National Geographic Society has pledged to preserve and relocate a seminal outdoor sculpture that the society argued was blocking its ability to expand and improve its campus in Washington.
“Marabar,” a 1984 granite-and-water artwork by artist Elyn Zimmerman, stands in the way of the society’s planned new entrance plaza and pavilion with a garden rooftop. Admirers of the work had organized a campaign to preserve it.
At last week’s meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board, representatives from the society assured the board they would work with Zimmerman and her supporters to find a new home for “Marabar,” as well as foot the bill for the safe removal and re-installation of the work.
“They are trying to do the right thing, and I appreciate that,” Zimmerman, 75, said in an interview.
Named for the fictional caves in an E.M. Forster novel, “Marabar” has been the centerpiece of the National Geographic campus for 35 years. Underground pumps send water coursing between the boulders like a 50-foot stream flowing through an urban canyon. It has been altered only once: When National Geographic installed a ramp for a pair of mallards who began raising ducklings in the pool each spring.
“This is a great conclusion to this unfortunate controversy,” said Outerbridge Horsey, a member of the review board who had chided National Geographic for not being a better steward of the critically acclaimed artwork.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit that says one part of its mission is to draw attention to threatened landscapes, had campaigned to save “Marabar,” soliciting more than two dozen letters of support from collectors, major architects and museum leaders such as Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In late May, the Washington review board voted to have National Geographic return for another hearing and to explore the possibility of retaining “Marabar” when building the new pavilion.
The final location for the sculpture has yet to be determined.
The society had made plans to relocate “Marabar” to a spot several miles south of downtown Washington known as Canal Park, an open plaza with public art, a fountain and a winter ice rink — going so far as to sign a memorandum of understanding with the board that governs it.
But Zimmerman, who lives in New York, said she had not been consulted and when she traveled to Washington last month to view the site, she deemed it inappropriate, citing a lack of security and potential for skateboarders to damage the carefully polished and shaped granite boulders, the largest of which weighs more than 250,000 pounds but is only six inches thick in some places.
“I want ‘Marabar’ to be protected, but still open to the public,” Zimmerman said.
With help from the Cultural Landscape Foundation, she is now seeking a university, sculpture garden or other cultural institution that would like to house “Marabar.”
Kathryn Keane, vice president of public programs for the National Geographic Society, said at last week’s meeting that there has been “a lot of good will” during recent discussions about “Marabar,” and praised Zimmerman for her thoughtfulness and creativity.
“Now we understand Elyn’s principal concern for the safety of this work, and it’s very large, beautiful granite boulders,” Keane said.
Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, thanked Keane for her “commitment to resolution,” as well as the board for intervening with “care and consideration.”
“We are working with the artist on what she feels would be appropriate and will follow her lead on how to proceed,” Birnbaum said.
Although she wants her work protected from potential human damage in its new home, Zimmerman said public art should coexist with waterfowl.
“I think ducks bring good luck,” Zimmerman said.
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