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18th and Columbia Road Plaza to Get Major Art Installed Next Winter; Finalist Selection Soon

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

A less than exuberant ensemble of architectural eccentricities marks the busy commercial crossroads of Washington’s lively Adams Morgan community at the intersection of Columbia Road with Adams Mill Road to the north and 18th Street to the south. Four differently named, and differently diverse, neighborhoods meet at this same single juncture along with three close-by residential streets: Euclid, Biltmore, and Calvert. Two of the four intersection’s street corners have sizeable open plaza areas — the southwest Sun Trust Bank corner with a sloping, multi-level plaza that hosts an outdoor farmers market in good weather and the northeast former Gartenhaus Fur’s building, now occupied by BB&T Bank, which has a recently completed single level space covering a former right turn, slip lane off Columbia Road.

In conjunction with an ambitious streetscape project by the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) currently underway, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is conducting a competition for an outdoor, public artwork for placement on the intersection’s BB&T plaza corner.

In addition to pure aesthetic pleasure and the nurturing of the arts generally, the DC Arts Commission intends for this artwork at this particularly well-traveled site to serve as an emblematic beacon for the entire Adams Morgan Community — Lanier Heights, Reed-Cooke, Washington Heights, and Kalorama Triangle, as well as a dramatization of the multi-cultural significance of the community, both now and in the past.

A reported 148 artists from around the nation responded to the Commission’s artist call by the November 21, 2008 deadline for “qualification submissions”; 18 of them were Washingtonians, with 13 qualifying for outdoor art project proposal consideration. After due deliberation by the Commission’s staff and a nine-member community panel, three artists were selected as semi-finalists and commissioned to propose formal plans, complete with models of their proposed sculptures and, if desired, auxiliary objects or sidewalk furniture. Despite severe community criticism of the Commission’s relatively opaque competition process, and the telescoped time frame for submissions in pursuit of the significant, $200,000 grant to be awarded to the selected artist, more than 50 community residents joined commission staff, Adams Morgan ANC commissioners, and the press for a two-hour, early evening “come and go”-style presentation of the three semi-finalists’ design proposals on April 21.

Organized by ANC Commissioner Mindy Moretti and Arts Commission staff members Rachel Dickerson and Deirdre Ehlen, the session was held at the First Church of Christ, Scientist at Euclid and Champlain Streets. In addition to well-made, visually informative artists’ models on display, colorful boards offered Photoshop-type images of what the three models might look like when constructed at full size on the plaza site, together with any additional sculptural parts.

Neighbors who came by in the early part of the two-hour session seemed less than enthusiastically impressed with any of the three proposals — “underwhelming,” said several, referring equally to Pittsburgh artist James Simon’s Bicycle Musician, Washington DC’s Michael Milbourne’s Sunflowers, and New York State’s Owen Morrel’s Adamor Circle. As the evening progressed, however, a number of later attendees countered several early, harshly expressed negative assessments with expressions of support, especially for the Sun Flowers and the Bicycle Musician.

Indeed, the more one stood and visually absorbed the models and the colorful, enlarged images approximating what they might look like when constructed and installed on the site, the more interesting and aesthetically pleasing they became. Whether or not these proposals successfully responded to the Arts Commission’s general charge of a multi-cultural, historical and present-day sculptural celebration of Adams Morgan was hotly disputed by many viewers, and since there was no general community assembly component as part of the evening’s two-hour event, it was less than possible to gauge or summarize expressions of community sentiment. Informal comments about the models, however, were lively.

The model for James Simon’s Bicycle Musician drew kudos for its Red Grooms/Mimi Gross-style ruckus, funkiness and the warm, emotionally sculpted face of the bicyclist. With his mandolin in hand, groceries and cut flowers on his bicycle carrying rack, and dog and soccer ball at ground, the bicyclist touched many Adams Morgan bases, including that of prospective children’s enjoyment of such an outdoor sculpture. Simon also included a proposal to relate his work to that of the plaza’s kiosk by coloring the kiosk roof to coordinate with the colors of his proposed concrete sculpture.

Michael Milbourne drew hometown support, and expressions of keen interest in how his proposed 18-foot tall and 14-foott long steel, aluminum, and copper Sunflowers sculpture might organize the surrounding disparate elements — kiosk, bus shelter, historical markers, and utility boxes already in place or planned for this same plaza space. Milbourn’s proposed creation would significantly increase its visual interest with a stained glass butterfly and “mosaic on the sunflower face.” The artist’s local history research convinced him that “the sunflower is iconic in many cultures and connects the multi-cultural feel of Adams Morgan to its residents and visitors.”

Upstate New York’s Owen Morrel in his Adamor [an acronym for Adams Morgan] Circle proposal took an entirely different approach, resulting in a sculptural design for a complex abstraction of circles “emanating from a core circle.” This core and one outside circle would “be made out of stainless steel with a mirror polish — the second outside ring out of aluminum. . . . Each circle [would] house different organic shapes charged with motion, presence, and metaphor.” While admiring its sophistication, several questioned its specific reference to Adams Morgan.

The community panel that selected these three semi-finalists will meet again by mid-May to review the models, colorful boards, and supporting documentation from the three artists, together with the individual community critique sheets filled out at the April 21st event. This will be followed by a late May announcement by the DC Arts and Humanities Commission of the winning finalist. Installation on the plaza of the completed public art sculptural project is planned for winter 2009 or spring 2010.