Public art takes flight in Alexandria neighborhoods

Public art takes flight in Alexandria neighborhoods
A traffic box on Duke Street with a wrap designed by Alison Sigethy. (Photo Credit: Hillary Houston)

By Missy Schrott |

From decorated traffic boxes on Duke Street to a climbable sculpture in Del Ray, from a light installation in a dark tunnel to performance art that only lasts an afternoon, Alexandria’s public art program has taken off.

Since city council adopted a public art policy in 2012, the Office of the Arts has been working to bring temporary and permanent public art to different neighborhoods throughout Alexandria.

“Public art’s a big thing in Northern Virginia,” Office of the Arts Director Diane Ruggiero said. “It’s one of those things that can help with place-making, give different neighborhoods an identity, give different parks and public spaces an identity, really get the community to get excited.”

Among the projects that have already been implemented are the traffic box wraps on Duke Street and the Time & Place series that launched in 2017, which recently was recognized as one of the nation’s top public art endeavors.

Sheldon Scott carts a block of ice from the Potomac River to Gadsby’s Tavern Museum as part of “the Finest Amenities,” a piece of performance art in the inaugural Time & Place series. (Photo Credit: Michelle Goldchain / East City Art)

The Public Art Year in Review on June 28 honored the artists behind the Time & Place series’ inaugural installation, a collaboration between the Office of the Arts, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and the Office of Historic Alexandria.

Time & Place is a series of periodic, curated exhibitions of temporary public art located in Alexandria’s museums and other historic sites. Artists Sheldon Scott, Lauren Frances Adams and Stewart Watson used Gadsby’s Tavern as a lens to create temporary public artwork about the city’s history.

“In general, I really liked the idea of this historic narrative,” Scott said. “…I think it really kind of opens up the opportunity to collect history and look at narratives of people. It’s a form of deeper, more honest storytelling.”

Scott’s piece was a work of performance art, which involved canoeing across the Potomac River and carting a piece of ice barefoot up the cobblestone streets to Gadsby’s Tavern, where fellow artists were waiting with installations.

“Those two projects were really something,” Ruggiero said. “I think that really kind of surprised people from the standpoint of it being public art, because it wasn’t a vertical, above the ground sculpture. It’s a performance piece and an installation series, so yeah, we’re open to all of it here.”

Time & Place’s national recognition marks early success for Alexandria’s blooming public art program, but an impressive line-up of coming projects suggests that it’s just the beginning.

Several of the program’s longest term and largest scale projects are slated to come out of the ground over the next year, Ruggiero said.

Among the soon-to-debut projects is a piece of public “play art” at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park that was designed by the husband-and-wife-duo behind May + Watkins Design.

The artists, who were selected as part of a national open call, decided to create a climbable, walk-able sculpture after presenting several alternatives at a community meeting.

A miniature model of the play art piece that will be constructed at Simpson Park. (Photo Credit: Carol May)

“We showed images of all kinds of different works, and what interested them the most was a piece we’d done on a rooftop on New York City,” Carol May said, “Because it’s public art and not a playground situation, what we tried to do, what we did, is marry them both so that we have a piece of art that people can actually interact with and walk on.”

The interactive sculpture is designed to appeal to a broad audience, with a variety of blue, green and orange organic shapes.

“Stylistically, we use a lot of organic forms,” Tim Watkins said. “I would say in that sense that it sort of harkens back to art deco, but there’s also a sense of whimsy. We want people to engage, and there’s always different levels people can engage on. You put a piece of very formal art in a park and a lot of people just won’t get it, so we try to make pieces that are actually accessible to a wide range of people.”

The public art coincides with Alexandria’s Citywide Parks Improvement Plan. In addition to the sculpture, mosaics and gate that May + Watkins designed, the project includes renovations to the playground and lawn. It is slated to open in the fall of this year.

Another imminent project is paired with the long-awaited King Street Park on the Waterfront, the working name for the new public plaza that is being constructed at the former site of the Old Dominion Boat Club at the foot of King Street. Ruggiero said the public art at this site would be temporary, with different installations rotating each year.

“Every year, there’ll be a new public art piece coming into the site, in order to keep it active,” she said. “A lot of tourists are there, but also a lot of residents, so how do we keep people coming back to the site to see kind of what’s new?”

Last month, the Office of the Arts announced that SOFTlab, a New York Citybased design studio, would create the site’s first piece of temporary art. While SOFTlab has already been commissioned to create the piece, its final design will be decided after a community engagement process.

“Every site is a little bit different,” Ruggiero said. “We go into it knowing a little bit about what we want to achieve, even though we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

“When we choose the artist, they come to Alexandria, they meet with the community and they visit the sight and they have conversations with people, so what they’ve learned about Alexandria and its people and its places then informs their design,” she said.

When artists visit the community, they also hold several meetings with community members and a project task force that is put together by the Office of the Arts.

Ruggiero said the task force considers the different concerns that accompany each public art piece. For example, while May + Watkins will have to consider playground safety and regulations, SOFTlab will contend with designing a piece that is temporary yet durable enough to survive the many weather challenges facing the waterfront. The King Street Park public art also has several considerations related to tourism.

“[We’re] looking at it very much from a tourism standpoint,” Ruggiero said. “Is this going to be Instagram-worthy? Is this going to be something where folks are going to leave D.C. because they’ve got to come down and see this temporary piece of public art? Are they going to come across the river from the National Harbor?”

There are several other projects expected to emerge across Alexandria in the coming years. They include a light and sound installation in Duke Street Tunnel, located between the King Street Metro and Carlyle, a giant take on two cans and a string at Lake Cook on Eisenhower Avenue and an attention-captivating piece at Burke Library on Seminary Road.

Ruggiero said the goal of the program is to give every neighborhood in Alexandria some ownership of the program.

“I would like to really make sure that everybody feels that they’ve got a piece of public art that’s theirs, that’s in their park or in their neighborhood,” Ruggiero said, “so [we’re] making sure that we’re spreading it out and not just putting it all in one part of town, but making sure that every one feels that they’ve got their piece, that they’ve got something in their neighborhood that they can be excited about.”