In District Government Building, All Art Is Local

James Huckenpahler's
James Huckenpahler's "Untitled" is part of the permanent exhibition. (D.c. Commission On The Arts And Humanities)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 11, 2006

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.

Raymond Loewy

Turns out a Frenchman stoked our love of shopping.

From his arrival in America in 1919 until his retirement in the 1970s, Raymond Loewy designed some of our most cherished symbols of Americanness: the confident crimson target on the Lucky Strike pack, the sexy 1953 Studebaker Starliner Coupe and the logo and color scheme of John F. Kennedy's Air Force One.

"Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture," organized by the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del., and now on view at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, shows how one bourgeois Parisian shaped our desires for Broil-Quik Super Chef broiler-rotisseries and Schick Super electric razors.

Loewy's knack for injecting our markets with attractive products is intimated by a wealth of drawings, models, photographs, film footage and vintage products. The exhibition's presentation is impeccable -- and complete with walls shaped into curves as voluptuous as a Loewy-designed television set.

The designer's products combined sex appeal and machine-age optimism. Radios from the 1940s featured dials echoing those in jet plane cockpits. Silverware for the Concorde was formed out of confident geometries. If shopping can be defined as the marriage of hope and possibility, then Loewy made that hope infinitely renewable. No matter that the shiny Studebaker won't save our marriage or garner a promotion. With Loewy at the helm, we shopped and shopped again.

Even as the Great Depression sapped America's will and ability to shop, Loewy honed this art of emotional and aesthetic appeal. For better and for worse, his legacy outlives his 1986 death. In times of crisis, Americans still do what Americans do: They go shopping.

City Hall Art Collection at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., photo ID required for entry, 202-727-1000.

Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture at the Center for Art and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through Nov. 25, 410-455-3188.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company