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Elyn Zimmerman, Marabar, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.
Elyn Zimmerman, Marabar, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.

National Geographic’s Renovation Plans Threaten Elyn Zimmerman Artwork

New York–based artist Elyn Zimmerman’s first public commission—a massive stone installation that was built into the plaza of the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, DC—is at risk of being dismantled as the scientific organization plans to remodel its campus. News of the renovation and of the possible removal of Marabar, which was commissioned in 1982 and completed in 1984, has prompted a number of cultural figures to urge National Geographic to protect the work.

Among those who have spoken out about the importance of the piece are Charles A. Birnbaum, the president and CEO of the Washington, DC–based Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF); Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Marc Treib, a landscape and architectural historian and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley; and Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia.

“Elyn Zimmerman is a pioneer and one of the earliest contemporary female artists to work at such a monumental scale,” Bach wrote in a letter to the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) earlier this month. “Her large-scale artworks have contributed to and defined the use of natural elements in the field of outdoor sculpture and public art.” She added: “Marabar is an indispensable artwork in the trajectory of her artistic career and one that has survived the test of time for more than thirty-five years at its location.”

“As a young artist I just had a great idea and didn’t realize what it would take to make it happen,” Zimmerman told Artforum. “I was lucky to work with David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who was working on the headquarters at the time. He helped me find an engineer, a structural engineer, and a hydraulics engineer to help fabricate the piece.” The central element of the installation, a sixty-foot-long and six-foot-wide rectangular pool, is surrounded by five granite boulders, the largest of which is ten feet tall and weighs 250,000 pounds.

“In the late ’70s and early ’80s there were a handful of artists doing earthworks and they were pretty much all men,” said Zimmerman. “In 1977, I did a project for Artpark [in Lewiston, New York], where artists such as Alice Aycock, Alice Adams, and Michelle Stuart were also making work that used natural materials, but were accessible, and weren’t out near Arizona or the Grand Canyon. And that was very meaningful. When National Geographic gave me the commission—which could have went to someone like Isamu Noguchi—I was untested and untried and thought it was special that the conservative organization took a chance on me.”

The National Geographic Society, which did not respond to Artforum’s request for comment, began considering the removal of Marabar a couple of years ago. Zimmerman told Artforum that she received a cavalier phone call from someone representing the architect of its new pavilion. According to the artist, they informed her that they were planning on getting rid of her installation and asked her to “come pick up her stones,” as if they could simply be loaded into a pickup truck and taken away.

The organization officially wrote to her about the possibility of dismantling the piece in 2017 and offered to pay to relocate the work. Zimmerman said she was willing to work with Hickok Cole Architects on finding a solution but was still surprised that National Geographic planned to get rid of Marabar, due to the trouble the organization went through to install it and its general success. She did not hear from the organization again until earlier this year.

In another letter sent to the Historic Preservation Review Board, Adam Weinberg wrote: “I know that destruction is not the intent of National Geographic, I do however ask that they consider other options. Not only do I believe that it would be the right thing—for Zimmerman and art history—but it would be an important signal and reaffirmation of National Geographic’s own values as a leading organization committed to protecting the great wonders of the world, be they woman-made or natural.”

National Geographic filed plans that outlined its wish to “unify the existing National Geographic campus with a new pavilion, plaza, renovated ground level, and cohesive streetscape” with the Historic Preservation Review Board last July. The board approved the plans in a 7–0 vote, but it remains unclear if it was made aware of Marabar’s presence in the plaza or of its significance. TFLC is now asking the HPRB to revisit its decision, which will be reviewed during a board meeting scheduled for Thursday.