How Listserv Fury, and a Rat, Helped Adams Morgan Lose a $250,000 Arts Grant
Jumbo Price: Simon’s sculpture (shown in an artist’s rendering) was too costly for some of its neighbors.
Ultimately, the rat didn’t cost Adams Morgan its quarter-million-dollar bicyclist. But it didn’t help.
The proposed 12-foot-high clay, concrete, and plaster statue—portraying a goateed man straddling a bicycle, strumming a ukulele, and carrying a bag spilling over with fruit, athletic balls, and, in some drafts, a chicken—would have been installed on the northeast corner of the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Bicycle Musician earned its final approval from the federally appointed Commission of Fine Arts on Sept. 17, following an almost yearlong process—one heavily criticized by opponents of the project—and attempts to bring a sculpture to this corner that began in 2002.
Nine days later, the sculpture was effectively killed. Chalk it up to a string of explosive messages from neighborhood residents on the Adams Morgan e-mail list, and dozens of letters sent to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which would have funded and overseen the project. "Art is incredibly subjective as you know, and we want to ensure that the art in the plaza is reflective of the Adams Morgan community," DCCAH Executive Director Gloria Nauden wrote on the Adams Morgan e-mail discussion list. "At this time we have decided to table this project."
And now, the $200,000 that had been proposed to fund the project—and, according to artist James Simon, around $50–70,000 to cover revisions to the project that included benches and trees—will go to other art projects, perhaps in other neighborhoods. "The money that was proposed to fund the ‘Bicycle Man’ project at 18th and Columbia Road remained within [DCCAH]’s capital budget after the project did not move forward due to a lack of community support," writes Rachel Dickerson, the commission’s public art manager, in an e-mail. "The funds have since been applied towards other public art grant programs and commissioned projects that were ready for implementation this fiscal year."
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Bryan Weaver and Mindy Moretti guess that DCCAH received about 40 or 50 letters last September complaining about the sculpture; one of the opponents, Kalorama Citizens Association President Denis James, declined to make an estimate. The complaints were severalfold: that the sculpture was a poor representation of the community, that its selection process hadn’t been inclusive, that it was an eyesore. And that among the plaster critters it would’ve arrayed around the plaza, there was a cartoonish, bulbous rat.
It was an incident reflective of both the difficulties the city has faced developing the intersection (it took the Department of Transportation the better part of the last decade to transform a right-hand turn lane into the plaza, which has gone on to host pop-op installations sponsored by HBO and the government of Colombia) as well as the tensions facing Adams Morgan. Weaver characterized it as a standoff between a relatively young and racially diverse panel selected by ANC1C and approved by DCCAH, and "this monolithic group that opposed it. They tended to be white and older." And for DCCAH, it’s not hard to read the affair as an embarrassment. Representatives of the commission declined to answer questions unless they were sent through e-mail. Asked whether DCCAH has plans for more artwork in the Adams Morgan plaza space, Dickerson wrote, "Not at this time." Asked how the debacle might affect DCCAH’s approach to art projects in the future, she replied, "We received a lot of feedback about this project and will continue to invite community feedback on all our projects."
Simon, a sculptor known for his large and exaggerated figures, who is currently creating a memorial for slain police officers in his native Pittsburgh, says he first found out that Bicycle Musician had been shelved through a reporter who called him for comment several days after he got the green light from the Commission of Fine Arts. Soon he spoke to DCCAH staffers: "The girls who run the public art program worked really hard. They really wanted to make it happen," says Simon. "They didn’t tell me very much. They told me it was tabled. Why it was tabled I don’t know. All public art projects have various degrees of opposition but that’s just the nature of the game."
Simon eventually hired a lawyer to help him recover some of his expenses, like graphic design and architectural fees. He says he received $12,000 in an out-of-court settlement. He doesn’t think he came out ahead, however: "When any artist gets accepted for a commission [like this], you have to clear your schedule for a year," says Simon, stressing that he was about to sign his contract for the commission when it was tabled. "Then it’s canceled right before you start. You can’t compensate for that."
James, who wrote an opinion piece on the sculpture for the newsletter of the Kalorama Citizens Association (but stresses that the group doesn’t necessarily share his view), wasn’t surprised to learn that the money would no longer be slated for a public sculpture in Adams Morgan. "That sounds kind of logical," he says. "I don’t think that it was a good use of public money," he adds. "I’d rather see $200,000 go to a better use than that." Part of his opposition, he says, has to do with the process, which he says was "secretive." He dismisses claims by Weaver and Moretti that the process—which included an online poll to determine the winning artwork and a well-advertised public meeting attended by about 50 people—was inclusive. "A hundred to 150 people did some sort of an online survey—there’s 17,000 people that live in Adams Morgan," he says. "When you’ve got only a couple hundred people responding, that’s not much of an effort. No matter how you want to defend it."
Weaver—who did not serve on the art panel but helped solicit applicants for it—says the ANC, following parameters set by DCCAH, wanted a group that was representative of the neighborhood and could offer professional and artistic insight. They contacted about 10 people, he says, six of whom initially ended up on the panel (A DCCAH commissioner was also aboard, and a final member joined sometime around last May following complaints that the members were too young). Moretti says that the panel held several public meetings during the selection process that were advertised on flyers and on the Adams Morgan list. The community panel considered the 148 portfolios—the largest group of applicants ever for a DCCAH project. It then narrowed its short list to five and then three applicants before putting the proposals to the public in an online poll. Bicycle Musician won. Both the panel and DCCAH approved the results. The artwork then moved to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which recommended several revisions before ultimately signing off on the sculpture.
"It’s frustrating," says Weaver, because opponents of Simon’s artwork "sent out e-mails about how horrible the process is and the horrible waste of money it was."
"At the time," he says, "my idea for the panel was to get people who…aren’t on the Adams Morgan Listserv, and try to bring those folks in to do something that all of them view as immensely positive. In the end it soured them on doing anything with local politics and neighborhood affairs."
And then there was the issue of the rat.
Simon’s original proposal, submitted last spring, didn’t include any rodents. "He had done an installation with rats in São Paolo, which is really cool," says Moretti, explaining how, on the panel’s suggestion, Simon inserted a rat that would have lurked on one of the benches in the installation. "Anybody who denies that there are rats in this neighborhood is just delusional. And so we thought it would be fun and a bit of an ode to the neighborhood to put a rat in it. But some people are a bit psychotic when it comes to the rat issue."
"It’s one of our bigger problems in the neighborhood," James says. He characterizes the neighborhood’s rats as a health menace, not something to be celebrated.
"The rat—that’s an easy revision," says Aniekan Udofia, a prolific muralist in D.C. who lives in Adams Morgan and served on the art panel. "If people send e-mails in saying we don’t like the rat but we like the concept of it all, that’s a different story. But when you say ‘I don’t like it at all and there’s a rat,’ then that means something else."
Brian DeBose, the communications director for Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham, who was instrumental in securing funding for the sculpture project in its early days, characterized the series of events thusly: "They held a bunch of meetings in the community, six to seven meetings, a design was chosen and after the design was chosen the artist provided a mockup. There was a rat that was a part of it, and people who had not previously shown up and had no interest in it suddenly showed up and were outraged."
Moretti and Weaver don’t expect to see the funds return to Adams Morgan for another project, primarily because they don’t think the DCCAH wants to repeat such a battle. "Now the plaza’s going to sit open, unused," says Moretti, although, she and Weaver say, they’re eager to see more activities, like free concerts, there. Adds Moretti, "Adams Morgan’s just the coalition of No."