Long before Lady Liberty towered over New York Harbor, artists chose the female figure to symbolize all that is American.

"Liberties With Liberty," at the Craft and Folk Art Museum Wednesday to Aug. 16, takes up that premise, depicting the changing image of the female as a representative of America in American folk art from the 16th Century to the present.

The 80-piece exhibit includes several forms of folk art, including weather vanes and watercolors, scrimshaw, quilts, oil paintings and engravings.

"We have emphasized international folk art for a long time," says museum director Patrick Ela, explaining why he opted to sponsor the traveling show. "A lot of our programming has been based on the idea of L.A. as a microcosm of the world and in some ways we haven't dealt with traditional craft and folk art which made up Americana. We felt it was time to do something purely American.

"There were also several things that came together to make this timely. One is last year's celebration of the anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Another is this year's bicentennial celebration of the Constitution."

On loan from New York's Museum of American Folk Art, "Liberties With Liberty" is divided into four parts, demonstrating how the female image of liberty changed from a dark-skinned, bare-breasted Indian Queen to America's permanent symbol of freedom, the "Statue of Liberty."

"In the exhibit, the image of liberty is personified as a girl sitting on a little bench in the country, or as a woman standing in front of several of the country's founding fathers. There's also a 1986 computer graphic showing a sort of Andy Warhol-esque portrait series of the head of the 'Statue of Liberty,' " Ela says.

MOVING UP: Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art has announced plans for a home of its own.

Housed for 23 years within halls at the University of Pennsylvania, the institute will relocate to an existing free-standing building on the campus. New York architects Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson have been selected to design the new edifice, an industrial loft structure. The new site is scheduled to open in September, 1989, with ground breaking planned for one year earlier.

The institute's expanded space will provide almost 10,000 square feet of gallery space, a 200-seat auditorium for films, performance events and educational programs, an archival library and public gardens.

Andy Warhol had his first museum show in 1965 at the innovative Philadelphia institute, which organized the traveling David Salle retrospective currently on view at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

PUBLIC ART: Twelve metal sculptures by Chicago artist Richard Hunt will go on view throughout Century City Wednesday for an six-month "Sculpture Walk" exhibition.

The abstract works range in size from 60 inches to 18 feet tall and will be displayed through December at interior and exterior spots at the ABC Entertainment Center, the Century City twin towers office buildings, and elsewhere in Century City.

Hunt, has created 55 public artworks seen throughout the country in such places as UCLA's Franklin Murphy Sculpture garden. A Guggenheim fellowship recipient, his work is also in the public collections of 14 major museums including New York's Metropolitan Museum, Washington's Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The "Sculpture Walk," funded by a grant from the Century City Property Owners Assn., is organized by the Los Angeles Arts Council, which last year sponsored a similar exhibit of sculptures by Henry Moore, Francisco Zuniga and Fernando Botero.

NOW AT THE COUNTY: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has placed on display a richly decorated east Indian howdah , or seat used to ride an elephant, lent by local art collectors Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert.

Howdahs, symbols of status in the Indian princely courts of Queen Victoria, were ridden in hunts, battles and ceremonial processions. The opulently detailed howdah on view in the Ahmanson Building to June 26 is in the shape of a carriage without wheels, decorated with parrot heads, pseudo-Gothic ornaments, and gilt reliefs on a silver background edged with gold border designs.

The howdah's profuse ornamentation, evidence of the heavy European influence on decorative objects made for the Indian courts in the late-19th and early 20th Centuries, was probably the work of Indian artisans "who proved quite adept at copying and altering Victorian designs," a museum release reports. "Some of the decorative motifs are clearly hybrid forms: for instance, fish, who spew horses or winged females, combine elements found in both Indian and European traditions."

The Gilberts, whose collection of monumental silver fills a gallery at the museum, acquired the howdah while on a visit to London last year.

NEW ACQUISITIONS: The County Museum has recently added two ancient artworks to its permanent collections. A rare stone sculpture from south Central India depicts a serpent couple flanked by smaller snakes representing their offspring. "Serpent Deities," probably once part of a temple site, dates from the 8th or 9th centuries, and comes from Karnataka, India.

A "Seated Baboon" is carved from soft cream-colored gypsum with inlaid steatite eyes. The figure, gently raising a bowl to its mouth, comes from southwestern Iran from the second half third millennium BC. It is probably a depiction of the species Papio cynocephalus, recognizable by its long snout and dog-like face. Both artworks are currently on view.

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