Arts Desk

At 30, Dark Star Park Marks the Birth of Rosslyn’s Public Art Efforts

This past Friday, Arlington County marked the 30th anniversary of Nancy Holt's Dark Star Park, the first since the artist's death from leukemia in February. There was plenty of pomp, with remarks from Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette and Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, but there was very little circumstance: The sun did not shine; it was too dark to play. While the features of Dark Star Park—spheres, reflecting pools, poles, trees—were visible, there were no shadows from the poles and spheres, shadows that were supposed to wobble into alignment with ground markers at approximately 9:32 a.m., as they do every August 1.

Fans of the Grateful Dead question the day's significance, fully believing that the park honors Jerry Garcia, who was born on August 1 in 1942; "Dark Star" is the title of one of the Grateful Dead's songs. Realistically, had that been the case, shadows might have aligned at 19:42 p.m., or 9:05 a.m., the hour of Garcia's birth. But Holt wasn't a Deadhead. August 1 is the day William Henry Ross, who shares the namesake of Rosslyn with his wife Carolyn, acquired the land in 1860. As for 9:32 a.m., "there's no major connection to Rosslyn, or any huge reason," according to Angela Anderson Adams, Arlington County's public art administrator. Adams, who spoke often with Holt and worked with her to rehabilitate Dark Star Park between 1998 and 2002, offered a frank reason behind the exact minute: "She just thought it was a really nice time of day."

Despite the lack of celestial cooperation on Friday, one of the functions of Dark Star Park still remained: the constant interplay of its primary elements as viewed while walking. When she designed the park, Holt was reflecting on the death of stars and fallen moons. The constant eclipse of spheres can be enchanting to witness when walking north toward the park from Iwo Jima, evocative of our lunar and solar eclipses. And when walking south from the urban canyons of Rosslyn, the spheres are revealed in tunnels along North Lynn Street—a new star emerging from a black hole.

This August 1 was a day of remembrance for the artist, but also one of expanding the narrative of Dark Star Park. "Nancy controlled the story in her lifetime," admits Adams. Two vehicles drive that story. First was Holt's 1988 video, Art in the Public Eye: the Making of Dark Star Park. Holt also recalls the project in her recent monograph, Sightlines. As speakers briefly addressed the audience prior to the celestial unoccurance, they took a moment to add to the narrative. Moran made parallels of Arlington's arts initiative to the redirection of the Orange Line, which could be interpreted as showing how government leadership, civic engagement, and private enterprise can work together to strengthen a community. Dark Star Park, for example, was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, and that grant was matched nine times over by the county and members of the community.

Fisette, in his proclamation that August 1, 2014 would be Dark Star Park Day, recalled the urban blight of the location that had once been home to a buried gas station, rusted and broken detritus, and weed-choked and crumbling asphalt. J. W. "Joey" Kaempfer, the developer of Park Place, the building on the northern border of Dark Star Park at 1655 N. Lynn Street, was also on hand to recall that Holt had inspired his continued support of public art with each development project he oversees. He also mentioned that she initially wanted a mound of dirt to slope up to the 12th floor of the building—an exaggeration of a claim he made in her 1988 video, where he joked that she wanted six stories of dirt piled against the building.

The future site of Dark Star Park, before renovations, 1979. Photo: Nancy Holt

The then-future site of Dark Star Park, before renovations, 1979.

But, in 1979, when Holt was awarded the commission of what would become Dark Star Park by the NEA, Moran was mayor of Alexandria, and Fisette was between universities. Although Kaempfer can expand the narrative of how Dark Star Park was created (Holt was on the commission to choose the architect of his building, and she objected to the building's incorporation of balconies overlooking the park, which were removed from the final design), there are years of work by bureaucrats and citizens in Arlington County that precede the award  from the NEA. It is those stories that Adams is looking to capture. After the ceremony, Adams, invited several key people who were involved with Dark Star Park's conception and early maintenance back to city offices to discuss their memories of the park and Holt.

