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

Amid the heat, the stench, the slow-moving tourists and the quick-moving taxi cabs, there is another obstacle (albeit an often

Sculpture by Sol LeWitt, photo Jason Wyche, courtesy of Public Art Fund, The LeWitt Fund, Artists Rights Society

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.

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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.

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