- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

Director Bill Wooby works, eats and sleeps at the Millennium Arts Center in Southwest, D.C. "Just call me any time and I'll probably pick up the phone," he says. Mr. Wooby, 52, describes his creation as the first national arts center of its kind in Washington. He got Millennium started in 1 1/2 years, and it's the only all-purpose center in the city for both local and national artists.
Walk into the center, and fresh white and gray paint gleams from the generous spaces of the entry and hallway. Light pours through windows into the building at 65 I St. SW, which began as Randall Junior High School in 1910.
Judy Jashinsky's huge, brilliant blue "Caribbean Storm" leans against the wall as part of the resident artists' exhibit. Mr. Wooby decided to enhance the entry space with their work.
"At 9 feet high, even with 11-foot-ceilings, it's a challenge to mount," he says of the artwork.
The 150,000-square-foot building also contains a large auditorium. Opera star Denyce Graves practiced arias there last year when the Washington Opera rented space.
"That wonderful music went through the whole building, as they liked to walk the halls and sing," says Georgi Deneau, the center's assistant director.
Mr. Wooby has plans for the auditorium. He has budgeted $15,000 for leveling its floors, which slope. He then will turn it into a ballroom, lecture hall and fund-raising space. The director says it will hold 600 seated guests at round tables for dinner parties.
"I try to make every square foot of the center pay for itself. I have a business background, " Mr. Wooby says.
The opera visit was part of the center's "partnering" with other arts organizations such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Arena Stage. A project also may be undertaken with the Renwick Alliance.
"When the Renwick Gallery has a special show, such as one by a wood-turning artist, we would have the artist's demonstrations here," Mr. Wooby says.
Partnering has become a popular method for arts organizations to begin and stay afloat.
Fund raising for such Millennium projects as displays in the 12,000-square-foot exhibition space, music and theater performances, the Glass Center, the Photography Center, the sculpture garden-cafe, resident artists' studios and a high-end crafts gallery benefits from partnering.
Mr. Wooby says Washington never has had a national arts center, except possibly the now-defunct Washington Project for the Arts. "Art centers exist in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia but, until Millennium, not here."
"Right now, we're renting with an option to buy," he says. "We only have to raise $800,000 for a mortgage of $5 million. We expect to do that by the end of next year."
He just nabbed his first organizational grant, $20,000, from the Meyer Foundation. Start-up funds of $350,000 came from across the country. Mr. Wooby says he now can hire professional fund-raisers.
The center has an honorary advisory board of 27 members of Congress. "Mayor Anthony Williams has been most helpful and introduced us to several potential donors," he says.
The director is looking for individuals to give up to $1 million as founding members. He plans to put their names over the doors of key Millennium rooms such as the Glass Center and auditorium.
Mr. Wooby comes from a food- and art-loving New Jersey family. His grandmother Carrie Wooby performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a bareback rider, knife thrower and sword swallower. She introduced her grandson to museums when she retired in the 1950s. (She was married to William Wooby, the Wild West Show's music conductor.)
She also inherited and ran a family inn in Arlington, N.J., during the 1930s. "I guess food was in my blood, and I went to a New York cooking school in 1965," Mr. Wooby says.
The then-chef was drafted during the Vietnam War and sent to Fort Meade, Md. "I was such a good cook that they kept me there, and I never saw active duty," he says with a laugh.
He worked in a series of restaurants after leaving the Army. In 1987, he opened his first Collector restaurant on U Street NW. He moved over to Dupont Circle with his second Collector in 1992 and ran it as a combination restaurant-art gallery for the next five years.
The Washington Design Center beckoned, and he took over the whole 45,000-square-foot seventh floor for a cooperative gallery that he calls "the most wonderful experience of my life."
He simultaneously was looking for space for an arts center. The D.C. school board put 65 properties up for sale in 1997. A real estate representative specializing in Southwest and Capitol Hill properties found the Randall building for him.
That was just the beginning. Mr. Wooby says he had to outbid other bidders. It took 21/2 years for him to get hold of the property. But he felt the former school was the perfect place for an arts center, with its nearness to the Waterfront Metro stop, the generous space spread over two stories, the layout with two courtyards and a neighborhood to draw on for an arts-education program.
Like any beginning project, the center is seeing successes and failures. One of the biggest feathers in its cap is the resident artists program. The center has filled its 18 studios, which rent for $13 per square foot, and has an 80-person waiting list.
Mr. Wooby thinks he has found another building for the needed studios at lower rents.
The program of exhibits has been mixed, mainly because the center has accepted exhibitors who have rented space. Quality is improving with the current shows of "Frederick," which features six artists from that Maryland city, and "Systems," an exhibit by talented glass artist Graham Caldwell. Annie Adjchavanich of the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran curated the "Frederick" show, and its quality bodes well for the center's future.
Independent curator and critic Jim Mahoney plans "Prima Luce" for August. It is a show of works by six local artists concerned with metaphysical and industrial space in their art. Two well-known artists are the late Simon Gouverneur and Nan Montgomery.
September sees "Crosstown Jam," presented by the Washington Area Music Association. November and December showcase artists chosen by the arts councils of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Nevada. Lowery Stokes Sims, former curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will curate the exhibit and create its title.
Working with state arts councils has been integral to Mr. Wooby's visual-arts program.
"Bill Wooby's great virtue is that he's a believer," says Mr. Mahoney, a longtime participant in the local arts scene. "He believes in Washington and the future of Washington's culture from its recognized artists to its most eccentric creators. He makes things happen."
"I like creative places, and I like people," Mr. Wooby says.

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