Washington is a tough city for art. We are stewards of some of the finest art ever produced. And we are also a smallish city living in the shadow of the country’s cultural capital, New York. How does a newspaper review events at the National Gallery, and then turn around and look at the local gallery scene? Should the same standards apply?
I spent two weekends bicycling the city to look at the results of Art on Call, a public art project created by Cultural Tourism DC and funded (in part) by the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Local artists and neighborhood activists have decorated 122 (and counting) old police and fire call boxes, cast-iron urban furniture dating back to the 1860s. The goal was a mix of art and history.
Like all art, public art has a very high failure rate. Professional artists, if they are any good, hide or destroy the misfiring and imperfect realization of the creative impulse. But public art is founded on the arguable assumption that art is fundamentally a good thing (and good for you) and that artists should be empowered relatively equally, without too much concern for what is good and bad art. And so projects like Art on Call tend to put the whole iceberg of art on display, not just the tip of excellence.
Which leads to a strange dissonance in the downtown neighborhood known as the Golden Triangle. Mary Grigonis has contributed some moody paintings that capture city life (a street scene outside a Metro stop, a restaurant interior). They aren’t bad paintings — in fact, they are better than much of what Art on Call puts on display — but because they depict city life in the midst of real city life, they invite invidious comparison. And the art seems less lively, less engaging, than the world around it. In this case, the actual form of the call box works to the disadvantage of the artist. These little iron sculptures are reminders of an age of design when things were meant to be beautiful and long-lasting, which makes a strange contrast with art that feels more ephemeral and passing.
At its best, the results are imaginative and surprising, little bursts of oddity in a city that keeps its public image very button-down. But it’s also uneven, and it raises questions about public art. What models produce the best work? Should some kind of uniform standard apply? Which I tried to address in a piece published on Sunday. Folks in Tenleytown are not pleased.