Pentagon Art: $600,000 Gurgling Toad Sculpture

Defense Department employees will soon be greeted by a gurgling frog.

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A $600,000 frog sculpture that lights up, gurgles "sounds of nature" and carries a 10-foot fairy girl on its back could soon be greeting Defense Department employees who plan to start working at the $700 million Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. this fall. That is unless a new controversy over the price tag of the public art doesn't torpedo the idea.

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Decried as wasteful spending that will be seen by just a couple thousand of daily workers who arrive on bus shuttles, foes have tried to delay the decision, expected tomorrow, April 1. But in an E-mail, an Army Corps of Engineers official said that the decision can't be held up because it would impact completion of the huge project.

The City of Alexandria just announced that there are four works of art being considered and that a final decision needs to be made fast. The artwork was put on display for public comment from March 24 to today. The Alexandria News first reported the hasty announcement to decide a winner.

The schedule surprised some who thought that the costly artwork project was on the "back burner," according to critic Donald Buch, a member of the mayor's advisory committee overseeing the Mark Center project. "What's the rush?" he asked.

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Buch says he's not opposed to art, just high-priced works that won't be seen by many. He estimates that only 2,500 will see the artwork every day as they use the bus transfer station at the Mark Center. "Who the heck is going to see it," he asked. "To spend six hundred grand to amuse the same people every day is nuts."

The Mark Center is one of the facilities that thousands of defense workers will be reporting to as part of the Base Realignment and Closure plan, or BRAC, that is shifting workers around Virginia and Maryland. The BRAC plan itself has been criticized as wasteful.

The four art proposals for the bus terminal include works for a wall and sculpture. But the one drawing most attention is the fairy and frog from artist Cheryl Foster. Her proposals describes the sculpture this way: "A 10-foot fairy, using an American Toad as 'transportation,' scurries to the entrance of the station. The interior of the toad is illuminated and the sounds of nature emanate from his throat." She said that nature inspired her.

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Buch suggested instead that the Corps should consider a nature park or water feature, not a toad.

According to the Corps, the artwork was the city's idea. A city official, however, said that Alexandria officials didn't demand art, but just asked that public artwork be included in the structure. What's more, the official said that the $600,000 is federal money, and that no Alexandria funds will pay for the art.

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