What is good art? Like pornography, viewers are likely to know it when they see it. Yet not everyone views art through the same prism. That’s why the John Van Alstine sculpture "Sacandaga Totem" is likely to spark a wide array of opinions when it’s installed at the intersection of King and Fayette streets this fall.
The Alexandria City Council unanimously voted to accept the sculpture as a gift from a group known as the "Alexandria Sculpture Festival" in January. Since that time, city officials have been planning new landscaping and lighting with the Old Town architectural firm of Stephenson & Good. Earlier this month, the Board of Architectural Review approved alterations for the three-way intersection where the diagonally oriented Commerce Street intersects Fayette and King.
"It’s an awkward space that doesn’t quite work right now," said Matthew Harwood, chairman of the public arts committee of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts. "But this sculpture will really give the area a focal point."
The Board of Architectural Review approved steel base plate that will be installed on a concrete foundation surrounded by a granite curb about 3 inches taller than the brick paving. Harwood said the minimal elevation of the sculpture will give the 9-foot Sacandaga Totem a "human scale" by presenting it to viewers without setting it apart from the streetscape. Two new black aluminum "light poles" will be installed toward the center of the plaza to illuminate the sculpture and provide lighting enhancements to the plaza.
"Instead of harmonizing with the historic nature of the things around it, the sculpture acts as a sort of counterbalance to its setting," said Harwood. "I think the juxtaposition will make Old Town seem older."
<b>THE DEBATE OVER</b> public art is one that has been waged by the Alexandria Sculpture Festival since a 1987 showing along Alexandria’s waterfront. At the conclusion of the 1987 event, several of the artists involved decided to donate a piece of modern sculpture to the city. Finally — late last year — all of the pieces began falling together. The group, known as the "Alexandria Sculpture Festival" even though only one actual festival was ever staged, offered to donate Sacandaga Totem to the city late last year. The Public Art Committee initially voted to reject the gift because its members disagreed with the proposed site location, but the Arts Commission later overturned that decision. City Manager Jim Hartmann called the totem "a valuable addition of a sculpture by a prominent artist to the city’s arts inventory."
"If it causes conversation, that’s a good thing in my opinion," said Ellen Harris, a network administrator who is an art lover and a former member of the commission. "Even if you hate it."
John Van Alstine is a name that is well known in the rarified world of American sculptors, and he has exhibited at institutions such as the Hirshhorn Museum, the Phillips Collection, the National Building Museum and the National Academy of Sciences. He uses massive stone formations and cast-off industrial elements to create juxtapositions of the natural elements and metallic scrap. Inspired by the Washington Monument, Sacandaga Totem is a prime example of Van Alstine’s work. Created in 1997, the totem is about 9 feet tall and weighs about 5,000 pounds.
"Ultimately, this is a work that’s a cross between what’s natural and what’s man made," Van Alstine told the Alexandria Gazette Packet in February. "And that’s what all my work is about."
<b>WHEN THE TOTEM</b> is installed on historic King Street, the sculpture is likely to turn heads. Its nonrepresentational form and modernistic design are certain to make a lasting impression, whether its viewed by pedestrians walking along the corridor or riders in the city’s new free trolley service. The sculpture will be placed near the center of the existing brick plaza surrounded by four benches.
"We wanted the finishes and the materials we used to integrate into the fabric of King Street, including the lighting," said Robert Good, the architect who designed the base and lighting that will be used. "It’s relatively central in the plaza but behind the façade lines of the buildings."
Like other well-known pieces of public art, Sacandaga Totem has its detractors. During the Board of Architectural Review’s public hearing on alterations to the plaza, several speakers opposed the installation of the sculpture. Because the City Council never held a public hearing on the sculpture’s installation at the corner of Fayette and King, those in opposition felt this was their moment to register their complaints. But Board of Architectural Review Chairman Tom Hulfish said the vote would be limited to a consideration of the pedestal and the lighting.
"Folks, it looks like somebody took some Cialis," said Julie Crenshsaw Van Fleet. "And that’s what you are putting on the sidewalk,"
"This train has left the station," responded Hulfish. "If you have any further arguments with this process, go to City Council. That’s what they’re there for."