Arts Panel Members Satisfied With Changes to King Statue

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

Members of a powerful federal arts commission expressed satisfaction yesterday with changes to a memorial statue of Martin Luther King Jr. after the architect smoothed away wrinkles in King's brow and reshaped the mouth to impart a hint of a smile.

The design had run into trouble with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has the power to veto projects such as the memorial on the Tidal Basin. The commission's secretary said in an April letter that the depiction of King with his arms crossed was too "confrontational" and reminiscent of the socialist realist style popular in communist countries.

Last year, the selection of a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, drew complaints from people who thought an American should have been chosen.

By law, no project can go forward without approval from the commission, the federal agency that advises the government on public design and aesthetics in the capital.

Yesterday, commission members reviewed illustrations of proposed changes to King's face and to the bottom and sides of the sculpture. Several said most of their concerns had been addressed.

"I think that the improvements are very positive," said Earl A. Powell III, chair of the commission. "As a general concept, I'm very comfortable with it."

Although no vote was taken, the remarks that commissioners made yesterday are in effect an endorsement of the changes. Now the memorial's architects can proceed with a plaster model. At their meeting next month, commissioners also will review plans for other aspects of the memorial site in anticipation of the start of construction by the end of the year.

Lei has expressed irritation at objections the commission made while he was building a full-scale clay model of the 28-foot sculpture, known as the Stone of Hope.

In one of the more significant changes made by Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial's chief architect, the rough-hewn granite that will surround King has been moved forward a few inches. The result is that it depicts "Dr. King's emergence from, as opposed to his placement into, the stone," Jackson said.

King's folded arms, which were among the more controversial aspects of the design, remained unchanged.

There has been some question "whether or not Dr. King would stand with his arms folded," said Jackson as he displayed the photo on which the design was based. The photo shows King standing behind his desk, arms crossed, with an image of Mohandas Gandhi in the background. "Here is picture proof-positive that he was capable of doing so," Jackson said.

Others on the commission echoed Powell's approving sentiments.

"I was quite vocal about my concern that . . . the association of Dr. King and the stone as a force of nature was being lost," said commission member N. Michael McKinnell. "I think we've regained this with the modifications."

Pamela Nelson, also a commission member, asked whether Lei was satisfied with the modifications.

"He did not feel [the changes] significantly detracted from his original idea," Jackson said.

After the meeting, the president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Harry E. Johnson Sr., called dealing with the commission "tedious" but said he was pleased that members seemed satisfied with the changes.

The foundation, which is building the memorial largely with private donations, announced that it had raised $94.8 million of the $100 million it said it needed.

Planners expect the memorial to be finished by spring 2010.

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