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Steel yourself for whiplash. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which placed an art installation in Anacostia then promised to remove it after backlash from neighbors, has reversed its decision again.
Last week, Anacostia residents complained to 311 and Ward 8 councilmember Marion Barry about the installation of Abigail DeVille‘s “The New Migration,” one of 25 public-art pieces and performances now on view for the commission’s 5×5 project. It’s a collection of debris—-broken TVs, lumber scraps, old car seats, and the like—-DeVille collected along the Seaboard Air Line Railway, a common route that African-Americans took as they fled north, out of Jim Crow territory, in the first half of the last century.
DeVille’s work was meant as a commentary on the displacement of blacks from fast-gentrifying city centers—-perhaps a particularly pointed and apt sentiment for the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where the installation was set up behind vacant storefront windows. But some Anacostia residents thought the piece just looked like a pile of trash, an affront to a neighborhood that’s spent decades battling blight and fighting for city development dollars. Barry chimed in, too, saying it “looks like junk” and that he’d “be getting to the bottom of it.”
So, as it did with Mia Feuer’s proposed flooded-gas station installation in the Anacostia River, the commission pulled the plug on DeVille’s installation, promising to remove it and find a new, more appropriate site. It posted signage saying as much to the windows in front of the piece, which were promptly used as IRL comment threads.
But today, the commission changed its mind.
“We acknowledge the concerns of some residents,” said Judith Terra, chair of the arts commission, in a statement. “On balance, the support for the work was greater, and engaging in public dialogue on these issues is essential.” DeVille’s work will now remain in the storefront windows of Good Hope Road through its intended closing date, Nov. 4.
“While the Commission does not mean to offend anyone, it would be inconsistent with our mission…to remove this particular work at this time,” Executive Director Lionell Thomas said in the statement. “We are glad that in recent days as more people have engaged with the work they have found themselves moved to think differently about issues of urban redevelopment and gentrification… Over the past week, we have heard more voices from the public that have contributed to the decision to leave the exhibition in place.”
Barry, whose office did not respond to requests for further comment, must not be pleased. “I’m upset about it too. This won’t happen again without me knowing about it,” he told Arts Desk last week. And after a weeklong tug-of-war that called into question the judgment and resolve of the arts commission, neither Anacostia residents nor the greater arts community should be comforted, either.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery