Each year, the Site See series has been responsible for the appearance of a fascinating new public artwork on Alexandria’s waterfront. Since 2019, visitors have been treated to new year-long art installations that have attracted big reactions from major art critics and generated thousands of social media posts.
Whether you’ve hopped from piling to piling at 2021’s mysterious Groundswell, reflected on Alexandria’s origins as one of the largest slave markets in the U.S. with 2020’s Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies, or tried to get the multicolored panels in 2019’s Mirror, Mirror to react to your voice, you’ve probably had a memorable experience interacting with at least one of the installations.
It’s not easy to create that level of engagement with one public work of art, let alone do it three years in a row. But Alexandria’s Office of the Arts has developed a unique approach to getting visitors to react.
“We knew we wanted something there that would draw people to Alexandria,” says Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of recreation, parks and cultural activities.
Instead of a simple call for proposals, Ruggiero and her partners created a process for producing works of art that would have a resonance with the community. They invited 50 artists to apply for the opportunity to work on the series, then selected an artist for the project purely based on their credentials. That artist (in 2019 it was Mirror, Mirror creator Michael Szivos, followed by Olalekan Jeyfous and Mark Reigelman for 2020 and 2021, respectively) was then introduced to local historians and community members to help the artist understand the city’s history and culture. Only from there did the artists create works of art that would respond to and engage with the city.
But it’s not just about a scholarly approach, according to Betsy Johnson, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden. The artists all share an ability to encourage people to engage through the form of their work.
“All of the projects really were meant to be interacted with,” Johnson says. “These artists all thought so much about the viewers. And none of them were trying to prescribe how people enter the site or how they move; they just wanted to make it something that people would connect with.”
As a result, Site See is a premier art series for Alexandria, which has helped the city join in a rising arts movement across NoVA and the DMV.
“Arlington is one of the most successful places in the U.S. for public art, and Alexandria is proving it has some chops as well. The interesting thing about art in the DMV is that there are so many centers where art is flourishing,” Johnson says. “There are so many amazing public arts programs, and then there are these sites like the Arlington Arts Center and the Torpedo Factory and the McLean Project for the Arts that have art communities forming around them.”
For the foreseeable future, that reputation for the arts will continue to develop in Alexandria, as each new year will continue to bring a new installation that helps develop the identity of the city.
“All of these pieces are little vignettes of storytelling. ‘How do we tell this history, this story of this place?'” Johnson says. “And I’m kind of excited to see what the next person will do, and how many stories are going to be unearthed through this process.”
The City of Alexandria, through the Office of the Arts, will host a free online roundtable discussion about the installations in Site See: Three Artists, One Site, on Thursday, July 29, 4:30 p.m. EDT. Zoom access details are available with an RSVP via Eventbrite.
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