'PandaMania,' Washington's New Species of Art
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2004; Page C01
If everything goes as planned, artfully decorated pandas will be prowling Washington's streets this spring.
Buoyed by the success of its "Party Animals" project two years ago, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities yesterday officially announced a colorful sequel. In 2002 the idea was to cover elephants and donkeys, the symbols of the two major political parties, with entertaining and whimsical designs.
This time it's the giant panda, an endangered species that has fascinated Washingtonians since a pair of them were given to President Nixon by the Chinese government in the early 1970s.
"PandaMania" will bring 150 panda statues -- some standing, some seated and all painted in a variety of designs -- to public and private spaces. As with the Party Animals, the pandas will eventually be auctioned off to raise money for arts programs.
After word spread through the arts community in recent weeks, 1,200 artists or groups submitted drawings for consideration by the commission.
"We are aiming to make the streets of Washington fun and interesting and to bring art to people as they go through their daily lives," said Anthony Gittens, executive director of the arts commission. The displays of elephants and donkeys netted $1 million. "This is a win-win project," he said.
Gittens said pandas are easily recognizable and charismatic animals. "They make for wonderful canvases, and they have engaging images. They are funny," he said. The plastic sculptures will be 41/2 to 51/2 feet tall.
After Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at the National Zoo in 1972, they were quickly embraced by the public and became a prime tourist attraction. People were fascinated by how they ate and played, as well as their mating rituals. The pair never had a cub that lived more than a few days. Ling-Ling, the female, died in 1992; Hsing-Hsing in 1999.
When Lawrence M. Small took over as secretary of the Smithsonian, which runs the zoo, in January 2000, he said half-jokingly that the one thing the public seemed to want most was pandas. By that December the Chinese government agreed to lend Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to the zoo for 10 years at a cost of $10 million.
The original Party Animals project was generally considered a success, despite two well-publicized lawsuits and vandalism of some of the 200 sculptures.
The D.C. Statehood Green Party sued the commission, saying the party's symbol -- a sunflower -- deserved to be included in the displays with the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties. The commission won that case.
An entry of a chained and weeping elephant submitted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was rejected by the commission. PETA sued in federal court, and a judge ruled in the group's favor. The weeping elephant was displayed for a month. Gittens said the case is still on appeal.
In a later controversy, the commission outbid the competition for nine of the statues and withheld others from auction, which prompted some criticism. Gittens said those sculptures were placed in public buildings.
The disputes didn't keep local residents and tourists from tracking the locations of the animals and posing for pictures with them. One was painted to resemble a field of cherry blossoms, another a D.C. taxi, a third a typical tourist with a camera. Yet another was done up as the Disney character Dumbo, the elephant who learns how to fly, complete with aviator glasses.
The money from the Party Animals auction was used for artist grants and arts education projects. A "Panda Palooza" auction is planned for this fall.
Di Stovall's "America the Beautiful" elephant, which was covered with stars and stripes, fetched the highest bid in the 2002 auction -- $25,000. At the commission's request, she painted a small prototype for this year's competition.
Stovall said that designs might be more fanciful than in 2002 because that competition came so soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy. The earlier designs "had a lot of sentimental things going on, and I think people will be freer with the pandas."
The artists will be selected by the commission by the end of March and will receive a $1,500 stipend to paint their creations. The Kaempfer Co., a developer, is providing working space in Waterside Mall in Southwest Washington.
The finished pandas will be on display throughout the city from May through September.
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