New York City has supported art in its public spaces for decades. On October 21st, New York City parks celebrated fifty years with a fair in Central Park’s East Pinetum. Performances were featured throughout the day, including James Lovell (Bronx Music Heritage Centre), a reading from Leenda Bonilla, and Dances for a Variable Population (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council).
The event was inspired by the roots of New York City’s public art, happenings which popped up throughout the city in the 1960s. These ‘happenings’ usually engaged the viewer in some way, encouraging wide participation. They were also informal and fleeting, rather than permanent exhibitions.
The department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs organized the first public art installation series, “Sculpture in Environment”, in order to let art, “loose in the city, to set them under the light of day where they intrude upon our daily walks and errands.” One of the sculptures included in that series, created by Tony Rosenthal and later referred to as the Alamo, remains on display at Astor Place.
NYC Parks has brought art installations to public spaces across the city. Over two thousand works of art have been featured in parks throughout the boroughs. These installations have ranged from the universally appreciated to the extremely controversial. Richard Serra’s A Tilted Arc (1981) was blamed for a rat problem and thought to magnify the threat of terrorism. Conversely, Ai Wei Wei’s current installation “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” (2017) brings humanity to the worldwide refugee crisis.
Ai Wei Wei calls “Fences”, “[...] a response to the political and social impulse to divide people from each other [...] it really asks us to think about our urgent challenges and to hear the voices of the most vulnerable in the world.”
Public art is a crucial strategy for engaging vast and diverse audiences in art. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, senior curator at the Madison Square Park conversancy, told the New York Times that, “Public art is a communal activity; its reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers.”
Public art also provides some arts-based emergence for students who might lack arts educations in their schools. Additionally, public art can also bring attention and engage audiences in other social issues, including Ai Wei Wei’s “Fences”.
New York City’s fifty year celebration was a culmination of decades of public art engage audience of various demographics in different issues and artistic practice. These installations can come in forms other than sculpture, as this year's celebration featured button-making workshops, zine creation, and a life-drawing class featuring a model in a polar bear costume , and many other diverse forms of art and artmaking.
A commitment to public art can help influence and inspire onlookers to create their own!
Hopefully, New York City's support will continue for decades to come!
by Goldie Poll