Community Outrage Forces Public Art Project’s Dismantling in DC

Abigail DeVille, The New Migration (2014).
Photo: Joshua Cogan.

Residents of Washington, DC’s working-class Anacostia neighborhood were so incensed by a public art piece by artist Abigail DeVille that the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) has decided to remove and relocate the work. Titled The New Migration, the installation was one of DeVille’s trademark assemblages of found materials and trash, placed in vacant storefronts on Good Hope Road, as part of the city-wide public art initiative the 5×5 Project. DeVille made the work from objects she collected during a journey from Florida to the capital, both in homage to Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” and as a reference to the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North. But for locals, the result too closely resembled the neighborhood’s all-too-recent past as a place defined by destitution, abandoned buildings, and trash-strewn vacant lots.

“It’s one of our main thoroughfares, and people walk down the street and look through the window and see what appears to be junk, ” Marion Barry, a council member for Washington, DC’s 8th ward, told the Washington Post. “It’s embarrassing.”

The DCCAH has opted to relocate the work. “The intention of the project is to challenge and engage audiences through art but never to offend,” says a DCCAH statement. “The community reaction has been that the work is not suited to the location. As good stewards of the public trust, DCCAH has determined to remove the installation from its current location.”

The storefront installation is just one component of DeVille’s 5×5 Project piece, which was curated by Justine Topfer and began with a performance art procession through the streets of Anacostia on the night of September 6. A group of performance artists, dancers, and musicians, outfitted in costumes made by DeVille from objects picked up on her road trip, marched from the Frederick Douglass House to the Anacostia Arts Center. The performance, which was not the least bit dampened by a major rainstorm, brought out an enthusiastic and jubilant crowd, even earning a police escort along Good Hope Road. But the accompanying storefront installation has been met with decidedly more mixed reviews.

“They are supposed to be fixing Anacostia and they put this here?” local resident Teresa Smart told the Washington City Paper. “I’m at a loss for words.”

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