Amid the heat, the stench, the slow-moving tourists and the quick-moving taxi cabs, there is another obstacle (albeit an often far more pleasant one) for New Yorkers to maneuver around when they venture out this summer: the slew of sculpture, performance and temporary architecture that makes up the city’s public art.
This museum city grows larger with each passing year. These days, a walker in Manhattan can spend an afternoon stumbling from City Hall Park, where a sculpture exhibit of Sol LeWitt’s empty cubes competes for the attention of chain-smoking European tourists, unaware of the new prohibitions; to Union Square, where a cool, chrome-plated statue of Andy Warhol by artist Rob Pruitt looks over what’s become of the area around Warhol’s former Factory. Across the harbor sits one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters—massive metal sculptures from Mark di Suvero arrayed on Governors Island. The show marks the first foray of the Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley to New York City.
That a venerable outdoor sculpture institution like Storm King is edging onto the city’s turf speaks to the fact that over the past several years New York City has become a ground zero of sorts for public art, the depth and variety of which perhaps no city has ever seen before.
“I think it is fair to say that what we are witnessing is nothing less than a golden age for public art in New York City,” said Jean Parker Phifer, the author of Public Art New York.
Cities have been putting up statues and monuments for as long as they have been putting up buildings. But the general-on-horseback era is long over, even though New York still has one of the most ambitious permanent public art efforts in the world through its Percent for Art law, a 1982 ordinance requiring that 1 percent of the budget for city-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for city facilities.
Just 20 years ago, New Yorkers appeared to have little appetite for art in the public realm, after Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from Federal Plaza downtown following an outcry over its appropriateness. There are now hundreds of organizations in the five boroughs devoted to art outdoors, from those like Creative Time and the Public Art Fund, organizations with decades of experience in putting art before the public, to the public parks big and small that have turned their spot of greenery into a makeshift gallery, to various quasi-public agencies like the Downtown Alliance and the other business improvement districts that sponsor occasional projects.
This golden age, though, isn’t populated by heroes, or by monstrous sculptures meant to reside permanently in public squares, but rather by smaller, ephemeral art that often doesn’t last the changing of the seasons.
“With every new public space that comes online—the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governors Island—they all offer a new opportunity to think about how to present contemporary art there,” said Nicholas Baume, director of the Public Art Fund. “Even though there is a great density of organizations, there is so much scope to engage with something as huge as the fabric of New York City.”
Forget bronze. The new public art can be sound installations, graffiti-inspired commissions for roll-down gates, and cartoonish painting over public buildings, as in 2009, when a mini-uproar was created over the Public Art Fund’s commissioning of the artist Richard Woods to paint the guardhouses in front of City Hall in Lego-land-looking redbrick design. One of the more talked about pieces of public art in the past several years was Roof Piece, a performance by Trisha Brown’s Dance Company on rooftops around the city.
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.
“We have a mayor who has been the most supportive mayor for cultural institutions that I have seen in my lifetime,” said Debbie Landau, the president of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which this season put up Jaume Plensa’s gigantic sculpture of a 9-year-old girl’s face, called Echo, and caused a sensation last year with Event Horizon, a work that edged out of the confines of the park proper and featured 31 metal sculptures of naked figures by the artist Antony Gormley perched on rooftops and standing on sidewalks. “No one has been more supportive [of what we do] than Mayor Bloomberg and [First Deputy Mayor] Patti Harris. It would be a great model to hold someone else up to.”
Artists and curators are already talking with concern about what life will be like in the post-Bloomberg era. Getting a piece of art into the public realm remains difficult. Will Ryman’s Roses featured 25 oversize fiberglass and steel flowers planted on the Park Avenue Mall last spring and he recalled a tangled process that involved getting permissions from the Parks Department, the Department of Transportation and the local community board. Mr. Ryman originally wanted his roses to be a darker hue—he also considered making some that looked like huge pieces of litter—but acceded to local concerns.
“I’m glad it all worked out, but it was frustrating,” Mr. Ryman recalled. “It always is. Whenever you have a group of people or several groups of people trying to agree on something, it is always an adventure.”
Mr. Ryman’s experience with putting a piece of art in the city was unique—he had an idea and approached the necessary agencies and boards needed to see it to fruition. Most of the presenting organizations have an advisory committee and in some cases a curator dedicated to sniffing out talent and putting up the work. That so many are dedicated to putting art before an unsuspecting public has led some to worry that the quality of art going up in the city has weakened.
“We should have the same standards for art in the city that we have for art in museums, or art in galleries,” said one curator, who asked to remain nameless for fear of antagonizing colleagues.
“Why should we be promoting bad art? You don’t see MoMA promoting bad art.”
This is not a view shared by most in the field, however.
“I am of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom theory,” said Ms. Landau. “More is always better. It’s a big city. I don’t think you could ever have enough programming.”
And now that every block association and public park is trying to become a center for culture, competition among them has grown fierce. Artists say that if they do a project with one group, they are effectively blacklisted by the others for several years.
“They have said to me, ‘We don’t want you showing anywhere in New York from now until the show,’” said one artist. “It’s like a journalist with an exclusive—they don’t want anyone else to have what they have.”
More worrisome, art world professionals say, is a growing trend that has privileged spectacle above all. For this, we may have The Gates and Waterfalls to thank—shows of, to some, questionable merit that achieved boatloads of media attention. Media attention begets the craning necks of visitors, visitors beget more money, and more money means more encouragement from City Hall.
“I won’t tell you that I love 80 percent of what I see in the public realm,” said Anne Pasternak, the executive director of Creative Time. “But I love that the city can still be a space for free expression and creativity, and it’s not just all reserved for the realm of commercial space. There is a lot here, but there is a lot of everything.”