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When a sculptural superstar got a major commission for the MLK Library, a group of minority artists got angry.
When multimedia artist Akili Ron Anderson went to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH)’s annual Public Arts Forum on Jan. 9, it wasn’t to reminisce about old times. So when Anthony Gittens, the commission’s executive director, interrupted Anderson in the midst of his attempt to express his grievances, Anderson wasn’t pleased.
“I’m sorry, but can I just interrupt you for a second, Ron?” said Gittens to Anderson. “I just wanted to give everybody a little background….For those of you who don’t know, Ron and I were classmates at Howard back in the late ’60s.”
“Who cares?” one audience member belted out as Anderson countered: “See, now you’re always trying to deflect attention from the issue at hand. You’re probably going to do like you usually do and ask me how my family is next….They’re the same as they were last time!”
Anderson, like dozens of others, had come to talk about Albert Paley, the white artist from Rochester, N.Y., whom the DCCAH has selected to produce a “freestanding outdoor sculpture” that will be placed in front of the very building where the meeting was being held: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, on G Street NW.
Paley, who has been selected for similar projects worldwide for the past 30 years, beat out four other semifinalists to win the commission, which is worth $200,000. The piece is a large project for the DCCAH, whose 12 full-time employees coordinate and administer numerous programs, including the Art in Public Places program, through which works are purchased, commissioned, or installed around the city, and the Grants-in-Aid program, through which individuals or community organizations are funded to support their artistic endeavors.
Paley’s proposed piece is titled Epoch. According to the DCCAH’s literature, it will be “a monumental abstract steel sculpture measuring approximately 23 feet high by 12 feet wide by 10 feet deep.” It will be painted a deep red and be “a dynamic and complex composition of geometric elements counterbalanced by gestural linear forms…anchored by a base of broad curved walls that create an intimate space that is left open to invite viewers to walk into the space.” Inside, a poem by Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia Dolores Kendrick will be stamped into the metal of the structure.
“There is nothing about this sculpture that represents Martin Luther King,” said Anderson at the commission meeting, at which city residents were urged to raise questions or concerns about ongoing projects. “I’m tired of fighting for recognition of African-American culture in this city.”
Anderson, who also submitted a proposal for the library project, is one of a number of black artists in the District who regard Paley’s piece as yet another example of a larger problem with the DCCAH: racial bias. Anderson and others claim that the commission consistently picks white artists over black ones for major art projects in the city and that it has done so for years. “I see a movement of institutionalized racism throughout the city that includes the commission,” he says. “That’s the overwhelming evidence that I’ve seen.”
Gittens, who says he’d received no complaints about the sculpture prior to the public hearing, claims that the accusation is simply not true. He points out that five of the nine people on the panel that selected Epoch for the library are minorities—four of them black—and that Kendrick is also black. He points out that the DCCAH awards about $1.3 million per year to local artists and artistic organizations of all backgrounds through its grants programs alone.
“If anyone wants to examine our record in terms of diversity, they’d be quite pleased,” says Gittens. According to the commission’s records, 23 of 48 of the Art in Public Places projects handed out in the District since 1988 (including four projects—art for the Washington Convention Center and three Metro station pieces—that are not yet finalized) have gone to black artists.
At the Jan. 9 meeting, other DCCAH staffers also pointed out that two major projects recently funded by the commission had gone to local black artists: Martha Jackson-Jarvis, who is currently working on a $200,000 mosaic to go up at the Anacostia Metro station, and Cheryl Foster, who recently completed a $10,000 mosaic to go in front of the Office on Aging’s Wellness Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
Besides, Gittens says, “The sculpture was never intended to memorialize Dr. King. In fact, the library board did not want it to.” He notes that the library already has a mural inside the building memorializing the civil-rights leader, as well as a bust of King in its lobby.
Nonetheless, about a dozen artists and their supporters picketed outside the Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony at the Lincoln Theatre on Dec. 17, to protest not only the sculpture but also what Allen Uzikee Nelson, one of the protest’s organizers, calls the DCCAH’s “cultural racism.” On King’s birthday, Jan. 15, Nelson and a handful of others carried signs protesting the sculpture and passed out fliers outside the library in an effort to drum up support for their cause.
