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 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.
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.
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