Dark Star Park, Arlington, VA

Nancy Holt's Dark Star Park

Authored by: Angela Anderson Adams

Recent efforts to protect and maintain nationally significant, yet threatened site specific artworks by notable women artists located in the public sphere remind us of the critical role of stewardship in sustaining artworks in the public realm, especially those by women who historically had been excluded from the commissioning of large-scale public art. 

Arlington Public Art’s efforts to secure the future of Nancy Holt’s Dark Star Park (1979-1984), Arlington, Virginia’s first County-commissioned public artwork, is currently underway. This effort will require the support and coordination of a number of internal County agencies as well as the surrounding community, which views the work as an iconic feature of the neighborhood.  

Nancy Holt using a helioscope to model the shadow alignment for Dark Star Park (1979-84) - Photo © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York

Notable among the works recently in jeopardy is Elyn Zimmerman’s Marabar (1984), originally installed at the National Geographic Society headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., which was dedicated the same year as Dark Star Park. In 2019, National Geographic notified the artist that her sculpture would be removed to allow for a planned plaza renovation. Zimmerman, who considered the work the most important of her career, was resigned to the loss of Marabar when The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) contacted her in March 2020 offering to advocate on its behalf. The ensuing campaign resulted in National Geographic assuming the costs to relocate the artwork under the artist’s direction (it was also reconfigured and renamed Sudama) to the American University campus where it opened on April 4, 2023. 

Land art movement leader Mary MissGreenwood Pond: Double Site (1989-96) is threatened with demolition by the Des Moines Art Center, which commissioned the work for its permanent collection. The project, located in the city-owned Greenwood Park, underwent renovations in 2015 following a 2014 advocacy campaign by TCLF. Less than a decade later the artwork is severely deteriorating, and the Art Center refuses to consider any option other than demolition. In both cases, Miss and Zimmerman are still living and able to lead the efforts to protect their artworks. By contrast, Nancy Holt died ten years ago. Thankfully she left behind wishes to establish the Holt/Smithson Foundation to promote and protect her artworks and those of her husband, Robert Smithson. Arlington Public Art working with the Holt/Smithson Foundation will advocate for the continued protection and maintenance of Dark Star Park

In 1979, three years after Holt completed her best-known artwork Sun Tunnels, in Utah’s remote Great Basin Desert, Holt pivoted to begin work on Dark Star Park, arguably her most easily accessible project. While Sun Tunnels was self-commissioned and personally financed, Dark Star Park was initiated by Arlington County working with the National Endowment for the Arts and funded through a multi-faceted public-private partnership. Holt redirected the County’s initial invitation to create a sculpture for a new County park to allow her to design the entire park as a work of art integrated into the landscape. Holt’s vision expanded in both directions:  to the south, incorporating a Virginia Department of Transportation owned traffic island into the park footprint and to the north, with the introduction of an earthen mound which engaged a privately-owned office building. Holt’s expansive project subsequently inspired the adoption of Arlington County’s Public Art Policy in 2000 which strives “to create exciting, appealing, and harmonious public spaces by integrating art into architecture, urban design and the planning of infrastructure at the earliest design stage.” 

Construction of the gunited concrete spheres in Nancy Holt's Dark Star Park (1979-84) - Photo © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York

Arlington County has long been committed to maintaining its now 80-piece permanent public art collection. From 1997-2002, with funding from the County’s Capital Improvement Program, Arlington Public Art worked closely with Nancy Holt to renovate the park made popular with its annual solar alignment that Holt initiated through her design. On each sunny August 1st at approximately 9:32 AM ET, actual shadows cast by the poles and spheres on the southern “traffic island” portion of the park align with permanent shadow patterns embedded in steel on the ground. Holt designed this feature to mark the day in 1860 when William Henry Ross purchased the land that became the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington County. In this fashion, Holt was intentional in “…merging historical time with the cyclical time of the sun,” as she observed in her statement about the project.  

Dark Star Park, Arlington, VA - Photo by Arlington County, 2017

Arlington Public Art, at times in collaboration with the Holt/Smithson Foundation, continues to steward Dark Star Park through programming, community engagement, and various forms of interpretation. Temporary public art projects such as Jack Sanders, Robert Gay, and Butch Anthony’s CO2LED (2007) and J.J. McCracken’s the still point (2013) brought fresh attention to what had become an invisible landscape for some daily passersby. Holt/Smithson Foundation commissioned scholarly essays by Angela A. Adams and Gretchen E. Henderson to offer renewed attention to Holt’s rare example of urban land art. To commemorate the park’s 35th anniversary in 2019, Arlington Cultural Affairs partnered with Holt/Smithson Foundation and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to present a series of events including a panel discussion, the screening of two of Holt’s groundbreaking films, and a commissioned musical composition by Cuneiform recording artists Janel and Anthony, which premiered live for hundreds of people, many who gather each year at the shadow alignment – rain or shine.  

Dark Star Park, Arlington, VA - Photo by Joe Flood, 2019

As Arlington Public Art finalizes details for Dark Star Park’s upcoming 40th anniversary on August 1st, the attendees at the milestone celebration of the celestial annual event form the body of constituents best positioned to ensure the park’s viability for the next 40 years. To that end, please join the hundreds who gather each year for the shadow alignment at 9:32 AM on August 1st (watch video), and experience first-hand the power of Nancy Holt's work.   

Visit Arlington Celebrates 40 Years of Public Art for information on Dark Star Park Day as well as other activities planned for the 40th anniversary of Arlington Public Art. 

Angela Anderson Adams is Director of Arlington Public Art, Virginia, and has worked as a curator and arts administrator for over thirty years, half of those directing Arlington Public Art.