved annual fundraiser and art sale — has a long and storied history. We asked repeat visitor Todd Webb, who generously hosted a site for Patrons’ Show ticket-holders before The Art League’s flickr page, to share his memories of shows past. His tale, starting with his chance introduction to the show several years ago , is one of friendships made, artwork gained, and lessons learned.

Thanks to Todd for sharing his wonderful story! Do you have one of your own to share? Drop us a line in the comments, on our Facebook page, or at georgem@theartleague.org.

I was introduced to the Patrons’ Show by a woman I was dating. We weren’t a serious item because she didn’t like that I enjoyed wagering football. One evening she drew me to her computer and showed photos she’d taken of some artwork. She pointed our her top “picks” and described the fundraiser. Noting how excited she was about it, I pressed her to explain the show in more detail. It’s awfully confusing the first time you ever hear of such a thing. Now let me get this straight – everyone gets a prize?  When I finally grasped the concept, I ribbed her endlessly for it.

“You’re gambling! YOU ARE gambling!” I repeated over and over.

She defended herself: “No, but everyone gets a piece of art.”

I conceded, “Yes, but you’re seriously hoping to be among the first hundred people called, and not the last hundred. So you’re experiencing the same gambling thrill.”

“Well, yeah,” she said.

She broke up with me.

That lovely lady may have thought this Marylander was out of her life forever, but I remembered the Patrons’ Show and how giddy she got over it. So one year later, on an ice-cold Saturday, I put on three layers of clothing, gloves, two warm hats, grabbed a folding chair, and made the pre-dawn drive to Alexandria. The ex had explained that a recent Washingtonian Magazine article attracted many newcomers to the raffle. That year the tickets sold out immediately, and ever since then the experienced line up early.

Art League Patrons' Show
2009: The Torpedo Factory is abuzz on the day of the drawing.

The rest of the story is after the jump!

I arrived around 5:30 am but was still 100 deep in line. By 7:00 am, the people behind me, winding around the building and down the sidewalk, made my position more appealing. I could feel the family atmosphere, even while we all shivered in our seats (some poor folks didn’t think to bring a chair). People talked to their neighbors, and often knew each other. A few worked the line and knew everybody. I saw my ex and we chatted. She was excited for me to experience the Patrons’ Show raffle.

The entertainment of just that little bit — lining up at the crack of dawn to freeze and buy tickets — was a lot of fun.

My friend Sarah and I visited the show repeatedly, and I photographed every piece of art. Others had the same idea. We were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, slowly inching around the room, each of us photographing the exact same thing. I printed every one of my photos as thumbnails and spent a week sliding them around my kitchen table. Every morning, with a fresh set of eyes, I would re-evaluate and shuffle them some more. Often I’d wonder what I was thinking the previous night. Sometimes a C+ would become an A or a B+ would drop to a D. If there were no time limit, the decision-making would never have ended.

The day of the raffle, my friend fell ill and stayed in bed. So at my very first Patrons’ Show, I attended the drawing with two tickets in hand and two lists — mine and Sarah’s. My list was 120 long and everything was perfectly sorted. I didn’t want to be stuck unprepared. Sarah’s little list had a few A’s and a couple B’s. Unsorted. What would I do when her nine selections were gone?

Moreover, we hadn’t “assigned” our two tickets. They were both in my name, “Todd A” and “Todd B.” So what would I do? Pick mine first? She’d never know. Or I could assign them right now, before the drawing. That would have been fair. I wrestled my conscience with this as the show progressed. I was still debating it when I heard my name called. Only about 20 or so names had been called and suddenly it was decision time. I picked Sarah’s #1, Big Red Blanket.

Art League Patrons' Show
Wishin’ and hopin’, plannin’ and dreamin’: The artwork is on display for two weeks so ticket-holders can study them and pick favorites.

The raffle continued at a great pace. I frantically worked my two-list system back and forth, crossing off artwork and its corresponding ranking. There was no time for distractions in this event.

Only minutes later my name was called again, around 80th. My #1 selection was gone, so I took my #2. And that was it. It was over for me.

I laid down my pen, looked up from my clipboard and stretched my neck. I stared blankly at my neighbors, unsure what to say, or what to do. One woman said, “Wow, beginner’s luck.” She smiled at me, but her husband seemed angry at my good fortune. Or perhaps they were just focused at the task at hand, which only a moment ago consumed all my attention too. Now I just sat quietly and watched others scan, scratch, and fret. I had nothing else to distract me. Should’ve brought a book.

I stayed through the intermissions until the very end. Even just as a show, the event was very entertaining. I helped fold and stack chairs and pull up tape off the floor. All part of the fun — like spectators scooping poop off the polo field.

By my second year, I learned to camp overnight to buy tickets. This, to me, made more sense than waking up at 4:00 am to go for a drive. Arriving at 11:00 pm the night before, I was third in line. I set up my cot to stake my position, and walked up the street to find dinner. Later, I made friends with the ladies in front of me in line. We played card games, wearing thick gloves and warm hats, holding our sleeping bags closed around our necks as best we could. Camping out allowed for a nearly full night’s sleep. And even better, when the doors opened at 10:00 am I left with my tickets in under ten minutes.

That year I had created a simple website to host photos of all the artwork. The staffers at the exhibit printed a bunch of slips of paper with the URL, and encouraged people to visit the site. That year whenever I saw someone snapping pictures, I told them about my website, and they’d put away their cameras, thank me, and immediately leave. That felt great. The night of the drawing my name was called out with a “thank you,” and someone gave me a bottle of wine. I was tickled silly.

My third year to the Patrons’ Show I had improved my standing to first in line – not counting the two homeless men curled up against the Torpedo Factory doors. The same ladies from the previous year were now behind me, numbers two and three.

By the next morning, the line hadn’t really grown much. It seemed the publicity of the Washingtonian Magazine article had worn off. We didn’t really need to camp out at all. But it was still fun.

The next morning there were only ten of us in line. It was the last time I camped out. I rather wish it was still necessary.

My fourth year I camped out again, even though I doubted it was necessary. I absolutely didn’t want to risk missing a ticket and missing the fun. I was again first in line at 11:00 pm – save for the homeless man laying against the door. We had a nice conversation before going to sleep. I was awoken by a good Samaritan who had gently placed a bottle of water and a can of soup by my head.

“I’m not homeless,” I explained. “I’m in line to buy tickets to the raffle.” I looked behind me to find no one else. Not much of a line. He smiled in surprise and I handed the food back to him.

The next morning there were only ten of us in line. It was the last time I camped out. I rather wish it was still necessary. It was a great, fun part of the whole event. The next year I didn’t camp out at all.

I have sometimes bought one ticket, and other times two. I always buy a first-choice ticket, but that’s no fun. With the regular ticket you’re guaranteed a piece of art. No matter what happens, you’ll be redecorating your house at least a little bit. And with two tickets, the odds of getting a top-ten pick are even better.

But that’s all moot anyway. My #2 pick from my very first year is one of my least loved pieces. My #45 pick one year (when I thought I “got hosed”) has always been prominently displayed and enjoyed. I’m not a good predictor of what I’ll like. I also suffer the flaw of knowing what looks good on an exhibit wall, but not considering how it’ll look in my home with my furniture. I’m working on that.

This year I promise myself to relax and enjoy the event more. This will be my first year not taking any pictures, now that the staffers are doing it themselves. And I’ll do my best to rank only my top thirty, and cross my fingers.

Tickets to the 45th annual Patrons’ Show go on sale Saturday, January 14 at 10:00 am in The Art League Gallery. The drawing is February 19 at 4:00 pm. Full details are here.

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