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Elyn Zimmerman’s Marabar in 1984. Courtesy: Elyn Zimmerman.

Resolution Reached to Save Elyn Zimmerman Sculpture Amid National Geographic Renovations

The National Geographic Society has agreed to relocate a massive, site-specific sculpture by Elyn Zimmerman which was threatened by the organization’s renovation plans, at its own expense. The resolution was announced by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which brokered the deal between the two parties.

Plans to revamp the Washington, DC–based National Geographic Society’s campus were put on hold this past spring after the news that the 1984 sculpture would be displaced in the process sparked outrage. The Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) of the District of Columbia had in 2019 approved National Geographic’s plans to overhaul its campus, but was unaware that Zimmerman’s sculpture, a sixty-foot-long reflecting pool surrounded by twelve red-granite boulders occupying the building’s plaza, would be demolished in the process, and that there were no plans for its preservation or display. TCLF led a campaign to save the work, and a number of academics, art historians, architects, and museum administrators pressured National Geographic to reconsider.

Among those speaking in support of the sculpture were Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art; Jennifer Duncan, head of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies; Adam Gopnik, a veteran New Yorker writer; architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose Folk Art Museum in New York was razed to accommodate the Museum of Modern Art’s recent expansion; and architect David Childs, a former chairman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who originally commissioned Marabar. For its part, National Geographic, through its legal representation, contended that the sculpture—which Zimmerman described as the “seminal work” of her career—was “not historic” and that “reconsideration would establish a bad precedent.” It also claimed that it had been upfront about the removal when filing its plans.

National Geographic had recently proposed moving the work to city-owned Canal Park, in the southeastern portion of the District of Columbia. Zimmerman and TCLF opposed the new siting, as did Canal Park’s original landscape architect, David Rubin. Instead, it was agreed that the artist and TCLF would work together with Nat Geo to find a suitable cultural institution or other site at which to rehome the sculpture, and that National Geographic will pay for the relocation.

“We are pleased that a resolution has been reached that the artist can support and that will insure a safe future for Marabar,” said TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum in a statement, “and we’re grateful to National Geographic for being a strong and generous collaborator in this process.”

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