‘Reclining Liberty’ kindles new interest in Arlington’s rebranded contemporary art museum

A century ago, a stately brick building in Virginia Square was an elementary school. Now it is the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington (MoCA), perhaps currently best known for a horizontal Lady Liberty out front.

Putting “Reclining Liberty” on the front lawn is looking like a smart marketing move for the recently rebranded museum.

The national monument, in repose, caught people’s attention and sparked an increase in attendance, MoCA Executive Director Catherine Anchin tells ARLnow.

“We will see people walking by, stop and taking pictures, there have been children and people climbing on it and taking their photos with it,”  she said. “That’s what the artist wants, for the public to really engage with the work directly; touch it, feel it, and really consider it.”

That is what Blair Murphy, MoCA’s exhibitions curator, says the museum wants, too.

“We’re really interested in being an accessible sort of warm place where people can come and get an introduction and maybe meet some artists and talk to them about their work and feel like they are comfortable in the space,” Murphy said.

On a recent tour of the museum, Anchin told ARLnow that in decades past, the building was less a museum and more of a studio space that served to “connect the community to contemporary art and artists.” It was founded in 1974 by a group of contemporary artists, who named it the “Community Art Council of Arlington.”

Since then, the organization morphed into the Arlington Arts Center before becoming the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington in 2022. Anchin says the new name does a better job of signaling people can visit.

“The word museum signals to the general public and people walking by that ’That’s a place I can go in, it’s a public space, and it’s somewhere where I can go to see something,’” said Anchin. “The organization has evolved with the community and the name change and the rebrand was just another step in the organization’s evolution and enabled us to grow and serve more people.”

Beyond changing the name, MoCA has added new programs to help people engage with the space and the art. Guests can do yoga in the galleries Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Mondays at 6:30 p.m. or hit up upcoming one-time events, including a sound bath next Saturday at 2 p.m. and a comics for teens contest on March 1.

Now through March 17, visitors can see “Hitched to Everything Else,” an exhibit depicting “where human infrastructure interrupts or collides with the natural environment” and highlighting “humans’ conflicted relationship to nature.

Next up is “Solace and Sisterhood” (Feb. 22-May 26), in which a trio of friends of African descent explore the importance of Black sisterhood through topics such as self-identity, Black female beauty and spiritual discovery. A limited-time solo exhibition series by Mid-Atlantic-based artists will kick off March 30 and end April 6.

Outside its four walls, the museum brings art to local schools and affordable housing communities and has a foothold in Pentagon City. There, it offers “MoCA on the Move,” a free art-making activity at Met Park sponsored by Amazon, and recently opened its Innovation Studio + Store, which offers free classes and opportunities to meet new artists, within Amazon’s second headquarters.

For its 50th anniversary, MoCA will put on an exhibition inspired by the organization’s history, with details to be finalized in the coming months, says Anchin.

Al Minor, who has curated for Georgetown University’s art galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Hirshhorn Museum, created a show that will “include artists from every decade of MoCA Arlington’s history while reflecting the vision, range, adventurousness, and ambition of the museum’s 50 year legacy,” she said.

“As the only art museum in the region founded by artists, we thought it was fitting to work with one of the area’s most accomplished artist-curators for our 50th anniversary exhibition,” Anchin continued.

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