We talk to an architect, a city planner, and a designer about how we find our way around town.
The most successful public art projects are hailed for their vision and for how they enhance communities that experience them. But the blowback to a temporary project in vacant Southeast Washington storefronts and a separate proposal to construct a model of a sunken gas station in the Anacostia River opened new questions about just how much input the public should have in public art.
- Christina Cauterucci Arts Editor, Washington City Paper
- Blake Gopnik Critic At-Large; Artnet News; Former chief art critic, The Washington Post
- Greta Fuller Representative, D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (8A)
- Tonya Jordan Public Art Program Manager, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There was a moment this fall in southeast Washington when one person's pile of junk really was another person's work of art. At the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue, a jumble of debris was spread across windows and vacant storefronts -- broken mirrors, splintered wooden beams, chewed-up tires. It was all the vision of an artist who had been given public support to craft a work that would challenge and inspire those who interacted with it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe New Migration was designed to be a statement about gentrification and the displacement of African-Americans in urban communities. But there was a public blowback to the piece from the community where it was on display -- a blowback that opened up questions about how much of a say the public should have in public art, whether it's something as simple as a mural or as conceptual and abstract as a pile of debris or even a gas station floating in the Anacostia River. Here to help us have that conversation is Christina Cauterucci. She is the arts editor at Washington City Paper. Christina joins us in studio. Welcome.
MS. CHRISTINA CAUTERUCCIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Greta Fuller. She's an Advisory Neighborhood Commission Representative here in Washington. The neighborhood she represents is 8A, which is in Anacostia. Greta Fuller, thank you for joining us.
MS. GRETA FULLERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Tonya Jordan is the public art program manager for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Humanities. Tonya, thank you for joining us.
MS. TONYA JORDANThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation yourself, give us a call, 800-433-8850. How would you react if an artist piled up trash in empty storefronts in your neighborhood and declared it art? Would you appreciate it for the statement it was making? Or would you insist that it was an eyesore? Joining from Argot Studios in New York City is Blake Gopnik. He is critic at-large for Artnet News. He writes regularly for The New York Times, was previously the chief art critic at The Washington Post. He's currently writing a biography about Andy Warhol. Blake, how's it going?
MR. BLAKE GOPNIKIt's going great, Kojo. Great to be back on the air with you.
NNAMDIGood to talk to you again. Christina, I'll start with you. People cannot see it anymore because it was a temporary project that ended up coming down a month ahead of schedule. But this piece of abstract art, this collection of debris in the storefronts, triggered a passionate conversation about public art and about its compatibility with communities around it. Can you explain exactly what The New Migration was and how it came about?
CAUTERUCCISure. So The New Migration was a project by New York-based black artist, Abigail DeVille. She was chosen by a curator for D.C.'s Five by Five Public Art Festival, which pairs five curators with five artists each -- hence, Five by Five. Abigail toured D.C. prior to siting an installation here, and chose Anacostia for the site of an installation she wanted to make -- that was a take on another artist, Jacob Lawrence's depiction of the Great Migration, where millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow south into the urban north -- DeVille saying that now that population flow has reversed and people of color are being forced out of urban centers in northern cities.
CAUTERUCCISo she collected debris, found objects on a railroad that was a common route for the Great Migration. She did the trip in reverse, from D.C. to Jacksonville, Fla., and installed the pieces she found -- which to most people would look like garbage -- in these three storefronts in Anacostia. She designed the piece specifically for Anacostia, because it was so steeped in a rich, African-American history.
CAUTERUCCIAnd it was a place that is just starting to see the first trickles of gentrification. There's a blossoming art center there that was just opened a year ago. Busboys and Poets just signed a lease on the place, on the same block, just this week. So I think it was a smart place for her to put the piece. Now, whether it was communicated properly and whether the discussion around it was done in a...
NNAMDIWe're going to have a conversation about that during the course of the next hour.
NNAMDIBut what's the history in D.C. with the public funding of this kind of art? How long has the city used public resources to support these kinds of projects?
CAUTERUCCID.C. has been making a concerted effort to support public art since the '80s. But Five by Five is a new initiative. It began in 2012. It's going to be every other year. And it -- for the first time, the Arts Commission is looking to curators and artists from outside of D.C. to bring their perspectives into the city. So it's really a chance for them to do temporary projects which can be, by their nature, more experimental.
