The People Weigh In on D.C. Public Arts Projects

At a forum hosted by DC Creates Art, participants described their hopes for future projects with such phrases as "brings people together."
At a forum hosted by DC Creates Art, participants described their hopes for future projects with such phrases as "brings people together." (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

A plan began forming this week to help solve one of Washington's ongoing artistic identity crises -- the one about what to install outdoors, something besides statues of men on horses in traffic circles. Or pandas on street corners.

These things almost always involve commissions, committees and out-of-town consultants. There'll be a glossy, bindered "master plan" in four months -- and, perhaps years from now, actual art.

But first comes the part where the people speak. A hundred or so turned up Tuesday night in the main lobby of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where the DC Creates Public Art program hosted an open forum for comment on the future of public art. Big maps of the city were on tables. There was a one-page survey for the people to fill out: "Use your imagination and describe an artwork that you would like to see in your community," it prompted.

The crowd was mostly artists, starving and otherwise. Things got noisy, insistent, hopeful.

"The local story hasn't been told," said Mount Pleasant artist and activist Judy Byron. "There's not a sense of character, other than Ben's Chili Bowl. We're not just about the National Gallery."

"Some of the people who birthed the Harlem Renaissance were here, at Howard," said Claudia (Aziza) Gibson-Hunter, co-founder of Black Artists of DC. "You have an aesthetic here that has been developed here for many years, and it's deep and strong -- "

"And you don't see it in public art," said mixed-media artist Amber Robles-Gordon, who lives in Southeast Washington and is irked at always having to come to Northwest for these types of meetings.

"We don't want cookie-cutter, fiberglass animals decorated whimsically," said Ward 6 resident and culture blogger Michael Licht, referring to the most widespread public art projects in recent memory, Pandamania and Party Animals.

Washington: Too good for elephants and donkeys.

Washington: Much more than a federal city.

Washington: It has a local, neighborhoody, lived-in soul. People want to be able to see it on the streets.

In a year in which the District faces a $250 million drop in revenue, there is still $2.5 million from the city's capital budget going toward public art. Unlike many other cities, the District's public art money is not wedded to capital projects such as bridges and stadiums and convention centers. This allows for some flexibility -- and master plans. For $50,000, St. Louis-based consulting group Via Partnership has guided the process for the past couple of months, arranging meetings with local artists, business leaders, gallery owners and agencies. Lots of brains are being picked.

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