National Museum of Women in the Arts to turn DC corridor into sculpture alley


WASHINGTON, DC – In a few weeks, a fanciful and colorful trio of women in bathing suits will rise from a median on New York Avenue NW. They promise to be showstoppers, as contemporary as the last splash of pop art, as exaggerated as Las Vegas showgirls. They will be visible from the Treasury Department all the way down to the jumbled landscape that was once the old convention center.

The sculptures are part of a public art project, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that is scheduled to appear in April, the museum has announced. The work in the first act of what is called the New York Avenue Sculpture Project is by the late French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, whose outsize sculptures are both celebratory and bold. Her fiberglass forms are 12 and 15 feet high and will be placed in four groups. One sculpture represents basketball icon Michael Jordan flying through the air, a hapless opponent unable to stop him.

The museum, along with its public and private partners, hopes the displays will bring some much-needed zing to its sector of downtown and spark interest in the 23-year-old museum. The first sculptures will be placed on the median of the 1200 block of New York Avenue, outside the museum. By 2015, sculptures will have been installed along New York Avenue from 13th Street to Ninth Street, the heart of the Mount Vernon Square redevelopment efforts.

“This part of the city really needed a project like this. There is a lot of good stuff going on, but the street lacks character and it doesn’t pull together,” said Patricia Zingsheim, the associate director of revitalization and design at the city’s planning office. She said the approvals were given because the project benefits residents and visitors. Plus, it was unique.

In Washington, “we have a lot of traditional sculpture and even some that are commemorating grim history and grim events,” she said. “This work is fantastic. I think this will be transformative for the museum and the blocks around it and lead to other improvements.”

“We wanted to transform the five major median strips into sculpture islands,” said the museum’s director, Susan Fisher Sterling. All the artists will be women, and the work will change every year or two. “We have precious little contemporary art in Washington,” Sterling added. “The goal of having contemporary art is to create a statement in a part of town that is becoming more hip and vibrant.”

Richard H. Bradley, the executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, said the project will help the city develop some new cachet with unique public spaces. “We do have some of that in the monumental core. But great cities have great streets and great art, and we want those blocks to became a sculpture alley,” Bradley said. “The art project speaks to the overall change-in-brand downtown is offering. We want to be a remarkable urban experience.”

De Saint Phalle, a self-taught artist, used mosaic glass and colored stones to decorate the three women, whose bodies are chalk white, canary yellow and ink black, a 1999 grouping called “The Three Graces.” Also part of the Washington project will be her “Serpent Tree,” created in 1999, and “Nana on a Dolphin,” another outsize woman standing on the back of a dolphin, made in 1998. The sculptor, who died in 2002, is known for creating the much-talked-about Stravinsky Fountain outside the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Formal dedication of the sculptures is scheduled for April 28.

The project’s supporters are banking on the appeal of the “Graces” sculpture’s voluptuous hips. “Excitement and fun shouldn’t be out of our vocabulary,” Bradley said.

— Jacqueline Trescott, Washington Post