NNAMDIBlake, before we get farther into this particular local episode, what's your view -- what, in your view, makes for great public art? And what examples can you point to -- either locally here in Washington or around the world -- where you feel that the balance was kind of hit just right?
GOPNIKWell, I think it's safe to say that D.C. doesn't have a great reputation for its cosmopolitanism or its public art for that matter. So I think the city has to work against that, I think, outdated notion in the rest of the world that it's not quite up to speed. And it should look to cities like New York and London, you know? Last year, last summer, Kara Walker put a 75-foot nude sphinx with a kerchief of a black nanny near the waterfront in Williamsburg and it drew thousands and thousands of people. It was hugely successful, but also a very edgy work of art.
GOPNIKTrafalgar Square in London famously has what they call the Fourth Plinth Project, where an unfilled plinth that was supposed to have some kind of guy on horseback on it, that never got put there, is given over to really radical artists. The next work that's going up there is by an artist called Hans Haacke, who has made a work all about the horrors of the one percent and their domination of the world. And Londoners don't seem to be afraid of that. In fact, it's come to be accepted that the work on that plinth should be something edgy and that'll get people talking.
NNAMDITo what degree do you think public art should challenge our preconceived notions for what art is, for some people that -- the idea maybe that art has to be, well, beautiful?
GOPNIKYou know what? I don't think there are a lot of people who look and think hard about art these days who would agree with that. I don't even know what beauty is, frankly. And I don't think anyone else really does either. A lot of the art from the past was challenging in one way or another -- crucifixions, et cetera. It wasn't all just pretty stuff. I think most people would agree. I think the vast majority of Americans, in fact, would agree that really serious art should challenge you in one way or another. I think if we did a poll about that, you'd get a pretty strong response that they imagine, in the abstract, that art should do that. The only problem is they don't necessarily want it in their backyard.
NNAMDIMm-hmm. Same question to you, Christina.
CAUTERUCCII would agree with Blake in a lot of ways. I think since public art really is embedded in people's communities -- it's accessible to everyone, you don't have to go into a museum for it -- in a lot of ways, when you encounter it, you're not necessarily prepared to see it. I think there's a higher threshold for acceptability in people's communities. Somebody who's visiting a community for the first time and doesn't know much about it and is making judgments about it, if they see a public art project that portrays the neighborhood in a negative light, that's something that people living in communities don't want.
CAUTERUCCIAt the same time, they probably -- in an abstract way, as Blake said, believe in the power of public art to bring important issues into the public realm.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number, if you'd like to join the conversation. What, in your view, does a successful public art project look like? Have there been public art projects in Washington or in other cities that have affected or have inspired you? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Blake, before we move off of this aspect of the topic, do we look at art differently when it's unavoidable? If someone wants to experience the Mona Lisa, they have to go to Paris, see it at the Louvre. Public art can be right in front of us whether we like it or not.
NNAMDIAnd you talk about examples in London and other places where the public seems to approve of public art. But you use the words, serious art. Is there a distinction to be made between how the public looks at, quote, unquote, "serious art" or any other form of art?
GOPNIKI think that's a really good question, Kojo. I think it's really important to realize that all art needs to be framed in some way. And I mean that literally, in terms of a frame, but mostly I mean it sociologically. That art really only becomes art once a society puts it in a place that declares it to be art. Marcel Duchamp's great urinal, of course, that he declared a work of art called "Fountain," only became that when it was supposed to go on show in an art museum. So I think it is important that public art imagine that it needs to be framed so that people realize -- Oh, this is happening in that space where there's supposed to be freedom. That's what the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London is all about.
GOPNIKPeople know that's a place that's supposed to have controversy around it. So I think it is important that public art not just be put in any old place. It could be that art doesn't really live very comfortably anymore in our streets the way maybe it did 500 years ago. Now it needs a different kind of framing. And that could be the secret to solving the problem. I'm not sure that the murals they put up -- the tidy, cute murals, as Christina has described them -- really belong on street corners any more than any other kind of art does. I've got a feeling that art, if it's going to be any good, has to be framed. And what we need is a place where people can frame the art conceptually, sociologically, and know -- Oh, this is the place I go to look at interesting public art.
NNAMDIThat's Blake Gopnik. He is joining us for this discussion of the role of the public in public art. He's critic at-large for Artnet News. He writes regularly for The New York Times, was the chief art critic at The Washington Post, currently writing a biography about Andy Warhol. He joins us by -- from studios in New York. Joining us in our Washington studio is Greta Fuller, Advisory Neighborhood Commission Representative in the District of Columbia, representing District 8A, which is in the Anacostia neighborhood. Tonya Jordan is the public art program manager for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Humanities. And Christina Cauterucci is the arts editor at Washington City Paper.
