My business cards may say "art critic," but I get as much fun out of kitsch and tchotchkes and garage-sale crafts as anyone. I swear that I once paid good money -- 10 bucks, easy -- for a couple of teary-eyed horses done in copper paint on black velvet, which now have pride of place in my bathroom. So I have nothing in principle against "Pandamania," the summer project that has city workers plopping 150 hand-decorated, man-size fiberglass pandas all over town. If the city's tourism office wants to tickle out-of-towners, or if its social workers want something to brighten local gloom, then some giant decorated party favors may be the perfect way to go about it, as far as I'm concerned.
When the city launched its similar "Party Animals" project in 2002, scattering 200 painted elephants and donkeys about our streets, I didn't see how it called for much in the way of comment. I've even had cheery visions of a future when other fauna native to the District might be honored: Rats first, maybe, and then eventually those cute little cicada grubs, with their cuddly white bodies and twinkly red eyes. But this year, hearing about the coming panda infestation, I decided to probe deeper, and came across a little word in the panda propaganda that I hadn't noticed before: art.
The panda project is described in all the city's PR as an "exciting public art project." It is the brainchild, and by far the year's most touted project, of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, whose official mission is to promote "excellence in the arts" so that the general public can "gain a deeper appreciation for the arts." And the Pandamania "call to artists" says that the "selection committee is looking for artwork that is dynamic and invites innovation." When an art critic hears words like that paired with painted pandas, it's like waving a red flag at a bull in a china gewgaw shop.
A few weekends back, most of the newly decorated pandas sat gathered in an empty office building in Southwest Washington, pending their stampede across our cityscape. There was "Paisley Panda," covered in psychedelic swirls. There was "Cro-Magnon Panda," with extra curls of sculpted fur stuck on to make it prehistoric -- but managing to make it look more worm-infested than anything else. There was -- no kidding -- a panda reworked to look like a chocolate-dipped "strawbeary." Not one of these beasts or any of their brethren reminded me -- even vaguely, even in passing -- of the kinds of things I've been asked to look at in art galleries and museums across the country, or around the world, made by artists working now or in the far or recent past. They don't link up to the kinds of creative challenges significant artists have to face and overcome. They're not about artistic innovation, or about addressing real issues in the world or in the history of art.
The problem's simple: A marshmallowy sculpture of a cutesy-pie animal -- more teddy bear than zoological specimen, by far -- is not exactly a blank canvas that leaves much room for profound artistic thought. The pandas don't even have the tiny charge of politics that gave some hope for the Party Animals.
The Pandamania call for submissions included a proposal sheet with an outline drawing of the unpainted panda sculpture onto which artists were to sketch their designs. It looked exactly like a page from a toddler's coloring book. The finished sculptures are coloring-book art, too, only blown up in 3-D.
It would take a really skilled contemporary artist to turn a coloring book into something worth an art lover's time. There probably aren't more than a half-dozen artists in this city who could do it. But even those six don't seem to have made it onto the project's 150 artist list. On the long roster of panda decorators, there wasn't anyone whom the city's art aficionados would be likely to count as a top local talent. There were barely a handful of artists whose names I even recognized at all from any of my visits to studios or galleries or art schools in the region. Ambitious District artists clearly realized the odds were stacked against success, and decided to steer clear. (The other, sadder possibility is that they did submit designs that were rejected as too challenging.) This was the real problem with the project: In artistic terms, the idea of decorating precast pandas was a lose-lose proposition from Day One. It could only hope to produce cheesy, crowd-pleasing, feel-good street ornaments. And that's exactly what it did.
This would be all right by me -- or at least none of my business as an art critic -- if it were just one minor art project among many sponsored by the city. A few cheap-and-cheery pandas, made by a bunch of school kids and enthusiasts out to have some fun, would be no big deal if they were lost in a crowd of significant and ambitious civic-sponsored public art, as you sometimes see in other cities. But it's another story when Pandamania becomes the goofy public face of this city's commission on the arts. In a recent interview, DCCAH Executive Director Tony Gittens said that the animal art projects have come to have a higher profile than anything else his commission does. The Party Animals and Pandamania projects have sought, and gotten, more hype, and more attention, than almost any other art event in the three years and some I've been in Washington.
These projects eat up precious resources at the DCCAH that could be better spent on any number of other serious, ambitious art programs. As Gittens explained, Pandamania required the labors of one full-time staffer, one full-time contract worker and one part-timer, as well as asking for a considerable input of time and energy from him and many others on staff at the DCCAH.
The commission argues that all those resources that flow into the animal projects help DCCAH raise money in support of more serious art endeavors. It cites $800,000 in "profit" from the auction of the Party Animals, which was then committed to funding the commission's grants for other arts activities. But what those rosy numbers don't reveal is that staging the Party Animals project consumed more than $850,000 from the DCCAH capital budget in the first place. That means that the $800,000 in "new" grant money is really money that the Party Animals allowed the DCCAH to shift from its capital budget to its granting budget, at a very slight loss. The animal projects don't make the commission richer; they just let it take money from one pocket and stick it in another. And that at the cost of great effort and resources, and at the serious risk of diluting the commission's mandate to promote real art in Washington. Who's going to notice or care that the DCCAH does channel some money toward local visual-arts professionals, or that it promotes the occasional serious art event, when all they can think is "pandas" when they hear its name?
Washington has some of the most important museums in the world, run by scholars of major note, and they attract art lovers from all over. For a city its size, it also has a surprisingly large and vibrant community of contemporary artists, dealers, collectors and curators who keep things humming on the local scene, and have been steadily pushing its standards up.
And yet the DCCAH, by presenting Party Animals and Pandamania as its major effort in the visual arts, turns its back on all of that and sends powerful signals that the city's private arts sponsors, and the general public, should feel free to do the same. Many of this city's leading art professionals -- every single one I've spoken to, in fact -- are dismayed at the DCCAH's role in launching Pandamania. It feels like the commission is saying, "There's no need to face up to the challenges of real art; getting a belly laugh from tchotchkes will do just as well."
"We want to bring a smile to the streets," said Gittens. But how about putting art there, first?