As Randy Jewart tells it, the idea first hit him when he returned home to Washington after helping some D.C. artists set up their work in the 1998 Chicago Pier Walk, an annual exhibit of outdoor sculpture along that city's Navy Pier.

"After being in Chicago and seeing all that hullabaloo and how much public art they've got everywhere, not just on thepier, it struck me that we should get something going out in the streets here, too," the sculptor recalls. "I mean, the Botero thing was such a big hit with folks," continues Jewart, refering to the Colombian artist's oversize bronzes of pudgy animals and naked women that lined two blocks of Constitution Avenue NW in 1996. "Beyond that, though, you can count the number of contemporary pieces in D.C. on one hand."

Hyperbole -- and the new National Gallery Sculpture Garden -- aside, Jewart is doing something to combat the perception that D.C. is not much more than a city of pigeon-soiled equestrian statuary. With a grant of $15,000 from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Jewart has formed It's Sculpture!, an organization with a staff of one (guess who?) dedicated to showcasing the best in local and international sculptural talent.

Its first project, curated by Sarah Tanguy around the theme of "Portals," currently is exhibiting work by Roberley Bell, Emilie Brzezinski, Rodney Carroll, Brent Crothers, Betsy Damos, Chris Gardner, David Hess, Foon Sham and John Van Alstine in a handful of downtown sites, including the grounds of the Washington Convention Center, Arena Stage and National Public Radio. A 10th piece, by Jon Isherwood, remains to be installed in the courtyard of the TechWorld complex at 800 K St. NW.

"It's funny you should ask," Jewart says, "but I just found out today that that piece is too heavy for the plaza we wanted to put it on." Isherwood's work, consisting of three vertical granite slabs on a platform base, weighs 13,000 pounds, while the office and hotel complex's engineers have determined that the plaza, which rests atop an underground parking garage, can withstand only half that. Jewart says he will consult the artist before deciding how to proceed.

Such technical headaches are of less concern to Tanguy, who says the literally open-ended theme resonates with the oft-bandied-about concept of the "Washington gateway," describing not just the proposed renovation of New York Avenue but broader efforts to revitalize downtown.

To that end, the works all suggest some form of "passageway or exchange," says Tanguy, whose choices alternate between works that can be taken in from a passing car (such as Hess's playful "Ballistic Testing Device" at the Convention Center) and works that are best appreciated by the pedestrian (such as Bell's intimate Astroturf-and-artificial-flower "Locus" at NPR).

"One thing I look for," she says, "is artists who are flexible and have worked with public art before. The work has to be accessible. I don't want people looking at something and saying, `What is that?' "

"Portals" will remain on view through next summer. A second It's Sculpture! show, curated by Tanguy and co-sponsored by the studio cooperative in which Jewart works, opens on Saturday from 6 to 8. Called "Into Balance," the 10 international works will be on display at 57 N St. NW through Jan. 17, after which Jewart hopes to find caring, if temporary, homes for them throughout the city.

For information about It's Sculpture! call 202/667-3999.