NNAMDITonya, The New Migration Project was part of what Christina described as this Five by Five program.
NNAMDIWhat's the philosophy behind Five by Five? One of your colleagues told Christina that it often supports pieces that would not receive support through a traditional public art program.
JORDANYes. It's very much about pushing boundaries and exploring new perceptions and innovative experimentation with public art throughout the city. And that's why it's temporary. An overwhelming majority of our public art commissions go through a very strict protocol of approvals and community vetting. The very nature of Five by Five in all eight wards of the city works around the concept of the communities exploring and discovering something new and different and perhaps challenging, and their reaction to that. So it's a good thing in that it spurs discussion and conversation...
NNAMDIThis one sure did.
JORDAN...and future action. Actually we had a really great discussion, Commissioner Fuller and I, in the reception area. And, you know, we talked about, you know, the fact that I really respect their perspective of The New Migration and the sensitivities surrounding the site and a number of other factors. But we also agreed that we will continue to stay in touch and form a much closer type of...
NNAMDIDid you also agree that it might have been a lot better if that conversation that you had in our Green Room had occurred like a year ago?
JORDANYou know what? That has been explored. The very nature -- I understand that -- but the very nature of Five by Five is about excitement and pushing the boundaries. So if we were to take each of the five curators and each of their five concepts into the community, oftentimes we would...
NNAMDIYou'd end up with a talk show.
JORDANWe'd end up with a talk show and we would end up with probably a very diluted version of what the curator or the artists' visions were. And that's the very nature of Five by Five. That's why it's temporary. And I say to people, you know, if you like the activations in your neighborhood, cherish them because it's temporary. If you don't like them, don't worry about it. It's temporary. But it definitely has spurred a very important conversation.
JORDANWe have worked extensively in Ward 8 with a number of permanent public art projects. And, you know, we continue to learn. And this is a lesson well-learned. And I think that there's -- we're forming a mutual respect with regard to all perspectives about what happened with the new migration project.
NNAMDILet the records show that we considered this talk show a form of public art, but we move on. (laugh) Greta...
GOPNIK(unintelligible) Kojo, right?
NNAMDIThank you very much, Blake. Greta, let's take things back to the experience of this new migration piece for a minute. How did you react the first time you saw it?
FULLERI thought the ceiling had fallen in on the abandoned building (unintelligible) and Martin Luther King.
FULLERYes. We had been asking the government, who owns the building, to fix the building and, you know, to restore it. And when I saw all the rubbish in the window, we said, it's finally falling in. Now what are you going to do?
NNAMDIWhen you were informed that this was a piece of public art, what were your initial thoughts about the message behind the piece? Christina wrote that some people felt pretty clearly that they did not need a pile of junk to remind them of what their lives in that part of the city may have been like.
FULLERI personally felt outrage when I found out it was art. And I had many different reasons why I felt outrage. One reason -- and I must kind of backtrack because I did talk to residents to find out what they felt about it and what they thought. And we were mostly along the same track, the same thought of mind that, how dare you come and put this sort of installation at a -- in abandoned buildings that we've been trying to do something with for years.
FULLERAnd what we thought is that at (unintelligible) where we've been struggling to develop it for many years to add garbage in on garbage was an insult.
NNAMDIWe should point out that, for those of you who are not familiar with the political process in the District of Columbia, that the advisory neighborhood commissioner is, in our electoral system, the closest representative that neighborhood communities have who are elected. Did it matter to you, Greta Fuller, that the artist, in this case the person making this statement, was not from this city or from your area in the city?
FULLERIt did matter to us but once I really realized what the Five by Five was and how they reached out to other communities and other cities and maybe even other countries, I understand that we're not against artists from other areas. But we believe that here in the District of Columbia, we do have some artists that would definitely qualify to do a piece of work in the community, and also that are sensitive to what's going on in the different neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.
FULLERAnd that's why when we saw the work of art by Ms. De Ville that contained trash or things that she picked up along the great migration route that we actually see every day in our community and along the Anacostia River, the residents were like, why would we pay someone to bring trash from other parts of the country when we're trying to clean up our neighborhood and the Anacostia River?
NNAMDIChristina Cauterucci, Abigail De Ville's not with us for this conversation but reading the piece that you wrote, she indicated that she was not aware of the political nature of the conversation that was taking place in the Anacostia community at that time. Had she been aware of that, she might have taken a slightly different approach.
CAUTERUCCIExactly. One of the things that she was most concerned about when I spoke with her was that she wasn't able to speak with the community that those conversations should've been happening months before. And that she, in her tour of D.C., sensed that the narrative would be appropriate for Anacostia. But the physical manifestation of that narrative, I think had she spoken with more community members, might've been tweaked a little bit. Or at least the communication would've been such that people would understand and feel that their perspectives had been heard.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation of the role of the public and public art. But if you have questions or comments, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you think that public art has to be pleasing or nonthreatening? Would you welcome a public art project that challenges your perspective or would you rather they be more like the painted panda bears that once dotted the city? We'll be talking about that too when we come back, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDI...back to our conversation on the role of the public in public art. We're talking with Tonya Jordan. She is the public art program manager for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Humanities. Christina Cauterucci is the arts editor at Washington City Paper. Greta Fuller is an advisory neighborhood commission representative in the District of Columbia representing District 8A which is in the Anacostia community. And Blake Gopnik is critic at large for Artnet News. He writes regularly for the New York Times. He was previously chief art critic for the Washington Post. Blake is currently writing a biography about Andy Warhol.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation with your questions and comments at 800-433-8850. Blake, for a lot of people who've lived in Washington, the most memorable public art they know are the painted pandas and the so-called political party animals, donkeys and mules that were once scattered across the city.
NNAMDILadies and gentlemen, Blake has already expressed his opinion about all of this without saying a word. These -- they made a lot of people smile, Blake, but how is public art different when it elicits a different emotion? The tone of the new migration was, well, quite different.
GOPNIKYeah, I don't think there's anyone out there who thinks that really great art is just about making someone smile for a second and then having them move on. You can ask anyone, they'll say, no, it should be more substantial. We believe that art matters, that art is a great expression of, you know, choose your cliché, the human spirit, whatever.
GOPNIKAnd what worries me about people's reactions to works like the new migration is that it sort of -- each person seems to think that there's some kind of an art critical czar that they should decide what the work means, right. That they say, no, this is just junk. It's not good art. But who gets to decide that? There's a really painful example of that in the history of D.C. which was a few years back, the Hide-Seek (sp?) Show at the National Portrait Gallery.
GOPNIKRemember when a very few far right extreme Christian fundamentalists got the National Portrait Gallery to withdraw a video because they said it was meant to be insulting to Christ. Whereas in fact, the artist and all sorts of art critics felt, no, no, no. This is about Christ's suffering. It was a little -- it was a 13-second passage that showed ants on a crucifix. So it's always dangerous when people decide, no, I know what this work is about. I'm going to decide whether it should stick around or not. No one else gets to be part of the conversation. It should disappear.
NNAMDIChristina, this brings us to the essence of the conversation that we're having here, the role of the public in public art. Blake says who gets to decide. I put the same question to you.
CAUTERUCCII think that there's no clear answer to who gets to decide. I think the real question is, how is it decided? I think that there should be certainly input from the community. At the same time I think, as Tonya said before, if there's too much community vetting it becomes a paint by numbers. And an artist that I interviewed for the piece Lisa Marie shared the same perspective with me that, you know, as the saying goes, too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth.
CAUTERUCCIAnd that, I think, what should -- what could have really elevated the conversation around these pieces and Five by Five was a more in depth communication between community members and the artists so that the proper context could've been placed around the art.
NNAMDIYour turn, Greta Fuller.
FULLERYes. I'm glad that you asked that question because one thing that Blake said, I don't think the community should be like an artist czar so to speak. But it was more going on with where this piece of art was placed. I think that art should be prerogative and that it should bring about some sense of struggle with people like, how do they feel about it? What do they think about it?
FULLERBut with this particular piece it was actually placed in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it had been placed in Anacostia after development and after different things were going on, we might could understand why she did what she did. But the community was so, and is so upset about that intersection and what's been going on with it for years that maybe we couldn't really see all the possibility with that particular art.
NNAMDITonya Jordan, who gets to decide? The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities apparently gets to decide.
JORDANWell, yes. I mean, for...
NNAMDIWith some vetting I guess.
