What Happens in D.C. Stays in D.C., Unless It also Happens in New York
Sometimes it seems like the only way for D.C. artists to get a little respect is to leave town. Take Dan Steinhilber, an artist who lives and works in the District, and is represented locally by G Fine Art. In his Style section piece this past Sunday, WaPo chief art critic Blake Gopnik praises Steinhilber, noting that his art has “earned him solos from Baltimore to Houston and group shows from Toronto to Siena. This summer, they've also earned him a residency at Socrates Sculpture Park, on the waterfront in Queens.”
Yes, Steinhilber has spent the summer making art in New York. He’s been asking passers-by in Queens to lay down in a large sand box and move their arms and legs back and forth, creating what can only be described as sand angels—which the artist then casts in concrete.
But Gopnik doesn’t mention one important detail: This New York residency is actually a D.C.-funded project.
It turns out that the Washington Project for the Arts, in partnership with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, put out the initial call for proposals, has been paying a stipend for Steinhilber’s living expenses in Queens, and will eventually install the finished project at a site in the District—probably sometime next year.
I asked WPA Director Lisa Gold a few questions via e-mail about the Public Art Residency Program, the WPA’s profile in local arts coverage, and plans to bring Steinhilber’s art home.
So Dan Steinhilber's residency in Queens is actually the result of a WPA initiative. How did the Public Art Residency Program come into being? And how did the WPA come to collaborate with Socrates Sculpture Park (and DCAAH)?
WPA has a long tradition of public art, going back to the Washington Art Sites program developed under WPA Director Al Nodal in the early 1980s. The relationship with Socrates Sculpture Park comes from me—I worked there as the Director of Development and Communications from 2002-2005. I saw first hand how the residency program there benefitted artists, and now, as head of an artist service organization, wanted to bring that career-changing opportunity to artists here in D.C. I brought the project to the attention of [the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities]; they were incredibly supportive and very interested in offering an opportunity like this to local artists.
Public art is one of those classic Catch-22 situations. It’s difficult to get a commission without any previous experience. And it’s so hard to get experience without a commission or someone backing you, giving you an opportunity. There are few places for artists to experiment, to try new ideas. Socrates is that place—it allows artists to make the leap and gives them a sort of safety net.
I’ve seen sculptures implode, artist meltdowns, extreme physical challenges, all sorts of things. But these are the most valuable learning experiences. Artists grow so much and often go on to do much larger and even more challenging projects because of what they’ve learned there. I hope that we can start a program to give artists here more opportunities: to try, perhaps to fail, and to ultimately succeed and continue to grow and stretch their practice.
Is this the first year you've offered the program? And why haven't I heard more about it? Sounds exciting, and I feel like I completely missed the call for proposals, and the announcement of a finalist. I certainly didn't see any mention of the WPA's involvement in the WaPo piece.
This is the first year we offered this particular program: the Public Art Residency Pilot Program. We put out the call in the spring in our newsletter and to our e-mail list, and then Alyson Baker, director of Socrates Sculpture Park, came down from New York to give a talk about the park and some practical advice about submitting proposals and things to take into consideration when making work in the public realm. The timing was a bit short this time around, but I think it was practical to start small, see how the program goes, learn how we can improve it, and then try to expand it.
We could do a better job of tooting our own horn—I think we were more concerned about getting the program off the ground than doing a big PR blitz for it. As for the WaPo article, Blake was aware that WPA was behind Dan’s residency, but he explained to me that there isn’t always room for all of the details he’d like to include in an article.
Dan's work stays in New York through November...how soon can we expect to see it travel here to D.C.?
We are still trying to locate a venue for Dan’s work. I hope we can get that settled in the month or so. The nature of his piece makes it difficult to fabricate in the winter so it would most likely be spring before he would resume work and installation. With his upcoming show at G Fine Art this fall, it’s unlikely he’d have much time to work on it before then anyway!
What challenges have you experienced with finding a home for the project?
Right now, I think people really want to see what the piece would look like and exactly what it would be before they’re willing to commit to hosting it. And there are a number of other issues that we have to address regarding permitting and ensuring safety before we can site the work. And we will need additional financial support to refabricate the project here. Making this type of work isn’t cheap or easy! But there are a number of people who have expressed interested so I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to solidify the location relatively soon.
Much of the appeal of Dan's project is the interactive component—the invitation for passers-by to directly participate in making the artwork. How would this component be reintroduced in some way for the D.C. incarnation? It seems to me that if we only see the resulting castings, we're missing a vital part of the experience.
Exactly. I think the interactivity, the process is part of the project. Dan’s calling it “Casting Angels” now, it was called “Cast Angels” and may return to that title when he’s completed it. The whole project has been a bit iterative in nature and that experience is exactly what we had hoped for in this residency. Learning about the community, the site of the project and reacting to it. I don’t think it would have the same impact—either on the artist or the community—if it were just dug up and reinstalled here.
Talking with people, explaining your work, listening to people’s questions and comments is all part of the process of making public art. We just worked on another project for the DCCAH: WPA member artists installed work in the windows of the Washington Convention Center on M Street between 7th and 9th Streets NW. One of the artists, Kendall Nordin, mentioned to me what a fantastic experience it was to interact with passersby, to hear what they had to say about the work and to talk about it directly. The direct and immediate feedback can be so illuminating and inspiring. It’s hard to get that same feeling working in your studio.