Will sunflowers sprout in D.C.?

Court to decide if Greens can come to arts' `Animal Party'

April 16, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore spawned its artist-decorated fish sculptures last year, there were skeptics, just as there had been when Chicago put up its cows, and Cincinnati its pigs. Was this really art? If it was, was it good art?

But leave it to Washington to make a feel-good public sculpture project into a debate about the same old thing - politics.

In December, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities began recruiting artists to decorate 100 donkeys and 100 elephants, polyurethane editions of those icons of the Democratic and Republican parties created by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1879.

"It's party time," the commission said, in announcing the Party Animals Public Art Project. "Show your true colors and be a candidate for the largest public arts project in the history of Washington, D.C." The Party Animals campaign, the arts commission proclaimed, just wants "to have FUN!"

But then, late last month, just before installation of the sculptures was about to begin, up pops the D.C. Statehood Green Party. Donkeys and elephants were fine, it said, but if this is truly representative art, our symbol - the sunflower - ought to be invited to the party, too. After all, says Scott McLarty, a spokesperson, in D.C., the Greens are a major party.

"We've had people in elected office," McLarty says. In Washington, "Our presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, in 2000, was only three points behind George Bush." (In the overwhelmingly Democratic district, that means Nader got 6 percent of the vote and Bush 9 percent.)

"So we're quite prominent here," McLarty says. "We participate regularly in the business of the government."

In an April 1 press release, the Statehood Greens called Party Animals "a bald-faced partisan publicity stunt to be paid for by D.C. taxpayers ..."

The Greens filed suit in federal court (there is no other kind in the non-state District of Columbia) asking for a temporary restraining order, which they didn't get. The Greens are asking the court to require sunflowers, too, and the court is expected to rule this week.

"Do we want to prevent altogether the artwork from being shown?" McLarty says. "I don't think that's the case. We don't want to see the work of artists concealed or destroyed or anything like that.

"We want to work something out," he says. "We're especially concerned about the artist. We want more art. We're very much in favor of public funding for the arts. We're very much aware that a lot of art is political and we support political art.

"But not," he emphasizes, "the brazen advertisement of two political parties chosen without any kind of objective criterion."

McLarty suggested the whole mess might have been avoided had district officials chosen a more benign mascot for the project. The panda, for instance, McLarty says. The pandas at Washington Zoo are one of the city's big tourist attractions.

"You can't get cuter than a panda," he points out.

Other suggestions McLarty has heard might have run afoul of arts commission restrictions on "social disrespect" and "inappropriate images."

"Other people recommended the squirrel," he said. "There are squirrels everywhere in D.C. And the rat, the famous Norwegian rat. Someone else also recommended the yuppie, but they decided not to do that."

Washington arts officials budgeted $600,000 for the project. Each artist chosen to decorate a sculpture gets a $1,000 honorarium, plus $200 for materials. The artists are at work now in their studios and inside the old Woodward & Lothrop department store at 10th and F streets, says Alexandra MacMaster, the project manager. They started with uniform polyurethane donkeys and elephants, all 4.5 feet tall and 5 feet long, all blank and all white.

They were supposed to be in place around and about Washington on April Fool's Day. Now, due to the legal action, the launch date has been pushed back to next Tuesday.

"Pretty much we're on schedule," MacMaster says. "Everything is moving along. The launch [will] be on Freedom Plaza."

That's on Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street, a couple blocks from the White House. Both Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and first lady Laura Bush are scheduled to help with the launch.

Donkeys and elephants are supposed to be in place by then along Pennsylvania Avenue, on the Mall, at the Smithsonian Castle, at the Smithsonian museums and in neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle.

But MacMaster says she's not sure if there will be any animals - or sunflowers, if that comes to be - near the White House or Capitol Hill. That's not politics at work, though. It's because of Washington's heightened security.

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