JORDANYes, Absolutely. And this was certainly a lesson well-learned. And, if in fact, there is a Five by Five 2016, there will definitely be a community session where the artists come into the community and talk about their installations and their concepts. And, you know, public arts can be a lightning rod for various issues, whether they be social, political or racial. And it could also be a hitching post to where people gather towards it and understand and embrace the messaging.
JORDANSo I think that the new migration installation was a very valuable experience. And I think it's going to result in probably some very quick action and changes along that corridor on Good Hope Road.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Lee in Washington, D.C. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEEHello. Thanks for having me. My name's Lee. I work with the Anacostia Watershed Society. And we had a similar experience. Mia Feurer, one of the artists, had proposed to do a really cool project in the Anacostia River where she was sort of highlighting the issues of climate change by sinking a gas station. So when you drive over one of the bridges you would see this gas station that was essentially flooded. A really cool idea but again, it was sort of...
NNAMDIAll me to have Christina expand on that for a second. Stay on the line, we will get back to your question about it. But we want to bring it -- we were going to bring it up later in the broadcast. But since Lee brought it up right now, Christina, could you tell us a little more about what this project was about?
CAUTERUCCISure. So this artist Mia Feurer, who does have some artistic roots in D.C., has done a lot of work around climate change and the environmental impact of oil extraction. She, as Lee said, wanted to construct a life-size replica of a gas station that looked like it was sunk in the Anacostia River so that people driving over the bridges would think about the impact that their fossil fuel consumption has on the environment.
CAUTERUCCISimilarly to the new migration, it was a victim of, you know, poor optics as judged by the people who live and work in and around the river, a river that's been, for many years, a dumping ground. In fact, there was an effort to get people to stop pouring gas and oil into the river so some people believed that seeing a gas station in the river would highlight the river's poor reputation and possibly set back in terms of cleaning it up.
NNAMDITonya, how did the commission evaluate the proposal for the floating gas station?
JORDANWell, the original proposal included the possibility of floating a gas station replica in the river and/or looking for an abandoned gas station on land. So we explored both of those options and that led us to Cayman Island which is a district-owned site. And there were a number of people that weighed in on this installation, including the feds, the Army Corp. of Engineers, the D.C. Department of the Environment. And we also required -- you know, we -- it was a learning experience.
JORDANI mean, we learned that there are different entities that control different parts of the waterways. We learned about some of the toxicity that's in the bed of the river. And we were committed to really, really trying to get Mia's project done but we wanted to ensure, first of all, the sound structure and safety of that type of installation. And we were requiring that she would, you know, get us signed engineer drawings to make sure she had established a buttress system and a series of cables connected to two sides of the shore in that particular body of water by Cayman Island.
JORDANAnd we worked -- I mean, we worked really hard and talked to all the right people. And, you know, in tandem with that there was some concern from local environmentalists that made some really good points. And that was an education for us as well. And also we were running against a time constraint. So at some point, you know, we had to tell her that we need to think about a plan B because there really was not enough time to execute the floating gas station the way that she had envisioned it. And the engineer drawings weren't complete and we were up against a very tight deadline.
JORDANAnd we were listening to what the environmentalists were saying. And, you know, we weren't ignoring that. And the D. C. Department of the Environment underscored the fact that they were, in fact, doing, you know, toxicity testing in the river. And we finally had to come to a determination that we needed Mia to explore another project, which coincidentally she basically turned lemons into lemonade and ended up citing a new project on the river, a multimedia project with artists and poets and musicians. And they talked about environmental issues. And she ended up working with some of the very same people that were quite critical of citing the gas station in the river, including the Anacostia Watershed.
JORDANSo it turned out to be a really successful project. And we hope that Mia uses this, and what we've all learned and what she's learned with regard to this process, as a stepping stone to perhaps one day make that gas station happen. I'm not sure if it's going to happen in the Anacostia River but I think she certainly gained some traction and had a really interesting concept.
NNAMDIBlake, given the pushback on both of these projects, what would be the implications of making public art as, well, democratic as possible in your view if the public was essentially given a direct power to not just weigh in, but to decide on what should be seen and what should not be seen?
GOPNIKWell, I think unfortunately in D.C.'s monumental core we've seen something like that happen, the World War II Memorial, the MLK Monument. These are both works that from an artistic point of view are almost completely worthless and they've come through a process of infinite consultation of every imaginable constituency.
GOPNIKBut there is a problem. How do you decide who the public is even? If there's someone who owns the house next door to a work of public art, are they the public? Do they get to decide its fate? Or is it the street or is it the neighborhood or is it, for that matter, the entire city as represented by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities? That is, does Anacostia have to suck up a little bit in order for the larger artistic goals of the whole city to go through? It's very hard to figure out who should decide these issues.
