A Million-Pound Artwork, Once Threatened, Finds a New Home

A million-pound art installation in Washington, D.C., once endangered by a renovation project, will instead be relocated, thanks to a new agreement between the National Geographic Society and American University.

Executive staff members at the society declined to be interviewed but issued a statement saying they were “pleased” with the plan to move Elyn Zimmerman’s iconic rock-and-water installation “Marabar” from its grounds to the university’s campus. The agreement ends a debacle that began nearly three years ago, when the society told Zimmerman it no longer wanted her sculptural work, erected in 1984.

“It’s a piece that’s part of the history of landscape architecture,” said Jack Rasmussen, the director of the American University Museum, who will now be charged with safeguarding “Marabar.” “A woman sculptor in the 1970s and 1980s who was doing this? It’s ground breaking.”

The society’s board members had applauded when plans for “Marabar” were unveiled, according to David Childs, the architect who chose Zimmerman to create the installation, a few blocks north of the White House. Zimmerman, 76, named her work, a grouping of granite stones around a churning pool of water, after the fictional caves in E.M. Forster’s novel, “A Passage to India.”

The society is a nonprofit that partly owns National Geographic Partners (the majority now belongs to the Walt Disney Company). When, in 2019, the society embarked on plans to build a new entrance pavilion and a rentable rooftop garden, it decided that “Marabar” was in the way.

Because part of its grounds are in a historic district, the plan was subject to the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board. After the review board gave the project “conceptual approval” in 2019, Zimmerman assumed her seminal artwork was doomed. “I would never have gone up against Disney,” she said.

According to a spokesman at National Geographic, Disney was not involved in the renovation plans for the campus.

Advocates at the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, made “Marabar” a cause célèbre. More than two-dozen architects, art critics and museum leaders sent letters to the review board urging members to save “Marabar.”

Despite objections from a lawyer hired by National Geographic, the review board ordered the society to return for another hearing, saying it had failed to provide enough information about “Marabar” when it submitted its schematics. In March, National Geographic publicly pledged to save Zimmerman’s artwork, not by redesigning its expansion but by paying to relocate the granite stones, weighing up to 250,000 pounds each.

American University, the new home announced this week, is just four miles away. The location is currently a grassy oval rimmed by crepe myrtles and park benches, across the street from the university’s Katzen Art Center. The granite stones of “Marabar” will be visible from Massachusetts Avenue, just north of Ward Circle, one of the most-traveled roundabouts in the District.

“I’m glad it will still be in Washington,” Zimmerman said, adding that she has planned a new configuration for the stones and pool. Rather than one long rectangular faux-stream, the fountain will be crescent shaped. It’s not clear yet if it will be drained for the winter, as is the case for her lock-like fountain in TriBeCa’s Capsouto Park.

In a statement, the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s president, Charles A. Birnbaum, wrote that “while we’re disappointed that ‘Marabar’ will not remain in situ, we applaud the society for working with Ms. Zimmerman on this resolution.”

For Zimmerman, the success of “Marabar” had led to public art commissions around the world, including a memorial for the first World Trade Center bombing and an installation commemorating the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But another of her critically hailed works was recently demolished in San Francisco, and she remains concerned about the fate of public artworks.

Still, Rasmussen said he hopes the “Marabar” saga can become a “teachable moment,” starting with an interdisciplinary exhibition at the Katzen Arts Center tracing its construction and relocation.

Excavation of “Marabar” began earlier this month, with a goal of installing the work at American University in the summer of 2022. At that point, Zimmerman also plans to announce a new name for the artwork. “It’s not going to be ‘Marabar’ anymore,” she said. “It will be something new.”

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