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At first, it seemed like such a good idea. When Carla Hanzal heard about Guns in the Hands of Artists, she knew the show belonged in Washington. The show of paintings and sculpture, first mounted in New Orleans in the fall of 1996, reflects artists’ experience with gun violence. Hanzal, then a curator at the International Sculpture Center here, knew gun violence herself: Not long before, she had been standing at an ATM in Georgetown and looked up to see a man with a handgun striding toward her. Luckily, she was able to flee down M Street. When she lived on Capitol Hill, a friend who had recently been mugged showed up with his jaw wired shut. “Living in the city, you’re just bound to come in contact with violence and with guns,” she says.

Hanzal went to New Orleans to see the show and was captivated. Guns was staged at Positive Space, a gallery in a high-crime area of the city’s Lower Garden District that straddles housing projects and high-priced homes—like several D.C. neighborhoods. The show did not just feature images of guns; most pieces incorporated parts of disabled weapons donated by local police.

Guns was a big success in New Orleans, mainly because its organizers had reached deep into the surrounding community as they curated the exhibit: They had arranged a series of much-publicized gun exchanges along with anti-violence workshops with area school kids. Hanzal was impressed: “This was an artist’s very positive response to violence,” she says, “and that seemed very relevant to Washington.”

So in late 1996, Hanzal approached B. Stanley, head of the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) in Adams Morgan. Together they agreed to a plan: Hanzal, as a guest curator, would work with Brian Borrello, the exhibit’s creator, to bring the show to Washington in early 1998. She chose DCAC, she says, because since the closing of Washington Project for the Arts’ gallery and d.c. space downtown, it had emerged as the city’s premier alternative arts venue.

As in New Orleans, the show would focus on community outreach: Hanzal would bring in the police for a gun exchange; local artists would be invited to join those from New Orleans; Borrello would come up and do anti-violence workshops with neighborhood kids; there would be discussions and symposia. The show that had been the talk of New Orleans would become the talk of Washington.

A year and a half later, the show is here. But it hasn’t had anything like the impact it had in New Orleans. Guns has gotten almost no media coverage, and on two recent visits I was nearly alone in the gallery. None of the ancillary events planned around the show—the gun buy-back, the outreach to city kids, the addition of local artists (only D.C. artist Renée Stout has been included)—have come off. “The community activities could have been a really important part of the show,” says Hanzal. She is right: This show should have had a huge impact on D.C. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Borrello was excited about bringing the exhibit to D.C. He saw a lot of similarities between the two cities. “You’ve got extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty,” he notes. “You’ve got a decaying urban infrastructure” that contributes to crime, he says. And, he adds, both cities have notoriously embattled and corrupt political regimes.

It was New Orleans’ vicious social ecology that got Borrello off the mark in the first place. Before the show opened in the fall of 1996, Borrello lived and worked in Faubourg-Marigny, a New Orleans neighborhood that mixes artists in search of cheap studio space, working-class folks, and people on the economic edge. Borrello had started carrying a gun after being jumped and beaten up by a group of neighborhood kids.

Borrello took up art as a weapon after a stray bullet killed a neighborhood 4-year-old as the child sat eating a Popsicle on his grandmother’s front porch. He wanted to create a memorial to the dead boy; his first thought was to craft a sculpture from melted-down gunmetal. He talked local police into turning over a 500-pound stash of confiscated, disabled guns, but the metal turned out to be of such low quality that it was useless. So Borrello got the idea of handing out the guns—”everything from little derringers to AK-47s”—to friends who were artists, sculptors, and even poets. Eventually, he gave away guns to more than 100 people, asking them to turn the weapons into works of art.

The results, he says, were pretty amazing, largely because many artists had encountered violence firsthand. When the work started pouring in, Borrello recognized the chance for a unique and powerful show.

The pieces are indeed quite special. Walking into a roomful of actual guns is immediately, viscerally affecting; it makes us reckon with their ubiquity in our lives—in entertainment, on the streets, at our bedsides. There’s no question of the show’s relevance, no doubt that this is truly public art, or that it deserves close attention. Guns are the most visually compelling icon of our times. They embody power, sex, immediate gratification, death, and social decay. Guns are both beautiful and horrific, familiar and dangerous—they are cultural touchstones that feel untouchable. Their symbolic complexity makes for rich images that give the show considerable fascination. Some artists draw on guns’ dark power; others take the opportunity to (literally) deconstruct or reconstruct their mystique.

