HeART of D.C.: The City Hall Art Collection

Architecture/Design, Ceramics, Mixed Media, Outdoor/Public Art
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HeART of D.C.: The City Hall Art Collection photo
(Detail from James Huckenpahler's "Untitled"/D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities)
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Editorial Review

In District Government Building, All Art Is Local

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 11, 2006; Page C01

Finally, a public art project that addresses the public and the art.

The venture is the District government's own "City Hall Art Collection," a permanent art installation recently unveiled in the John A. Wilson Building. Its 175 works by 100 artists, many born here or longtime residents, have been handsomely installed on all six floors of the Pennsylvania Avenue building. Every ward and age group is represented.

Projects such as the city-sponsored pandas and the public-private "Street Scenes" failed to engage the citizenry in much more than passing pleasures. By contrast, the Wilson Building exhibition proves the city's commitment to both its artists and its citizens.

For some time now, the private offices of the mayor and D.C. Council members have showcased works borrowed from the city's art bank. "City Hall Art Collection" marks the District's first attempt at showcasing art in the building's public areas.

Works from the collection were purchased with tax dollars and they belong to us. Their exhibition is permanent. And they've been hung with great care, thanks in large measure to project curator Sondra Arkin. An extensive catalogue and map, both free to visitors, were produced for the occasion.

The exhibition demonstrates a city standing behind its artists with real financial and promotional dedication. The selections represent individuals working out idiosyncratic visions, not laboring on templates in the shapes of pandas and donkeys. It's an important distinction.

The project -- including hiring curator Arkin and framing and buying the works -- cost $400,000. According to Arkin, 153 works were purchased and the rest were culled from the D.C. arts commission's pre-existing art bank; those the city bought had been discounted about 25 percent. Rachel Dickerson, the city's Art in Public Places Manager, said that $260,000 was paid for the artwork.

Arkin did a fine job representing the local creative scene. She had just one year to assemble the cache, which was chosen in consultation with an advisory board that included Jacquelyn Serwer, the Corcoran's former chief curator; Katzen Arts Center Curator and Director Jack Rasmussen; and city officials. The group chose works by artists as diverse as the young digital artist James Huckenpahler, the old guard assemblage-maker Renee Stout and the late abstract-expressionist Jacob Kainen. Yes, there are holes in the collection. The city vows to add more artists as funds and needs are identified.

That this cache has been named the "City Hall Art Collection" may ring strange to some. Before 1973's Home Rule Act, we didn't have an independent city, let alone a City Hall. Even now, more than a decade after the building was named after the late council chairman John A. Wilson, many still call the beaux-arts edifice by its former moniker, the District Building. Tagging this art collection to "City Hall" solidifies our connection to a local government regularly overshadowed by its Pennsylvania Avenue neighbors.

Though the pictures on view involve no major surprises, that's not a defect. The "City Hall Art Collection" is a representative sampling of creative efforts in the area and a powerful engagement with our sense of collective ownership and responsibility.

D.C. Adds Local Art to Downtown Palette
City Hall Exhibit Balances Offerings of Nearby National Museums, Galleries

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006; Page DZ01

The hallways inside the District's city hall are dominated by a rolling parade of politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats.

Now there's a new addition brightening the otherwise bland vista: artwork.

Not just 1, 2 or even 10 pieces, but 175 -- all of them produced by Washington area artists and now on permanent display at the John A. Wilson Building.

From abstract paintings to photography to sculpture, the wide-ranging exhibition is spread over six floors and is the first of its kind at the building, which houses the offices of the mayor and D.C. Council.

"It brings life to the halls," Anthony Gittens, director for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, said as he toured the exhibit on a recent afternoon.

The commission came up with the idea for the exhibit as a way to draw attention to the work of D.C. area artists and chose the Wilson building as a centrally located showcase.

Sondra N. Arkin, the exhibit's curator, said no particular theme permeates the exhibit, which features several prominent artists, including painters Sam Gilliam and Robin Rose and photographer William Christenberry.

A panel reviewed some 4,000 submissions before selecting the exhibit. The main criteria was that artists be from the area. The commission spent $400,000 acquiring the art. The most it paid was $17,000 for a Gilliam painting.

