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

“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.”

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