New York City's Public Art Doesn't Care What You Think of It

New York City has a fraught history with the institution of public works of art. Because the art world, especially when it comes to contemporary artwork, is often seen as impenetrable by the general public, populating the city's public spaces with contemporary sculptures could be asking for dissent. But the city's Parks and Recreation department has found a way to solve the decades-long battle between the art world and the public by allowing much of the city's artwork to exist only temporarily.

A curator and the Director of Art and Antiquities in the Parks and Recreation department are responsible for the selection of a revolving door of artworks that populate New York's public spaces. They rarely, if ever, commission artists to create specific works; rather, the department accepts submissions from artists and organizations, and selected proposals are in place for a mere three to six months. In enforcing the transience of the city's outdoor installations, the department has effectively removed public opinion from the equation.

To better understand the clash between the general public and public works of art, we can look to the case of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (a piece essential to any discussion of public art in New York City). Tilted Arc was an installation commissioned by the General Services Administration in 1979 for the Foley Federal Plaza in New York City. Serra was selected for the project based on the recommendation of a panel of experts at the National Endowment for the Arts. The large steel arc he created stood at twelve feet high and 120 feet in length when it was installed in 1981.

Serra's work pitted the art world against those who lived and worked in the Plaza, who claimed it obstructed use of the space. After a four-year legal battle, Tilted Arc was removed from the Federal Plaza on the assessment that it prevented thousands of employees from moving freely through the square. The decision to remove the piece was reached despite the fact that Serra claimed that he had instituted the work based on analysis of traffic flow through the space, and that removal would destroy the site-specific sculpture. As art critic Arthur Danto later wrote, it was the "great if unsought achievement of Tilted Arc to have made vivid the truth that something may succeed as a work of art but fail as a work of public art."


As with Tilted Arc, the artworks that decorate New York City are chosen by a tiny group of people, often staffed curators. Anyone may apply to produce works for the city's public spaces, including artists who live nowhere near New York, but the ultimate selection is still made by a small number of individuals educated in art history and steeped in art world culture.

By allowing pieces to be in place only for a set amount of time, the city has hit upon a way of commissioning contemporary art, often a bastion of the elite and educated, without involving the public to any great degree. As Tara Kiernan of the Parks Department stated, her office receives "diverse reactions to our temporary exhibitions; however, this does not impact the length of stay…the temporary nature of the program allows for rotating exhibitions that will appeal to different sentiments."

This system exposes how the democratic ideal of localized discussion and resolution is vividly idealistic when it comes to aesthetic concerns; a work of art in public will never appeal to everyone who occupies that space — nor should it. The purpose of art may be yet undefined, or rather consistently re-defined, but it certainly is not to create works of synthesized general opinion. Instead, there only is time to consider how Jaehyo Lee’s Lotus looks like a large ice cream cone covered in almonds before it is replaced by the next Union Square Park installation in October.



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Anne-Louise Brittain

Development and Editorial Associate at Lapham's Quarterly, a not-for-profit history and ideas publication on topics ranging from Food to Family to Politics and everything in-between.

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