Museum Miles: The Past and Future Of Public Art In New York

Art world insiders say that the renaissance of public art in New York began in 2005, when the environmental artists Christo and Jean Claude decked out Central Park in 7,503 saffron-colored nylon flags. Critical reception was mixed, but more than a million people are estimated to have flocked to the spectacle. Three years later, Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls cascaded the East River over four scaffolds he built there. Mr. Eliasson not only convinced city officials that the resultant headache—which involved overlapping federal, state and city agencies—was worth it, but reportedly convinced Mayor Mike Bloomberg to foot part of the bill as well.

Just like the art presented inside the city’s many institutions, there is a hierarchy and an ecosystem for public art organizations. The oldest and most venerated public art agencies are the Public Art Fund, which seems to have the easiest access to City Hall, and Creative Time, which has cultivated a reputation for edgy, politically minded projects. In this schema, Art Production Fund is a relative newcomer; its shows tend to be flashier.

Among the parks, the field is highlighted by Bryant Park, which has showcased art and performance to highlight its own transformation over the past several years; the High Line, which wins the contest on density alone, with so many public artworks of all sizes and sounds populating its narrow walkway that it is hard to keep track of them all, and Madison Square Park, which has quickly developed a reputation as one of the more sought-after gallery spaces of any type in the city.

Public art curators point to several factors that have led to N.Y.C.’s becoming a minefield of public art. There is the continuing influence of Conceptual Art from the 1970s on today’s artists, even though few practicing artists would cop to the label. The day-to-day running of public parks has increasingly been turned over to privately funded conservancies, which view art as a way to get increased attention and funding. Major cultural institutions and granting organizations have made it a priority to get their work before the general public. A gentrified city less concerned with cleaning up blight and more concerned with value-added public spaces has had a big role, too, as has an extremely supportive administration in City Hall that views the presentation of public art as essential to keeping tourists coming back to the city.