The creators of ESPN Zone commissioned works by local artists for their target clientele—who couldn’t care less.
Ars gratia artis
For some 30 years, as developers, planners, and zoning lawyers plotted downtown’s makeover, the area harbored local artists. These days, the experimental art spaces are gone, as are most of the studios and all but a few of the galleries. But there is one place in the newly refurbished downtown where the work of local artists is on display. It’s called ESPN Zone.
The three-story, 41,000-square-foot “multi-media sports entertainment complex”—no mere theme restaurant, explains General Manager Jordan Naftal—has more TV screens, video games, and logo-emblazoned souvenirs than it has paintings and sculpture. Still, 16 pieces by local artists were installed by the time the place opened, April 3, and a few more are on the way. All the works are, of course, representational, most have a heroic disposition, and all rights belong to ESPN Zone.
The artworks include Craig Kraft’s Big Train, a neon tribute to venerable local pitcher Walter Johnson; Peter Waddell’s Political Sports History, which depicts such sports-figures-turned-politicians as Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Kemp, and John Glenn; and Jerry Gerber’s Fight for the Glory, 4th and Goal, which portrays the Washington-Dallas football rivalry as a cowboys-and-Indians skirmish.
“We could easily have gotten jerseys,” says Naftal. “But that’s not very exciting.”
Naftal leads a tour of the art, consulting the company’s press release to explain it. He seems a little vague on it all, but he’s enthusiastic. “I see people who walk through and look at every piece,” he says.
2:10 p.m.-3:15 p.m., April 14. The entire time we’re touring the art, no one else looks at it.
ESPN is a subsidiary of Disney, which has long specialized in very precisely engineered artificial environments. Everything from the food (burgers and such—but better than average, Naftal claims) to the ’70s and ’80s rock on the PA (Joe Walsh, John Cougar Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, the Cure) is carefully planned. And that includes the art.
ESPN Zone Vice President of Operations Rob Perez explains the concept in marketing-speak: “In everything that we do, we’re trying to figure out how best to tap into the passion of local sports fans. There are certain specific things that sports fans in that market respond to. It’s a point of differentiation between each of our units. We want to be different. We want to provide a different decor package for each of the sites. So there’s a reason for people to come to D.C. as opposed to Chicago.”
The process begins when ESPN’s planners choose about 30 possible concepts for artworks, Perez says. “About half of those concepts really lend themselves to a specific piece of work, like, for example, Ashe Memorial,” Paul DiPasquale’s tribute to Richmond-native tennis star Arthur Ashe. “We wanted something that was very respectful, something that was kind of reverent. We found an artist that not only did some really beautiful sculpture, but also was inspired by Arthur Ashe. He’d done Arthur Ashe before, so it was a natural.”
The Ashe piece is one of several that have a ceremonial feel, as if they’d been commissioned by the National Park Service or the U.S. Mint instead of a multimedia sports entertainment complex. “I think D.C. has taken on more of a formal attitude,” Perez notes, “as opposed to Atlanta, where we did a little more folk art.”
About half the artworks were conceived by ESPN and assigned to willing artists, Perez estimates. Both Kraft and Waddell say the company presented them with concepts—which was just as well. “I really couldn’t think of an artist in the universe who was less likely to be in a sports bar than me,” says Waddell, a New Zealand-bred painter who’s come to specialize in work about Washington history.
Kraft admits that he’d never heard of Walter Johnson when he got his assignment. “I don’t like sports much, really,” he says.
“One of their illustrators did a sketch and sent it to me,” Kraft recalls of his piece, in which a baseball turns into a train. “The morphing thing they didn’t have worked out too well. You’d think their animators could do that. So I worked out the animation.” The artist did the neon sculpture in a month, less than half his normal turnaround; the schedule required him to use helpers to wire the electronics and bend the neon tubes.
Naftal calls Big Train one of the customers’ favorites, and Kraft says he’s “seen people go over there and look at it. They’re being drawn over there by the movement.”
4:55 p.m., April 11. A kid eating an early dinner cranes his neck to look at the TV screen next to Big Train. He doesn’t glance at the art.
Sometimes, Perez says, “we talk to artists whose work we really love, and we try to figure out a concept that works with their art, or that artist has a good idea, and we just run with it.”
Waddell was presented with the idea of basing his canvas on Samuel F.B. Morse’s The House of Representatives, which is the sort of historical, architecturally detailed painting that he might well make himself. “They wanted a subject that brought sports and politics together. Somebody there knew the Samuel Morse painting,” he says. “I never found out who the person was. But something smart was going on there.”
ESPN provided him with a list of athlete-politicians, as well as photos and other research material. “They had very specific requirements. They had the exact size,” says Waddell. “America is so fantastically well-organized.”
The painter laments that some
renderings of the faces are a bit tentative, largely because of the sketchy images he had to work from. Still, he says, “I went to the opening, and I looked around and thought I had come out OK.”
Indeed, some of the art is ghastly, and other pieces are barely art at all. Magda French’s United Sports of America, although roughly handmade, is simply a map of the United States with tiny lights to mark each of the country’s sports halls of fame. Tamara Beck’s Mystique, which depicts women’s basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw, was reportedly well-received by the athlete’s family. As for Fight for the Glory, 4th and Goal, it should be enough to start another whole campaign to get the Redskins to choose a less offensive name.
5:05 p.m., April 18. Four guys in the pool-table niche stare at two screens, one showing soccer, the other hockey. They cheer, but it’s hard to tell at what. On the adjacent wall is Fight for the Glory, 4th and Goal. None of the guys look at it.
“So far, people are really embracing the idea of seeing artwork in a sports-themed environment, as opposed to the regular memorabilia,” says Perez. “A hockey stick or a football hanging on the wall really just signifies a statistic or a fact, not necessarily an emotion. I think that’s what people really respond to.
“A lot of time people stand in front of our artwork and really debate about what the meaning is,” he says, citing B.J. Adams’ Should Have Been, which imagines circa-1933 baseball cards for Josh Gibson, “Smokey Joe” Williams, and Buck Leonard, who played in Washington with the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team.
“It’s really fun to hear people debate about the Negro League players and where they stand in baseball history and what they would have done if they’d [played in] the major leagues,” says Perez. “It’s a really sweet tribute to them. And I think it’s really fun that we get people to talk about sports in a way that people can pick sides.”
Fun, of course, is what ESPN Zone is all about. And, as it is throughout the Magic Kingdom, the one thing deemed most inimical to fun is controversy. “Kind of our opinion about sports is that it’s great because it’s still a safe thing to debate,” Perez explains. “You can take one side or the other without offending the other person. And I think that’s what we’re all about: a safe bastion for great debate, without making enemies.”
4:21 p.m., April 20. On their way back from the bathroom, a father and son look at United Sports of America. The father points out a sports hall of fame they’ve visited. Then they return to their table. CP