NNAMDIGreta Fuller, what does...
FULLERBut I think we've been sucking up a lot in Anacostia (laugh) and, I mean, that's really interesting that that's one of the things that the city would like us to continue to do. Like I said, we're not -- we want art and we want it to be provocative. And we want people to think about it. But the thing that was going on where this art went is the issue. And I think that's what we're not hearing in this conversation. It was where the art was placed. It wasn't the art itself. But what the art did allow is it allowed me to be here today to talk about the placement of the art. So let's keep the art coming but let's think about where we're putting it.
NNAMDILee, as you were saying when I interrupted you...
LEEYeah, so I have a perspective -- a similar perspective on that and that is that, you know, for nearly a century, the Anacostia has been kind of dumped on. And so it's like, hey, where can D.C. put its garbage? Oh, let's put it in that landfill over there or that wetland over there and create a landfill on the banks of the Anacostia because no one's really looking. And, you know, where should we put a power plant because D.C. needs electricity. Well, let's put it over there on the banks of the Anacostia because no one's looking.
LEEI don't think anyone really asks, hey, could we put this in Northwest or maybe Georgetown? And I think that's the issue because...
NNAMDIYou can't see Greta Fuller shaking her head -- nodding yes but she is.
LEEYeah, and we have -- you know, so she makes a really good point. Anacostia's been sucking it up for awhile. So I think what we're trying to do is we're trying to change the perception of the Anacostia. I mean, 20 years ago we were pulling out tires and we were pulling out refrigerators from the river. Now...
NNAMDIWell, as you pointed out, a lot of those things were happening because nobody was looking. And I guess the D. C. Commission on the Arts felt that this would certainly make people look.
JORDANAnd it did.
NNAMDIAnd it did make people look.
NNAMDIOkay. Christina, your turn.
CAUTERUCCIIf I could just address the idea that the art could be moved to Georgetown. First of all, Mia Feurer's piece was actually not specifically designed for the Anacostia River. It was designed for a body of water that could be seen from bridges. So she did consider for a moment, and the commission considered putting it in the Potomac River. As I understand it, that's controlled by the National Park Service, so it would be a logistical nightmare.
CAUTERUCCIAs far as the new migration, it's my perspective and the artist's Abigail De Ville's perspective that a project designed specifically for a location in a neighborhood, if it were to be moved to another space, it would essentially destroy the artwork. And there's a long history of similar things...
NNAMDIWell, is it your sense that people would be open to being challenged if they were allowed to participate in the process more? Not necessarily decide. Or would folks only got for the aesthetically pleasing stuff that makes everyone happy? Pandas, elephants, donkeys, paintings.
CAUTERUCCII think that a lot of what matters here, especially in a neighborhood like Anacostia that has been the sight of government neglect. It's gotten the short shift in terms of economic development and education. That what really matters there is agency and self-determination. And I think that a lot of times people want their perspectives heard.
CAUTERUCCII heard from both Abigail and the Arts Commission that folks who were passing by the New Migration, who talked to the artist and talked to the commission, once they understood the narrative, even if they didn't appreciate the aesthetics of the work, they appreciated the message. And as Greta eluded to, it's also sparked a bigger conversation about all the abandoned buildings that the government owns in Anacostia. And a conversation about, you know, is the government just squatting on these properties until property values rise? So in that respect, the art really did its job.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We're discussing public art on public radio. And we always say, you're the public in public radio. And a lot of you have called. So we will be getting to your calls. If you're trying to get through now, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Lee, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDI…back. We're talking about the role of the public in public art with Greta Fuller, Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative in the District of Columbia, representing District 8A, in the Anacostia community. Blake Gopnik is critic-at-large for Artnet News. He's currently writing a biography about Andy Warhol. He writes regularly for the New York Times, and was previously chief art critic for the Washington Post.
NNAMDIChristina Cauterucci is the arts editor at Washington City Paper. A lot of callers would like to weigh in on this issue. I'll start with Mae, in Washington, D.C. Mae, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAEHi. Thank you, Kojo, for taking this on. Anacostia is really a special place within D.C. that is completely undiscovered. I live in the Chevy Chase area of D.C. But during -- for about two years I worked on researching homelessness and I spent a lot of time in Ward 8 where homelessness is probably highest in the city. And what I discovered is a layered diversity within Anacostia and the rich history it holds. And it's probably perched on the most beautiful, little hill in all of D.C. It is just breathtaking. And during…
NNAMDIYou know, you're contributing to gentrification merely by describing it. But go ahead.
