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Colorful Panda Statues Add Fun, Creative Touch to US Capital Streets - 2004-06-18

Chicago's stockyards and meat packing plants began closing in the 1950s, but nearly half a century later, the city's streets were once again crowded with cows: fiberglass cows, painted and decorated like no living creature could ever be. Modeled after an innovative public art project in Zurich, Switzerland, Chicago's Cows on Parade was designed as art for the masses and it brought masses of tourists to the city. Since then, there've been pigs in Cincinnati, a flock of 2.5 meter tall flamingos in Miami Beach, and fish statues on the streets of the port city of Baltimore, Maryland. Now, a plethora of pandas has popped up in Washington D.C.

Washingtonians have been mad about pandas ever since the Chinese government sent Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling to the National Zoo in 1972. This summer, pandas are everywhere in the city - in different colors and different themes: there's a loving Panda, a Carefree Panda, a Circus Panda and an East-West Panda, to name just a few of the 150 sculptures. The "Booted Panda" by artist Francisco Quintanilla sits in front of a subway station.

"The panda is covered by parking tickets that I painted on individually one by one. On one of its legs it has a car boot, the one they put on your car if you don't pay your parking tickets," he says.

Legal parking spaces are often hard to find in the District, so the city issues lots of tickets.

"I know that parking is something that people are always complaining about and I wanted to make it iconic, something that resonates emotionally with people of the District," he says.

A few blocks away from the "Booted Panda" stands the "Basking in the Sunflowers Panda," by local artist Marni Maree.

"My panda is very cheerful. It's covered with sunflowers. It's got a big sunflower on his belly, and on his two ears, and more sunflowers covering his feet. And he has a bumblebee on his nose," she says. PandaMania is the second project of its kind sponsored by the Washington D.C Commission on the Arts and Humanities. In 2002, it placed 200 'Party Animals' around the city - decorated elephants and donkeys, the symbols of the Republican and the Democratic political parties.

Thirteen hundred proposals were submitted for PandaMania. Program specialist Alexandra MacMaster says the 150 winning creations represent a diverse group of artists from around the world.

"I actually went to all embassies in Washington and sent out a call. We have artists from Colombia," she says. "We have artists from China. We have an artist from Brazil. Her panda is actually outside the Brazilian Embassy."

The Commission provided life-size fiberglass panda statues, studio space and a $1,500 honorarium; and the artists went to work. Their creations were in place by the beginning of June. Ms. MacMaster says they display a wide variety of artistic ideas and styles.

"We have conceptual pieces. We have the more fun pieces that are character driven. We have many of them [that] relate to China. There's one in particular that is about seven feet tall and seven feet wide, with a panda that represents [President] Nixon and how Nixon brought the pandas here in 1972. You can see it from both sides. The back is China and the front is the panda as it's today. It's linking both countries America and China, which is a good thing," she says.

But the panda project is NOT a good thing, says Blake Gopnik. The art critic for The Washington Post newspaper calls PandaMania a waste of resources, and not real art.

"The pandas don't present interesting art challenges that much to anyone. Once you start out with the notion that you'll be painting on a plastic panda, there's really not enough room left to do anything that's worth doing," he says. "In sponsoring the panda project, all the Commission has done is imitate other cities. It's a shame that Washington, one of the most important cities in the world, should be imitating projects from other cities instead of coming up with new challenging projects of itself."

But Mr. Gopnik is in the minority. According to Art Commissioner Marjorie Goldberg, the pandas have done what they were supposed to do: bring fun back to the city.

"This is a grassroots event. I think the project is very effective. On the artistic level, I really think that the artists did a tremendous creative job. And to say that there were not any serious artists in there is wrong. It's not just about the individual pandas, it's the spirit of the whole thing, and that's what the critic just so totally and completely missed. It's about the community," she says.

And the community seems to like it.

"It's funny with all the different colors," one bystander says.

"It makes people curious why they are here for," another tourist says.

"I think it's a very nice exhibit that brings the city together," adds a Washington resident.

"I see them everywhere. They're great and I think it's good for Washington," another bystander says.

As those panda statues keep a smile on Washington's streets, they're also helping raise money to fund other art activities. In October, all the statues will be auctioned off, so the panda that's standing on a Washington streetcorner this summer might end up in an admirer's backyard this fall.