158 Years: An NYC Public Art Journey
I am a firm believer that you have to understand where you have been to know where you are going—and public art in NYC has changed drastically over the past century and a half. The first sculpture in a New York City park was George Washington by Henry Kirk Brown, which was unveiled in Union Square in 1856. For the next 100 years public artworks were predominantly commemorative or memorial in nature—realistic representations of notable politicians, soldiers, and leaders.
By the 1960s, new ideas about what constituted artwork freed artists to explore new forms of materials and exhibitions. Sculpture grew beyond the constraints of studio and gallery spaces, and people embraced the social and political impact of art. With big sculptures, big ideas, and performance artists’ impromptu “happenings” in the City’s public spaces, it was only natural that visual artists wanted to bring their artwork outdoors.
New York City’s Parks Department acknowledged these developments and installed its first exhibition of temporary public art in 1967—William Accorsi’s playful sculptures at Union Square’s “Check-A-Child” Playground—111 years after George arrived in the park. And yes, the playground was exactly what it sounds like.
In the 1970s and 1980s in response to the rising trend of “plop art” and the increasing deterioration of city Parklands, artists developed exhibitions that impacted the site and the surrounding community. For example, in 1980 Francis Hines wrapped the Washington Square Arch in 8,000 yards of polyester net to highlight the need to restore the park and monument. It was “described as a giant bandage for a wounded Monument.”
Now in our 47th year, NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks program is one of the country’s largest outdoor galleries, exhibiting over 1,500 public artworks by nearly 1,000 artists in 150 parks citywide since 1967. When I studied arts administration I wanted to work in collections management. Well, now I oversee the comings and goings of art in a gallery that measures 29,000 acres. And most importantly this museum quality art is on view for free to the public, who expand the dialog well beyond our borders.
The expanding interest in public art can be seen in the growing number of proposals we receive annually. Currently, NYC Parks receives approximately 100 exhibition inquiries and proposals every year. The number of exhibitions installed on parkland has increased to 40–45 public art installations a year, up from 25 per year just 5 years ago!
I believe future public art programs will involve artists in the development and design of public spaces, not just the addition of singular sculptures to finished designs. Public art staff should be placed within design and construction divisions, or play a more active role, so there is a more organic inclusion of public artworks.
Public art has proven to revitalize New York City neighborhoods: First Park, a desolate abandoned lot with a serious rat problem on the Lower East Side was transformed with the help of the BMW Guggenheim Lab in 2011. First Street Green, a local arts group, continues to bring experimental artworks, performances, and night time screenings to this animated space.
For Paths to Pier 42, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and partner organizations overhauled an empty banana pier acquired by Parks into a waterfront hub for neighborhood advocacy, educational programming, and artist workshops. Spanish artist Juanli Carrión enlivened Duarte Square, an empty plaza, with his garden installation Outer Seed Shadow #01 that explores the stories of Manhattan’s immigrants.
On a grander scale, Mark di Suvero was able to transform a derelict site into Socrates Sculpture Park that has hosted and supported over 700 public artists since its launch in 1986. Other institutions on parkland have also successfully implemented arts programming, including Wave Hill, Snug Harbor, and most notably in recent years, Madison Square Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line.
As communities recognize these “place-making” programs and designs, they are enlisting artists, museums, galleries, and cultural institutions to turn their neighborhoods into dynamic, cultural centers. Since Parks does not have the resources to fund temporary art projects, Arts in the Parks is sustained through our important partnerships.
As Public Art Coordinator my role is to act as a liaison between artists, organizations, and what is admittedly one of the largest (and possibly most intimidating) bureaucracies in the country. In an ideal world, with the increasing demand for art in public spaces, there would be an equal increase in resources—both on a financial and staff level. Hopefully as cities see the advantageous outcomes of working with artists more resources will be set aside for programs. Nevertheless, it is extremely rewarding to work alongside artists to rejuvenate our often forgotten or underserved sites.
With this trend, future public arts administrators will still need to understand the logistical requirements for installing large sculpture (proposal review, legal agreements, insurance requirements, and safety regulations). Yet, you will also be responsible for community programs and building lasting, fruitful relationships between artists and the public...and if you are lucky, you will work on projects you believe in so deeply that you would happily shovel hundreds of pounds of compost at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday (Juanli, I am looking in your direction).
Historical context for Art in the Parks: The Outdoor Gallery: 40 Years of Public Art in New York City Parks by Jonathan Kuhn.
The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.