MAEBut it's completely neglected. And -- but more importantly, if Anacostians have to live with this piece of art, they have the right to speak on it. If they fund it, as our public funds, these public funds have to be open to criticism. It's just the way it is.
NNAMDIWell, being open to criticism is one thing, but, Blake Gopnik, making the decision about closing it down is another. Blake?
GOPNIKYeah, although I just had a thought that argues against my own position, Kojo.
NNAMDIThat's why you're a writer.
GOPNIKWhat if we imagine -- that's right. I can take any two positions at the same time. What if we imagine that these works were actually fiendishly successful and that the preventing of one being made or the closing down of the other is actually one of their art supplies. That is the sign of how successful they are is the fact that they've disappeared. And that's part of what they are, in fact. And the -- this telephone -- excuse me -- this radio show is in fact another art supply in these pieces.
GOPNIKSo this isn't failure. This is actually a sign of success. There's been lots of conceptual art that's lived entirely on paper and never got built. These are there examples like that, where the unmaking of the work is part of the work.
JORDANAbsolutely. Yeah, it was a whole other migration with the installation of the work, for sure. And, you know, her father -- Abigail's father drove down from the Bronx with a pickup truck and retrieved some of the items for reuse. And, you know, that process in and of itself, was actually part of the activation and the installation -- unexpected. And we welcome the discourse. And this has resulted in I hope some very positive outcomes and an ongoing conversation about activating Ward 8 with public art.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Judith who writes, "I live a block from the Five by Five installation that was in Southwest. I wondered about the popcorn people. I peeked in the box and saw the plants painted black. I'm an artist myself. I did wonder about it and wished that I had known more and been able to ask someone when it was installed. Perhaps have a weekly talk by the artist and invite neighbors and even give a presentation in the local public schools. Involve the community in the beginning and in setting up including some large photos, perhaps under glass, of the work of the great migration.
NNAMDI"Ask local schools in the area to have a program on the subject and include a local artist from the area to help out, visit the schools, community centers, etcetera." Speaking of schools, I go now to Peggy, in Washington, D.C., who I understand to be Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the founder of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, on the one hand, and the former chair of the D.C. -- president of the D.C. Board of Education on the other hand. So I'm really interested in what you have to say, Peggy.
PEGGYHi, Kojo. And I was chair of the Arts Commission for 10 years.
NNAMDIThis is true.
PEGGYBut -- right. But I wanted to say I'm not calling to condemn Anacostia because there have been protests across this country, including, you know, Jackie Kennedy in Grand Central Station, about architecture and/or art coming to their neighborhoods or cities for decades. But what I did want to do -- I want to make sure that the community is not left with a bad taste in its mouth about Ms. De Ville. Because Abigail is probably closer to them in the way she grew up and her politics than any other artist in America.
PEGGYBut Abigail is one of the most awarded and decorated artists, black or white, in young, contemporary art America. And Anacostia should be honored by the fact that she was chosen to be there. They should not be honored by the fact that they were not at all included. But had Abigail known the politics of the setting, I'm sure that she never would have -- I'm sure that she never would have agreed. But it's important to understand also about Five by Five. One of its intentions, I believe, is to shock. So that art in our city travels a journey of reaching a higher plain.
PEGGYBut this, perhaps, not the way to do it. But Abigail won an award. Blake, you may be able to help me remember the name of it. But it's one of the -- it's an award done by a guy in Ukraine, I think, for the most outstanding young artist in the world.
GOPNIKOh, the Pinchuk Award, I think you mean.
PEGGYYes, yes, yes.
NNAMDIThe Pinchuk Award. So obviously, Abigail's intentions in this situation were to align herself with where she felt the community was on this occasion. Christina, you spoke with her. What does she see, if anything, in her future relationship with this project?
CAUTERUCCIShe's reusing some of the materials in a piece that she's doing, I believe in Harlem. And, you know, I'd like to push back for a moment on the idea that this -- that the removal of the piece could be considered part of the piece. Because when I talked to Abigail and Mia, neither were pleased with how this whole thing shook out. I think everyone lost in this situation, to be perfectly honest.