The protesters point to the Black Family Reunion mural at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW, the Duke Ellington mural around the corner at 13th and U Streets NW, and the Frederick Douglass mural at 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, all by D.C. artist Byron Peck, as well to the sculpture of famed black activist Mary Mcleod Bethune in Lincoln Park, installed in 1974 by Robert Berks, as examples of work commemorating black Americans that should have been done by local black artists instead of white ones.
Although only two of Peck’s murals were funded by the DCCAH—and only in part—protesters say that the commission could do more to ensure that black artists are given opportunities to commemorate black American life and culture in the city.
“You will not allow an equal representation on the committees that select the art,” said Nelson at the meeting. “And you’re going to blasphemize Dr. King by putting up that piece of garbage—and everybody knows it’s a piece of garbage.”
Nelson and his supporters say that Paley’s sculpture is the last straw and add that they plan to fight its erection, set for next fall, every step of the way. “What we’re saying is the decision [not to memorialize King] was a poor decision,” says Anderson. “If we have an opportunity to do a memorial, let it be about Dr. King. You’d think D.C.’s public representatives would see the value in that.”
Though many local black artists understand the misgivings their colleagues have about the placing of Paley’s sculpture, not all of them believe that the commission is racially biased. “In my experience, I have never seen art being chosen by the race of the artist, never,” says Foster, who has served on a number of the DCCAH’s panels and received commission funding for several projects around the District. “People are always going to grumble when they’re not chosen.”
Stevens J. Carter, another D.C.-based black artist whose work has been purchased by the DCCAH, agrees. “In a field like the arts, somebody, if not everybody, is going to raise a flag and say, ‘There’s some kind of bias going on.’” Still, in his experience with the commission, Carter says he hasn’t seen it. Instead, he suggests that black artists in the city don’t spend the time and energy marketing themselves that white artists do.
“The D.C. Commission on the Arts awards excellence in the arts, and unfortunately that process begins with a paper trail. My opinion is, a lot of black artists in our community don’t care to deal with that,” he says. “They come into the application process with a defeatist attitude. They feel the application process is a bit much for them—it’s a bit cumbersome for them.”
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, however. Roderick Turner, a visual artist who has lived in the District since 1989, says that although he’s heard other black artists say that they no longer apply for funding from the commission, he’s tried many times in the past decade. Despite his efforts, he has never been awarded the “big-time” funding he says white artists frequently get—although he did receive a DCCAH Artist Fellowship grant in 1997 and some Art in Public Places support in 1998..
“I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for me to get funding, given that I’m out here looking for assistance,” he says. “It seems biased, because it seems to be a pattern.” On a number of occasions, Turner says, his proposals have lost out to what he believes is lesser work.
“A lot of frustration is just with the paperwork and the city bureaucracy,” says DCCAH Chair Dorothy McSweeny. “The announcements have been out there, there was a jury, and there was very comprehensive selection process,” she says of the library sculpture, which passed through a five-step approval gauntlet over the past two years.
“Our procedure is completely colorblind,” says Bud Lane, one of the DCCAH’s 16 members, who are chosen by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council. “We look at the piece first, not the artist.”
Yet even that’s not what everyone wants. Anderson, for one, wants more consideration given to black artists when it comes to commissions such as the library sculpture, to ensure that the history of black Americans in the District gets told by the people who made it. Anderson also says that he’d like to see DCCAH commissioners elected by ward rather than appointed by the mayor. “Something has to change,” he says, “to make sure that the past disparity is corrected and present objectives are identified to make sure that the history and culture of African-Americans is addressed.
“This city is a city of monuments,” Anderson continues, “this is a city of museums, but if you go to these monuments and museums and come from another part of the world, you would be hard-pressed to be able to see that African-Americans were ever a part of this city or ever contributed to it.” CP