Washington's local art scene, Arkin said, typically is "overpowered" by the national museums and galleries downtown.

"People come to Washington, and they go to the Mall," she said. But with the city hall exhibit, she said, visitors can "see the breadth of Washington art."

"They get to see that there's abstraction and clay work and glasswork that's as good as anywhere in the country," she said. "Often when people travel, they want to see who's doing the local art, and in Washington there often hasn't been a place like that."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) attended a reception Oct. 31 celebrating the exhibit's opening. What he and hundreds of guests saw was a eclectic mix of art, to say the least.

There is a 45-year-old abstract watercolor by a now 89-year-old painter. There is a painting of a woman with floating hair, surrounded by floating keyholes.

Although the exhibit is not focused on images of the District, the city and its residents make regular appearances, such as in the panoramic photograph of a father and daughter fishing on the C & O Canal.

Another photograph is of superimposed images of 14th Street. A garage with a pink roof in a Washington back alley is captured in a painting. Another portrays a downtown hotdog stand. A third depicts the neon lights of the Tivoli Theater sign.

Phyllis Furdell, a Falls Church painter who has spent 20 years capturing life on Metro trains on canvas, sold the commission her rendition of a moment on the Red Line that she painted in 1992.

Furdell has completed more than two dozen paintings of Metro scenes over the years, finding endless inspiration in the cross-section of humanity underground.

"It's one of those places where you get this mixture of people from all walks of life, where they're either going to work or they're homeless or they're tourists," she said. "It just seems that they're very lost in their own worlds, and yet they're all together. They're absorbed in their own destinations and destinies."

Furdell, a project manager for the National League of Cities, sold the painting for $1,440. She said she's pleased by the prospect of visitors being able to view her work for years to come.

"Most artists like to think their work will be in a permanent place," she said. "It's a good opportunity for immortality."

Brendan Hoffman, a freelance photojournalist, had his camera when he swung by the Maine Avenue fish market one afternoon last February. He snapped shots of two men working behind a counter, beneath a sign reading, "Our Crabs Have No Sand."

Eight months later, the photos are hanging at city hall.

Hoffman was drawn to the market, he said, "because it seems like a remnant from another time. It's so far removed from our common supermarket experience; it's different and unique."

He said that he got about $200 for his photographs and that the money wasn't the point.

"It's a nice thing to be part of, it's good for the resume, and I'm pleased to see the government taking an active role to encourage the arts," he said. The arts are "an easy thing to get rid of."

Sight: City Hall

At last night's opening of the new City Hall Art Collection, Council Chair Linda Cropp talked about renovations to the District government's headquarters in the last decade. "You know when you move everything into a new house and you look around and you say something's missing?" she asked. According to Cropp, what's been missing from the John A. Wilson Building is the presence of local artists.

When the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities' public art organizers dreamed up the idea for a City Hall Art Collection, they wanted something that would represent the talent in this city -- and no, not the oratory or political variety. This new collection does just that. It offers canvasses from the biggest names in the D.C.-area art scene, including Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry and Tim Tate. Gallery lovers, you'll find works by many artists you know on the walls.

And while any art collection that is meant to represent Washington wouldn't be complete without our shining stars, there's also something else at play here: a snapshot, or celebration, if you will, of life in Washington. Franz Jantzen's set of panoramic photographs of the C&O Canal, Javier Gil's topsy-turvy drawing of a Metro station, Jody Bergstresser's painting of the Tivoli Theater: it is these slices of Washington that -- when combined with the big shots -- make this collection a perfect public art installation for Washington's city hall.

Most of the 175 artworks on display are paintings, but several photographs, lithographs and a couple sculptures are littered throughout. I'd advise any art lover to start a tour from the building's fifth floor because the bright canvasses in the hallway by the mayor's suite are worth a considered look.

Spend some time with Victoria Restrepo's "Still Life with Hot Peppers," Jae Ko's "Untitled Red" and Max Hirshfield's photographs, but really this collection is best experienced by just wandering through the halls. Stop by the works that catch your eye and recognize that this beautiful canvas is just steps away from your councilmember's office.

That's really what public art is all about, isn't it?

--Julia Beizer (Nov. 1, 2006)