Jeffery Cook’s sculpture Song of Silence, an homage to two friends of the artist who died together in gang wars, does both. Two rifle stocks rise from its base, their barrels broken off. The stocks are topped with the rough forms of fetishistic birds, wrapped with black twine and wire, and hooded on top with black cloth—a painfully beautiful image that bespeaks both potency and pain.

Photographer George Dureau’s rich black-and-white photographs present nudes of African-American men who have lost limbs to violence. In deeply ironic takes on Robert Mapplethorpe’s celebrated nudes, they are photographed with prosthetic devices and piles of weaponry.

And D.C.’s sole representative, Renée Stout, has some of the most interesting work in the show, what might be called a series of “portraits by gun”: handcrafted weaponry of her own design that bear the names of freedom fighters from Geronimo and John Brown to Che Guevara and Winnie Mandela. Each gun reflects its subject, from Che Guevara’s rather simple, abstract lines to Geronimo’s rococo mélange of styles and parts.

In New Orleans, the artworks were only part of the show’s populist experience; Guns filled its inherently public function through an effective series of community events. Borrello arranged with the police to hold weapons exchanges at every police precinct house in the city on the show’s opening day and to give a $300 Brother electric sewing machine to each person who turned in a gun. Battle-scarred doctors and interns from a local hospital emergency room, who had treated thousands of gunshot victims in recent years, volunteered to man the tables at the gun exchanges. At least one doctor, Steve Lesser, turned artist for the show, contributing a sculpted torso, speckled with real blood, lying prone on a gurney. A hospital clipboard with a list of gunshot victims hung from the stretcher, with many names followed by the word “EXPIRED.”

Borrello ran workshops for kids to talk about their experiences with violence and to sculpt pieces from gun parts—a peace sign sculpted from springs and triggers was presented to Mayor Marc Morial. The show and its attendant events got an enormous amount of press, both locally and nationally: Hanzal says she first read about the show in the New York Times. Guns became one of the most successful American public art exhibits this decade.

Unfortunately, the civic aspects of the show didn’t make it to Washington, and Borrello points the finger at DCAC. “I was disappointed—actually, I was plenty disappointed—with the venue up there,” he says. Organizational and funding screwups, he says, led to the last-minute cancellation of a gun buy-back and an anti-violence workshop—and nearly kept the show from leaving New Orleans at all. He says the show reached D.C. only after he snagged a last-minute grant from the Louisiana Commission for the Arts and threw in a couple of thousand dollars of his own money. “The whole thing was basically on my nickel,” he says.

B. Stanley at DCAC doesn’t debate much of that—but he blames guest curator Hanzal, who “dropped the ball,” he says. “She came to DCAC with the idea for the show and told us she had grants lined up to cover the costs of bringing it here, along with the gun buy-back and Borrello’s programs.” But, he says, Hanzal took a new job outside of Washington during the planning period for the event—and basically dropped the project without telling anybody. Stanley says that it is always the case at DCAC that the guest curator is responsible for making all arrangements for bringing a show in, including financing. Hanzal, he asserts, understood those terms.

For her part, Hanzal, who did take a position with the Contemporary Arts Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach while planning the Guns show, admits to some of Stanley’s charges: “Because I wasn’t in D.C., I wasn’t in a position to follow through as well as I would’ve liked to,” she says. But, she adds, “They had the ideas, and it was up to them to run with it or not.”

But whoever deserves the blame in this case, the real crux is this: With the demise of WPA and d.c. space, DCAC is one of the very few venues in the city with a charge to generate cutting-edge art in the community interest. Is it up to the job?

Stanley says such work is part of DCAC’s mission, but he also admits that DCAC isn’t well set up—which is to say funded—for big public projects. DCAC’s theater presentations pay its bills, says Stanley, who himself is a theatrical director, and he acknowledges that DCAC’s dependence on outside curators for its visual art—DCAC has no staff curator—means that the scope of projects the gallery can handle well is limited. He says he’s sorely aware that Guns could have been a big show for DCAC—in fact, it could have helped with fund-raising. Nonetheless, he pleads that with a skeleton staff divided between running the theater and keeping the center functioning, shows with real community impact are hard to pull off.

Guns in the Hands of Artists is a wake-up call, and not just about violence: It seems that Washington’s alternative arts community doesn’t have the artistic infrastructure in place to support first-rate public art projects. Like so much of the rest of the city’s infrastructure, cutting-edge culture has decayed to the point of dysfunction.CP

Guns in the Hands of Artists runs at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, through May 31. The gallery is open Wednesday and Thursday, 2-6 p.m., and Friday-Sunday, 2-10 p.m. Call (202) 462-7833 for further information.