CAUTERUCCIThe artist felt that their visions were undermined. They felt that they weren't connected to the community. I think the Arts Commission lost the trust of the arts community and the neighborhoods where they were working. D.C. missed out on a very important conversation that could have been happening that coincidentally we are having now. So in that respect the pieces did have an effect. But it wasn't the effect that the artist had intended and they came out of it with a bad taste in their mouth.
NNAMDIYou know, Blake, Peggy just said that at one level public art or the Five by Five program at one level is intended to shock. This in a city in which we seem perfectly happy with our pandas and our donkeys and our elephants. To what extent do you think the level of ambition for public art in Washington -- either needs to be raised or has been raised, Blake?
GOPNIKThat sounds like Five by Five is doing exactly that raising. I do take exception to the word shock. I've never met an artist of any quality whose goal was to shock. Their goal is to stay something interesting and important. And sometimes people get shocked by that, but I don't think it -- anyone sets out to shock. Not if they're any good as artists at any rate. But I do think there is a problem with all of this -- for want of a better word -- kowtowing to the artist.
GOPNIKI don't actually believe that the artist gets to decide what their work is in the end. And I think the whole notion that the way you solve this problem is by getting the artist to explain their work, is bound to promulgate an idea that art is, you know, can be paraphrased in a nice simple little statement. Art should just be out there and should be -- if it's any good, people should be able to have lots and lots of different readings of it, including being angered by it.
GOPNIKThat's a good thing. And I think the idea that what you do is you get the artist to explain their work, as though it could be boiled down to a little soundbite, I think is a mistake. So the whole notion that the solution is more conversation, I'm not convinced is right.
NNAMDIIt's so funny. People have always asked me if I wanted to interview Stevie Wonder or Bob Marley and I've always said no. They speak to me through their music. I don't need to hear them in a medium in which -- in an environment in which they are not at their best, so to speak. But Greta Fuller?
FULLERYes. I want to be clear about how Anacostia felt about Ms. De Ville. I saw her father when he was removing some of her pieces. And I told him to tell Abigail that it wasn't about her art. It was really about the positioning and some of the things that were going on in Anacostia. I said that her art was actually very interesting. So Anacostia may have missed out on what she was really trying to say, but at the same time this whole installation was not about the artist.
FULLERBecause art is looked at differently by everyone. It was not about the artist. It was for us about the location. And what's going on in our historic district and with the different agencies and developers.
NNAMDIHere's Morgan, in Washington, D.C. Morgan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MORGANHi. I just wanted to speak and say that I am also an artist. I got a degree in art. And I believe it's -- the onus is on the artist to know their viewers and their space. And, bless her heart, she's not from here, she did walk around, but what I'm not hearing is…
NNAMDIBut she lived there for a month. She didn't just walk around. She lived there for a month.
MORGANOkay. Well, it was clear that maybe she didn't engage as she was thinking because it's very clear to us that Anacostia gets spoken for and they don't always get the right voice. So I think the artist had the right idea, but maybe if she had engaged more, knew her subject a little bit better, she would have been able to recognize what the representative from Anacostia was saying.
NNAMDIWell, obviously she spoke with people in the community, she spoke with artists in the community. She said she didn't speak with the local elected representative of the community so that may have been a perspective that was missing. But, Tonya Jordan, I'm interested. What does the D.C. Commission on the Arts in the Five by Five project take from all of this?
JORDANWell, it's -- Five by Five is a work in progress. And, you know, we receive -- let me underscore the fact that Five by Five, as a whole, those 25 installations and activations, has received overwhelmingly positive feedback. But oftentimes it's those bumps in the road that get most of the attention. We've received like critical acclaim with press worldwide. The other day our communications and marketing person just got a review from a newspaper and a publication in Japan.
JORDANWe can't read it. We're trying to find someone to translate it for us. And Five by Five is catalytic. Its goals are not necessarily to shock, but to open up new perspectives. And the mere fact that this drew attention to the sensitivity and the politics of that particular corridor and the sighting of those three installations in the storefronts is probably going to lead to change. And change the dialog and strengthen the amount of communication that we have with Ward 8.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Tonya Jordan is the public art program manager for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Christian Cauterucci is the arts editor at Washington City Paper, Greta Fuller is an Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative in the District of Columbia, representing District 8A, which is in the Anacostia community. And Blake Gopnik is critic at-large for Artnet News.
NNAMDIHe writes regularly for the New York Times, previously chief art critic for the Washington Post. Blake is currently writing a biography about Andy Warhol. Good luck with that, Blake. Thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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