National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

MARABAR is Saved

There is good news to report about MARABAR, the site-specific installation by the New York-based artist Elyn Zimmerman located at the National Geographic Society world headquarters in Washington, D.C. that was threatened with demolition.

MARABAR will not be demolished; however, it will have to leave the NGS campus. 

As noted in coverage by the New York TimesArt Newspaper and other outlets, a settlement was announced at the March 4, 2021 hearing of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, which was considering a proposal to renovate part of the campus; the renovation would have resulted in the artwork’s demolition. NGS has pledged to remove and relocate the one-million-pound twelve-granite boulder installation at its own expense. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and the artist are collaborating to find a new home at a museum, university, or other cultural institution.

MARABARwhich consists of twelve red granite boulders of varying dimensions and a 60-foot-long water feature, was completed in 1984 as part of a building addition to NGS’ campus designed by architect David Childs with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Childs selected Zimmerman for the commission. The artist has said that the installation is the “seminal work” in her career. Whitney Museum of American Art director Adam Weinberg calls the installation a “masterpiece.” Scholar and Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley Marc Treib terms MARABAR “one of the great works of the later twentieth century.” New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik says “Zimmerman is one of the most distinguished ‘site-sculptors’ of her generation.”

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

National Geographic Museum director Kathryn Keane, landscape architect Jeff Lee and artist Elyn Zimmerman at National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
National Geographic Museum director Kathryn Keane, landscape architect Jeff Lee and artist Elyn Zimmerman at National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C. - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2021

“I have been assured by NGS that I will have an active role in overseeing the removal, transportation and eventual installation of the components of MARABAR on a new site which will be carried out at National Geographic expense,” said Elyn Zimmerman. “I am deeply grateful to The Cultural Landscape Foundation for bringing attention to the issue of MARABAR’s pending demolition to the HPRB last year.”

Plans that would have resulted in the demolition of MARABAR were initially approved by the HPRB on August 1, 2019. TCLF later learned of the plans and made a case to the HPRB that the proposal submitted by NGS’ architects, Hickok Cole, had not adequately illustrated the installation nor apprised the HPRB of the artwork’s importance. TCLF enrolled MARABAR as a Landslide nationally significant cultural landscape that was at-risk and mounted an advocacy campaign, which yielded letters of support from artworld leaders throughout the country. On May 28, 2020, prompted by TCLF’s advocacy, the HPRB decided to reopen the case.

NGS resubmitted it’s plans on February 4, 2021, and discussions were subsequently held with Zimmerman, TCLF and others. The artist expressed concerns that moving the artwork could irreparably damage the boulders resulting in the work’s destruction. Days before the March 4 meeting, Hickok Cole revealed that regardless of whether the installation was incorporated into the redesign and in its original location, it would have to be moved as to facilitate construction during the plaza renovation. It was a surprise revelation in a project that has been in the planning stages for four years. At this point Zimmerman decided to agree to a plan to relocate the work at NGS' expense.