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This year, public art met the public like baking soda meets vinegar. In the second iteration of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ biennial 5×5 public art festival, which taps five curators to choose five artists each and places their temporary works across all eight wards, two projects made a direct hit on the nerve cluster of politics, aesthetics, economics, and identity that lies just under the skin of any public art commission.
In addition to Mia Feuer’s proposed sculpture of a gas station (see: Anacostia River, gas station installation in), the project that caused the most stir was Abigail DeVille’s “The New Migration,” a storefront installation of debris DeVille collected along a major route of the Great Migration. To DeVille and some who read her artist’s statement, “The New Migration” was a warning of this generation’s reverse migration, which has seen black families priced out of gentrifying areas in the urban North. But to many residents of the surrounding Anacostia neighborhood, it was a window full of the dusty car seats, broken mirrors, and splintered wooden beams they could have hauled out of any adjacent alley—an unwelcome pile of trash.
So they protested. They made angry calls to 311, emailed Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, and wrote damning remarks on 5×5 signage nearby. The arts commission waffled, first declaring that it would remove “The New Migration” to please the public, then reneging on those plans on the premise of supporting DeVille. Finally, calling the artwork “despicable,” Barry enlisted the fire department to inspect the work. Deemed a potential fire hazard, the piece was removed before its time and taken to a city dump by government employees, not the art handlers that would normally run such a deinstallation.
In the end, everyone lost. Anacostia residents felt violated by the city government’s placement of what looked like blight in a neighborhood already dogged by a blighted reputation. DeVille felt that she wasn’t given proper time or opportunities to connect with community leaders about the project, that a conceptual piece was plopped down without the context that would have made it a valuable nexus of discussion on black displacement. D.C. missed out on a chance to elevate a vital dialogue around gentrification, community self-determination, and the role of public art. And the arts commission lost the trust of both the art world and the general public in its balancing act of political mandates and artistic integrity.
Who should have the final say on where public art is sited and what form it takes? Certainly, residents should have input on the changing aesthetics and culture of their communities. But if we voted on the art that came to our neighborhoods, would there be room for challenging projects to break their way into our everyday spaces, bringing complex, uncomfortable issues into the public realm for us to confront? There’s a reason why the arts commission hires curators who keep up on contemporary art, not a randomly selected citizen jury.
With Muriel Bowser taking the mayoral reins in January, the future of public art in D.C., as funded and facilitated by the arts commission, is in flux. Signs point to a more conservative future: Arts commissioner Marvin Bowser, Muriel’s brother, questioned the worth of “The New Migration” to D.C. taxpayers and called for its destruction in emails to the rest of the commission in September—and he’s co-chairing the new mayor’s arts transition team. Unless the arts commission wants D.C.’s most ambitious emerging artists (and art supporters) to stage their own migration, it’s due for some serious soul-searching.