Two Art Galleries Play Monopoly on Park Avenue

Every few months, a fussy cabal of art dealers, philanthropists, lawyers and museum curators meet in the Upper East Side offices of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation “over bad sandwiches,” said one. They are the Park Avenue sculpture committee, and they decide, by and large, what art gets showcased on one of the pricier streets in the world.
Currently dotting the avenue are the 25-foot-tall stainless-steel roses of Will Ryman (minimalist painter Robert Ryman’s son), a placement that thrills his art dealer, Paul Kasmin. “You’ll see Will on Park Avenue now, and then you’ll see him in a botanical garden in Miami-and then in someone’s garden in East Hampton,” he bragged. Mr. Kasmin should know: Nine of the 17 artists who have exhibited on Park Avenue since 2000 are represented by just two of the city’s hundreds of art galleries, his own and the Marlborough Gallery. Among other artists, Mr. Kasmin and Marlborough represent such Park Avenue vets as Robert Indiana, Jun Kaneko, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne and George Rickey, plus Fernando Botero, whose work was exhibited on Park in 1993 before the committee was formed.
Let’s just say there are significant politics, and complicted logistics, behind scoring a Park Avenue show. “Park Avenue’s basically an extension of the big galleries,” said sculptor Robert Lobe, who applied to show on Park Avenue before being redirected to Prospect Park. “It becomes a commercial venue.”
Charles Bergman, chairman and CEO of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and chairman of the (unrelated) sculpture committee, takes umbrage at this. A quite dapper but formal fellow, Mr. Bergman seems to take umbrage pretty easily, but especially at the notion that his group does not uphold the highest of standards. “It’s quite informal and it has worked beautifully,” he said of the selection process.
It’s not fixed, it’s relaxed, said Marlborough’s president of international public art, Dale Lanzone. Entire exhibitions have been birthed by encounters as casual as a committee member coming up to him and saying, “‘Well, it might be a nice idea to do such and such on a certain mile,’ and then they might just send over an email with images of the area and say, ‘Is anyone interested?'” (Marlborough artists have also contributed more than half of the works on the grassy Broadway malls, a burgeoning public-art venue.)
The foundation created the sculpture group, comprised of private art dealers, patrons and museum directors who volunteer their time, in 1999 to identify and recommend works for the medians. Since then, it’s become a popular public art program. Its Web site lists detailed submission guidelines, but Mr. Lanzone said he couldn’t imagine “approaching these kinds of spaces and organizations cold. I mean, you’re not going to put a package together and slide it under someone’s door.” It helps, then, to have friends or fans: The lack of a formal selection process means that an artist needs a “proponent” on the committee to push his or her proposal through, said committee member Patterson Sims.
To some degree, it all comes down to money. The city generally doesn’t fund public art, so artists or their galleries who are chosen are ones willing to cover construction and installation expenses themselves, which is arguably as much a boon to the neighborhood as it is to the galleries. “It’s a great thing: People get to experience art in unusual locations, all at no cost to the city,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said. The result, of course, is that only the most prosperous can afford an exhibition. “It’s kind of the law of nature out there,” said artist Tom Otterness, whose Free Money sculpture was displayed on Park Avenue in 2003, at his and his gallery’s expense. “The economy rules.”
For Mr. Ryman, the Park Avenue show meant coming up with about $800,000 on his own, which he raised by preselling some of the pieces and by dipping into his savings. It doesn’t always pay off: On Park Avenue last spring, artist Mia Westerlund Roosen (who shows at Betty Cunningham Gallery) displayed three 10-foot-tall, curvaceous forms. She said she made them of concrete and cheap architectural foam specifically to keep her costs down to $30,000. She’s still hoping to sell the pieces.
Mr. Lanzone and Mr. Kasmin denied that their galleries have a monopoly on the city’s parks. “I’ve proposed many things that are turned down,” Mr. Kasmin said. He’s been rebuffed by the coveted Doris Freedman Plaza in Central Park, and Madison Square Park snubbed a Kenny Scharf show. “I’ve suggested remarkably little to Park Avenue,” he said, adding that he’s usually approached.
Mr. Lanzone argued that Marlborough is simply more knowledgeable than smaller galleries when it comes to safety and transportation logistics of moving works of art that may weigh 3,000 pounds. “We’re geared up to handle large sculpture,” he said. “Things that would be completely mysterious to others are not to us.”
Once the sculpture committee approves a project, there are other  hurdles: The project usually goes before the dreaded Community Board 8, which has developed a reputation over the years for being anti-art. “What happens after that is not very transparent,” said Mr. Otterness. The board members are not the easiest folks to get anything by. “I was told that if I went anywhere north of 57th Street, I would have to deal with a community board that’s very hostile toward artists,” said Mr. Ryman, who had to trim hot dog buns and cigarette butts from the bases of his sculptures-he added rose petals-to get it by the board.
In the 1990s, Community Board 8 protested the installation of Boteros on Park Avenue over fears that the giant, voluptuous bronze nudes would distract drivers. In 2003, when every Upper West Side and Harlem community board had approved Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates for Central Park, Community Board 8 refused to even grant the artists a meeting. That same year, just days after Robert Indiana’s oversize One Through Zero numbers were installed on Park Avenue, the board complained that it had not been consulted. It passed a resolution urging the Parks Department to give the board more power over the art selected for the neighborhood. “The very wealthy can be very demanding and particular-and they’ve all got lawyers,” Mr. Otterness said.
Sometimes opposition stems from art that has political undertones. When Chinese artist Sui Jianguo’s metal Chairman Mao jacket appeared on Park Avenue in 2008, “some commented that they felt the work idealized Mao,” wrote Asia Society director Melissa Chiu in an email. Ironically, the piece was protested in Beijing for being too critical of the chairman. (His oversize jacket implied he was fat and therefore inexcusably bourgeois.)
Community Board 8’s chairwoman, Jacqueline Ludorf, said she isn’t necessarily interested in finding art she likes, but that there has to be a certain level of good taste. “We really look for something non-obtrusive, and nothing gross-in any way.”
There is one big plus to art on the medians, though, beyond the aesthetics. Said Barbara McLaughlin, president of the Fund for Park Avenue: “Skateboarders really back off when artwork is there.”