New Art for Old Town Breaks With Tradition

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Something entirely new is coming to Alexandria's historic King Street corridor -- modern art -- and like all public art, it is already provoking debate.

Alexandria plans to install a nine-foot-tall obelisk, a piece that has drawn mixed reviews from residents, in the plaza at South Fayette and King streets. It will be one of the city's first forays into nonfigurative sculpture.

The sculpture, called Sacandaga Totem, was created by New York artist John Van Alstine and is being donated to the city by the Alexandria Sculpture Festival, an organization that mounted several exhibitions of contemporary art on the waterfront in the 1980s.

The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved acceptance of the sculpture, worth $60,000 to $90,000, in January. Next month, the city's Board of Architectural Review will deliberate over the base for the sculpture, and city officials hope the statue will be in place by September.

"Alexandria will come into the 21st century," said H. Alan Young, a retired lawyer who serves as president of the nonprofit Alexandria Sculpture Festival, at the council meeting.

For more than two decades, Young has pursued a lonely quest: to bring modern art to Old Town. He first offered to donate the sculpture to the city six years ago.

"Up until now, Alexandrians' concept of contemporary art was George Washington sitting on a horse," Young said.

The support for a piece of modern art is a turnabout for a city that has prided itself on its historic and representational art. The few pieces of overtly modern art in the city, such as the three cape-shrouded figures at 3601 Eisenhower Ave. and the stylized bronze trees in the park on Holland Lane at Duke Street, have been outside the historic core.

Sacandaga Totem is made of rough-cut granite, with four heavy steel fins bolted at the base and welded to a steel plate. It weighs about 7,500 pounds and will be illuminated at night.

"It's definitely not what you would expect in Alexandria," said Cheryl Anne Colton, cultural arts administrator for Alexandria. "This is pushing the limit. Alexandria isn't used to contemporary pieces."

It's over the limit for some residents.

Carrie Severino told city officials by e-mail that she considered the sculpture "profoundly ugly" and not in keeping with the city's "historical, cultured" ambiance.

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