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Laconia's Mad Dash is the Best Deal on Boston's Art Scene

A successful fundraising device born in a JP train station continues at the South End's Laconia Gallery.

Have you ever won one of those timed shopping sprees?

Well, the 150x150 Mad Dash for Art—an annual fundraising event now held at the Laconia Gallery on Harrison Ave.—is built on a similar idea. Only, it’s a little more specialized than a frenzied grab for toilet paper and groceries.

“Actually, it’s like a cross between one of those keep-your-hands-on-the-truck contests and the annual Filene’s Bridal sale,” Laconia curator James Hull said over the phone just after this year’s Dash, which happened on Saturday. Hull is only half in jest – the Mad Dash has become a hotly anticipated event, particularly among people just beginning to collect art. And it’s easy to understand why when he explains the way it works.

“Everything that hangs in the Mad Dash is 100 percent donated, so the generosity involved is quite something to begin with,” Hull said. “People come to look at the show in advance, so they know what’s hanging and where, and each piece is only $150. There are two different entrances, so attendees can plan accordingly which way they want to come into the space. The day of the Dash, the doors open at noon, but people line up early in the lobby. Some come very early… this year a gentleman was there before 8:00 a.m. So, it has a bit of that ‘camping out for tickets’ feel. When it’s time to start, we countdown from ten and then they rush in (check out this video of the 2010 Dash). Each piece has a tag stapled to the wall next to it; to claim a piece, you need to grab the tag, so if there’s no tag there then you know someone else already claimed it.”

Mind you, if you don’t buy any you might not know, but $150 is a *steal* for original art, which makes the Mad Dash something worth planning for if you love supporting contemporary arts but don’t have the means to become a full-on collector. For the $450 you might pay for a small piece or mounted photograph, you can get three pieces… and the price remains the same regardless of size, medium, complexity, etc.

“This event was originally developed to support the Green Street Gallery,” Hull explained. Some fourteen-or-so years ago, the site of a sad-looking, padlocked retail space at the Green Street T station in Jamaica Plain gave him a big idea.

“My wife and I approached the MBTA and they ended up letting us use the space rent-free for a year,” he said. Hull had been doing work for the ICA amongst other projects and knew he could easily fill the space with work from up-and-coming area artists.

“After the first year it got more serious, so we signed a three-year lease. It’s a fantastic setting for a gallery – a bike, car and pedestrian crossing. We ended up staying for a total of nine years. The space is still being used as a gallery; it’s just been called AXIOM since December 2006. But the Dash was born out of that gallery which, by the way, has been the MBTA’s only source of good press,” he said with a laugh.

Hull says the idea was borrowed from a gallery in Atlanta, and it’s gotten tweaked some over the years. For instance, even though it’s still called the 150x150 Art Dash, it’s actually closer to 75 pieces… half of the original number. That decrease has nothing at all to do with the success of the event, however, which Hull makes clear is substantial. And whatever doesn’t get picked in the initial Dash has a good chance of selling later. In the end, only a small handful of the donated pieces don’t get sold.

“As far as how much trouble fundraisers can be, this is unsurpassed. We raise close to $10,000 in seconds – literally,” he said. “But that’s just one of several really great things about it. It’s also a fantastic time – you end up in a room filled with people just giddy with excitement. It’s a collective, group experience… people hoot and holler. We play James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ after the initial five-minute rush.”

“It’s somewhat of an elaborate swap – many of the folks buying the art are local artists also,” he continued. “It encourages people to collect at an entry level and takes what would normally be a more elite sales experience and makes it accessible to almost everyone. And frankly, it’s addictive.”

Hull says that the Dash fits very well into Laconia’s overall mission as both a non-profit and an artist-run space. Furthermore, it gives him a preview of work by new artists he may want to curate for later shows and provides opportunities for other commercial galleries right across the street to discover new talent.

“As a non-commercial gallery, we’re motivated by different priorities,” he explained. “For us, our identity as a non-profit means we have a unique opportunity to eliminate the problem that money causes. So, for instance, during our other exhibits the price list is kept separately at the desk. Sometimes the more interesting work isn’t the most saleable. And contemporary art is suspicious enough to people without have the price tag glaring up at them, distracting from the work.”

James Hull May 19, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Thanks for the great article - I would love to be a curator at the ICA, really! BUT I was an (only) art handler and installer for over 3 years, not a curator, working with great curators like Cristoph Grunenberg and Jessica Morgan. Thanks for the great summary of an often hard to describe event! James Hull
Alix Roy May 19, 2011 at 01:55 AM
Thanks for the correction James, sorry to have accidentally promoted you!
Christopher Treacy May 20, 2011 at 01:26 AM
My bad - thanks for taking care of that. In my notes I did write 'handling,' but I guess I assumed that was more a part of the curating process. Either way, James, I enjoyed talking with you (and got my neighbor squared away afterward).
James Hull May 20, 2011 at 06:41 PM
Thank you both - the article was very accurate - so no problem with that one glitsch, as fast as I was talking I am amazed at what a good job you did in capturing the spirit of our interview! I have updated the video now so there is a version of THIS YEAR's dash online now, very funny... http://www.jameshull.com/150_2011dashpage.html

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