The Monumental Possibilities of Public Art: MCNY's ​“Art in the Open”

Reviewed by Erik Wallenberg

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As hundreds of artists and scholars call for the removal of local monuments that celebrate racist figures, the Museum of the City of New York unveiled a new exhibit. “Art in the Open: Fifty Years of Public Art in New York” has arrived at an opportune moment. The Mayor's Advisory Council is presently examining city art, monuments, and markers. Groups like Decolonize This Place are pushing for the removal of statues that celebrate historical figures who advocated or practiced racism and genocide, including Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. Marion Simms. This fight raises the question of what to replace these statues with, and “Art in the Open” offers some enticing potential answers. The exhibit holds up public art as a medium to prod society into thinking about our current world and our history, a fifty-year retrospective on how public art can reflect societies values as well as push it to recognize injustices and inequalities.

In the short film that opens the exhibit, people viewing public art remark that it gets them talking, and encourages different ways to see the world. Like all art, public art can carry a variety of meanings that shift over time and in new contexts.

The story of Charging Bull and Fearless Girl offers just such an example. The artist Arturo di Modica placed Charging Bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange after the market crash in 1987 as a symbol of the uncertainty of the market, and according to di Modica, the resilience of Americans in the face of that. Yet over time it has of course come to serve as the unofficial symbol of Wall Street, one opposed by the Occupy protests and encampments after the latest economic crisis in 2008.

Though designed by a high-powered New York advertising agency to promote an investment firm, Fearless Girl took on new meaning with its placement just after the Women’s March in Washington DC., and the day before the Women’s Strike on International Women’s Day, 2017. Amidst the ever-growing revelations about sexual harassment and assault common in all corners of our society, the statue is bound to take on new meaning for those who encounter it on the street.

The irony that Charging Bull was placed, unauthorized, as a symbol highlighting the problems of Wall Street, while Fearless Girl was designed by an advertising agency to promote an investment company (the Museum’s signage suggests incorrectly it was “unauthorized”) is left unaddressed. Unfortunately, there are many such examples where the exhibit shows us the history but fails to give context and background. But its overall scope and content nonetheless exposes visitors to a wide array of public art, and invites them to continue the conversation after they’ve left the museum.

Visitors are greeted with two walls of timelines, images, and the introductory film, a detailed overview of public art in New York City since the 1960s. Before then, "public art" in the city was mainly embedded in the architecture. By the 1960s, most architecture had lost this element. Mayor Wagner attempted to bring it back by encouraging the incorporation of art into city building with a zoning resolution that encouraged developers to incorporate public plazas into commercial and residential developments. By 1967, Mayor Lindsay employed Doris Freedman as the city’s first Cultural Affairs Commissioner, and by 1968 New York hosted its first special exhibition in a public park. But it would take nearly 15 more years before the city put serious public money into funding public art. In the early days of the fiscal crisis, Freedman wrote legislation requiring the city to include money for public art in government building projects. The legislation languished until 1982 when the City Council and Mayor Ed Koch signed it into law, requiring one percent of the budget for all city-funded construction projects be set aside for the purpose.

The nonprofit organization Freedman founded in part to campaign for this legislation and promote public art more generally, Public Art Fund, came out of the merger of the Public arts Council and City Walls Inc. in 1977. In the meantime, other arts organizations pushed art into public spaces. The venerable Creative Time was formed in 1973 and the Department of Sanitation created a position for an unpaid Artist-in-Residency in 1977.

The exhibit's second room offers a more in-depth look at a selected group of shows, complete with artifacts and longer explanations. Visitors are given the chance to relive, or view for the first time, some of New York City’s most famous public artwork. In taking the unusual step of bringing public art from their open spaces to the confines of a museum, MCNY has made it possible to see many exhibits that are long gone. Most carry a relevance that still makes them feel fresh.

The curated tour begins with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Artist-In-Residence at the Department of Sanitation. Visitors are introduced to “Touch Sanitation,” a performance project in which the artist spent a year meeting over 8500 employees in the Department, shaking their hands and thanking them for work that keeps New York City functioning.

A major exhibit of Ukeles's work opened a year ago at the Queens Museum, emphasizuig her focus on “the role of women in society, cultures of work and labor, and urban and community resilience.” Here at MCNY visitors can gain a glimpse of this work from a short video. Ukeles follows trash collectors around NYC, mirroring their motions, talking with them about their labor, and transforming it into a kind of modern dance. The exhibit allows visitors to see the essential role of maintenance in the functioning of NYC and to bring appreciation to the labor of an otherwise marginalized group of workers.

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Labor of another kind was one of the central themes of Kara Walker’s hit show in 2014 “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” With the closing of the Domino Sugar Factory on the shores of the East River in Brooklyn (at one time the largest sugar refinery in the world), Walker took the opportunity to highlight the slave labor that was central to the sugar trade. With a giant figure coated in sugar siting Sphinx-like at the center of the exhibit, “Sugar Baby” was surrounded by life size figures of slave children. Some cast entirely from sugar, they melted in the heat of the summer and became sticky pools on the floor of the old refinery. If you missed that show, you can glimpse it here, as one of the figures, cast from polystyrene and coated in a sugar mixture, is on display.

Wheat was the crop of choice for Agnes Denes's famous exhibit of 1982. Blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center towers, Denes planted a two-acre wheat field, allowing it to grow for three and a half months until harvesting it in mid-August. “All those Manhattanites who had been watching the field grow from green to golden amber," Denes writes, "the stockbrokers and economists, office workers and others attracted by all the media coverage stood around in sad silence. Some cried… Everyone was terribly moved.” Instead of an art object that could easily be found in a museum, simply moved outside, Denes had created a site-specific work of art that grew and changed over time. She harvested almost 1000 pounds of wheat from the site, eventually bringing the seeds on tour to dozens of cities where she handed out the seeds to be taken and planted around the world.

"Art in the Open" features nearly a dozen other projects. Some are temporary installations, like the recent exhibit in Brooklyn of “The Truth is I See You.” Others can still be seen around the city, like the short animated film presented to passengers on the B and Q trains just before crossing over the Manhattan bridge to Brooklyn. (The Museum encourages visitors to go back out and visit sites with “Go See It!” stickers, currently on display around the city.) Still others are ongoing ventures, like the Laundromat Project, which in 2006 sponsored “Drawing Cart.” (Set up outside his local laundromat, Harlem artist Rudy Shepard had passers-by stop and draw with him.)

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With limited space and fifty years to cover, many of the displays suffer a similar fate as the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl, missing deeper context, reception and changing meaning. The exhibit takes an appreciably broad view of public art; noting, for example, when the MTA began to regulate subway performers (1985) via Arts for Transit. But there is no commentary of who gets to decide what is art and when and where it can exist. We learn that in 1989, for instance, a new program, Public Art for Public Schools, was created by the Department of Education to promote arts education and bring art into schools. But we are given few insights into what this program entailed. We learn that 1992 saw the birth of Poetry in Motion, a program that brings poetry onto MTA trains, inaugurated with an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," by New York City's bard king, Walt Whitman. Since then MTA trains have featured over 200 poems. But who decides?

Even so, the exhibit more than achieves its goal of presenting “works that have transformed both the public spaces of the city as well as public expectation of the role and potential of art that exists outside of the traditional confines of museums and galleries.” "Art in the Open" functions as a resounding call for more public art and a historical defense of funding for such art. It is also a treasure trove for what might replace those statues, which are perhaps better suited for a history museum — indoors.

Erik Wallenberg is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Graduate Center and teaches at Brooklyn College. His dissertation examines radical theater groups and performances dealing with environmental concerns in the twentieth century U.S.