The Army, under public and congressional attack for a $600,000 plan to dress up a bus depot at a new military facility near Washington with three pieces of art, such as a 10 foot-tall fairy riding a gurgling toad, has scrapped the project. Instead, it will go with a simple plan to “enhance the aesthetics” of a concrete wall at the new Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. [See a gallery of monuments and art around Washington.]
The reversal came after Washington Whispers, the Drudge Report, and local media focused on the pricey project and one of the leading contenders for the $600,000, a proposal for two murals and a huge toad and fairy sculpture.
Stunned by the expense, noted government watch dog Sen. Chuck Grassley opened an investigation. Initially an Army official, responding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which heads the $1 billion Mark Center construction effort, defended the $600,000 project, saying it was worth just “0.1 percent of the cost” of the new facility.
But in a second response this week, the Army junked the idea and said it would no longer be purchasing a sculpture like the toad or any of the other three proposals under consideration. “Plans for procuring sculpture are being dropped,” the Army told Grassley.
A pleased Grassley told Whispers, “The Army was ready to spend $600,000 on three pieces of questionable art, just when the country is up to its eyeballs in red ink. With a national debt of more than $14 trillion, we’ve got to make sure spending is in line with the national interest.”
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.
Each of the four art proposals for the bus terminal included two wall murals and a sculpture. The Army budgeted $200,000 each for the murals and sculpture, for a total of $600,000. The one drawing most attention was the fairy and toad from artist Cheryl Foster. Her proposal 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.
Local activists complained that spending so much to decorate a bus terminal that just 2,500 would see every day was a waste.
The Army in its letter to Grassley said that they conducted a review of the art project and that no money was spent on it. “As a result of this review, the Army is considering a focus on the initiative to enhance the aesthetics of the long blank concrete wall at the transportation center,” the service added without providing any new cost figures.
In addition to addressing the art project, the Army also updated Grassley on the overall costs of the Mark Center, currently under construction. According to the military, the initial construction contract was $953 million. It has grown to $969 million, plus an additional $38 million has been budgeted for furniture, fixtures, and equipment and another $146 million for information technology. The region lost out on new transportation money for the project under the recently approved fiscal year 2011 federal budget.