Arlington, Virginia is the Place for Cutting-Edge Art

by Susan Mandel

Washington, D.C. is known for its world-class museums, but Arlington, Virginia, across the river, is the place to go see public art. Arlington County has the leading public art program in the region. The county "has been quietly amassing an excellent collection of modern pieces," writes CultureNOW.

Some say the county's public art program ranks among the best in the country despite its small size. "Arlington is really at the top of the list along with San Francisco, Chicago. …San Jose," says California artist Richard Deutsch, who has artwork in Arlington as well as Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Atlanta. "Arlington's selection process and then their process of working with artists really trumps the other cities that I've worked with," he adds.

Arlington County is home to nearly 60 public artworks, including ones by well-known artists such as Nancy Holt, Larry Kirkland, and Doug Hollis. "You can't drive around Arlington and not notice it," says Washington architect Roger Lewis, who writes the Shaping the City column for the Washington Post.

Santa Fe artist Nancy Holt designed the entire Dark Star Park in addition to the sphere sculptures intended to resemble fallen stars.

Holt's Dark Star Park in Rosslyn, commissioned by a private developer in 1979, was the county's first public art project and gave rise to an annual community event. Once a year on August 1st, the shadows cast by the sculptures line up exactly with concrete imprints on the ground, marking the day in 1860 that William Henry Ross purchased the land that is now Rosslyn. Locals gather on that day each year to observe the annual alignment. Deutsch designed the most recent project, the twin sculptures in Penrose Square on Columbia Pike, which were completed last month.

In addition, Arlington has hosted more than 40 temporary public artworks. It plans to add about a dozen more permanent artworks in the next three years.

The program's goal is to help make Arlington a desirable place to live and work. Public art makes a place unique, giving it its own identity. "You go to the Spanish steps in Rome and it's laced with fountains and sculptures. It makes Rome what Rome is," says Deutsch.

Creating public spaces where people want to linger requires more than simply putting up a nice sculpture. "We started more as art in public, not public art. Now we know the difference," says Angela Adams, who heads Arlington's public art program.

To make sure that the art is actually suited to an area, artists who have also worked as architects or engineers are often part of the design team. Adams and her two colleagues strive to get the best possible design for any large project, public or private, even road construction.

Public Art in Arlington

The county also uses public art to get rid of eyesores. St. Louis artist Ben Fehrmann designed the new perimeter fence for the electrical substation in Clarendon installed this summer. He created a simple fence made of vertical wood slats, which allow light to filter through. On summer days, the substation casts interesting shadows onto the fence as sunset nears. Before, "there was a lot of visual clutter. …It felt. …ugly," says Adams. "Now it just feels serene." Dominion Virginia Power covered the entire $500,000 cost of the project.

Arlington completed three public art projects in 2012 totaling nearly $1.5, million, half of which came from the power company and commercial real estate developers. Money for public art typically comes from developers in exchange for additional building height and density for their projects in Pentagon City and the Route 1 and Rosslyn-Ballston corridors.

Overhead and staff for the county's public art program added another $300,000 roughly in 2012. Total public art spending accounted for just 0.2 per cent of the county's annual budget - too little to make it a target for budget hawks.

Arlington public art staff are monitoring about 25 developer projects at any given time to make sure that what the artist envisioned is implemented. These large-scale projects take years to complete.

California artist Cliff Garten designed the Corridor of Light. Construction is set to begin in Rosslyn next year.

Sometimes the contributions from developers are pooled together to create something more impressive. That's how the county's most ambitious public art project, the Corridor of Light in Rosslyn, currently in the planning phase, was developed. The plan is to line Lynn St. with a series of Luminous Bodies lit sculptures. It wasn't difficult to get three or four landowners to agree to the idea, says Adams.

The first phase of the Corridor of Light calls for sculptures on the two bridges on either end of Lynn at a cost of around $2 million. Phase one is expected to be completed in 2014.

The county is working to get additional funding from developers to create the rest of the multi-million dollar project. The chair of Arlington's Public Art Committee, Leo Sarli, says, "It would be awesome to see."