In 1965, with some guidance from museum professionals who knew that artists liked to work large and wanted places to install large artworks, the NEA started the Art in Public Places Program. Soon after, large sculptures like Alexander Calder's "La Grande Vitesse" were plopped into city-owned public spaces across the country. Bert Kubli, formerly of the NEA's Visual Arts Program, recalled Holt's Dark Star Park as one of the better projects he saw completed in his tenure with the NEA. "[She was] an artist working with a community to develop an idea," he said. "And even working with designers—which was heresy back then. Dark Star Park becomes a wonderful example of how the concept of art in public places in America evolved."

Katherine Freshley, a resident who was involved in the Ballston planning in the 1970s, wanted to see better design and more art in Arlington. "I wanted art as an active part of the community." she said. "Not just plop art, but art that was an integral part of the community." In the planning department, she found Steve Weinstock, who was working on the long-range county plan at that time. The two saw eye-to-eye, and in 1977, they began looking for ways to make Rosslyn more exciting. "I suggested to Steve that we apply for a Public Art Grant for Rosslyn, because that was where the big buildings were happening," Freshley said.

While Weinstock managed the internal work, proposal writing, and artist research, Freshley stirred up community support for art to be placed at the gateways of Rosslyn to provide a sense of place. The land near the Key Bridge was constantly changing, and the Orange Line station was still under development. They settled on land that the county had just acquired, where Dark Star Park currently resides.

For those too young to remember, it is important to recall that the corridor between Rosslyn and Ballston wasn't always teeming with activity. And in 1992, when Cecilia Cassidy became executive director of Rosslyn Renaissance, Dark Star Park didn't carry the same importance as it does today. "It was unique because it was at the intersection of Route 50 and Lynn Street, and people would drive by and say, 'What is that?'" Cassidy said. "When I took the job, I did not know it was on its way to becoming an internationally renowned work of art that was unique in environmental art." But she did recognize it as a place where people gathered to sit on its ledges, splash through its pools, and have lunch or coffee. As a result, she began organizing August 1 celebrations to commemorate the celestial event each year, and marveled when people would arrive without any media attention.

It's that kind of attachment to a place that may have allowed it to become one of the more successful projects that Kubli saw completed. He's aware that some projects funded by the NEA fell into disrepair. Others may have been removed from the public space without anyone noticing. "The fact that Dark Star Park has flourished and has been maintained…we owe that to the people who took the initiative to say, 'We will not let this fall into ruin,'" he said. "And that should be celebrated."

Dark Star Park after completion, 1984. Photo: Nancy Holt.

Dark Star Park after completion, 1984.

It was. What was also celebrated on August 1, 2014, was that Dark Star Park was the beginning of Arlington County's commitment to public art. In 2000, the county adopted an official public art policy. And, in the 30 years since Dark Star Park's commemoration, Arlington has amassed 60 pieces of permanent public art and supported an additional 40 pieces of temporary public works of art. This September and October, the county will offer bus tours of the area's public art offerings.

And more projects are still underway. Since 2008, Rosslyn has been in the process of realizing Cliff Garten's proposed "Corridor of Light," which will consist of 20 LED-lit sculptures placed from the Key Bridge to the Meade Bridge, effectively anchoring Rosslyn's place between D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery. "Rosslyn cries for cohesion," said Cassidy. "The idea, what we talk about in urban design…We felt it was important that the connection be made that Rosslyn not just get passed through, but that there is a boulevard that connects these important elements in our country. Why waste your money [on trophy art]—a piece here, a piece there—when you can support a broader vision?" As Adams saw it, that broader vision began with Holt. "Nancy didn't want to design a work of art for a park," Adams said. "She wanted to design the park."

Top photo courtesy of Arlington Arts. Bottom two photos from Nancy Holt's Sightlines.

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  • http://ErieInsurance Barrie

    I enjoyed your idea of a "celestial unoccurance", but the technically speaking the true celestial bodies were up there performing their function. It's the atmosphere that wasn't cooperating. In the last paragraph, at the end of the fourth sentence, shouldn't "country" supposed to be "county"?

  • John

    Quite true: atmosphere was uncooperative.

    Cassidy's point was that Rosslyn links two places of national importance to the country: Arlington National Cemetery, and Washington, DC.

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