Last month, a large-scale public art exhibition opened quietly in Atlantic City. With commissioned pieces by Kiki Smith, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Robert Barry, and John Roloff, Artlantic, despite its silly-sounding name, boasts an impressive lineup of artists. Now the question is how to get the art world, as well as tourists, to take notice.
“How do you reconcile Atlantic City’s reputation with a world-class art show?” mused the project’s curator, Lance Fung, at a press luncheon in Miami last week. Fung spoke passionately and at length about Artlantic, explaining that he had been uncertain about it at first and had wondered whether it was an appropriate project for him — whether he would have full curatorial freedom and what the value would be for participating artists. It seems likely that the words “Atlantic City” initially conjured for him what they do for many people: gambling and casinos.
In fact, the casinos are on board with the project, having contributed a substantial amount of money to the $3-million-a-year budget for the next five years. Perhaps they realize that gambling isn’t the draw that it used to be, even before Hurricane Sandy battered the city with records levels of flooding. “The city needs to migrate from being a gaming destination back to a tourist destination,” said Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, at the Miami lunch.
The goal, then, is to revitalize the boardwalk and create a tourist destination partly through the help of Artlantic, which will roll out a new installation curated by Fung every year. The first show, titled Wonder, takes place on two large, green sites along the Atlantic City boardwalk, designed by Fung in collaboration with two landscape architecture firms. The bigger of the two, which spans 17 acres, contains the Barry, Smith, and Kabakov installations, and the smaller, an 8,500-square-foot site a few blocks away, features the Roloff piece. All of the works are site-specific commissions, which Fung said was an essential criterium for him (rather than just borrowing or buying previous pieces). He also stressed the framing of Artlantic as an exhibition rather than a public art park: “I do not pick public artists for my show,” he said. “I pick artists and ask them to do something public.”
However you classify it, Wonder is exciting not least because it represents the Kabakovs’ first public art commission in the US. Their contribution is “Devil’s Rage,” a large pirate ship that Fung explained represents greed, in reference to the nearby casinos and gambling, but also a journey, a “rising ship” in the process of being discovered. Smith contribued “Her,” a life-size version of a bronze sculpture in the artist’s personal garden, which shows a woman hugging a deer; at Artlantic, the sculpture is surrounded by an all red garden, which, according to Fung, Smith has wanted to create for a while, in honor of her sister who died of AIDS. Barry’s installation consists of brightly colored, illuminated words, which relate to the “cacophony of signage” in Atlantic City, and Roloff, whom Fung called an “unsung hero in the art world,” was given a whole site on which to make “Étude Atlantis,” an installation of spiraling, black, white, and gray lines that will host performances and public events.
Both Cartmell and Fung spoke about how important it’s been to involve the Atlantic City community in the process, and their desire to create, for locals, a green, public space, of which there are few in town. And although they agreed on the desired effect of Artlantic — rebranding, revitalization — the one point on which they differed was how to bring about that result, as well as the possible hazards involved. “Today is a great example of what the arts can do,” Cartmell said, referring to Art Basel and its attendant fairs’ yearly invasion of Miami Beach. But Fung seemed more appropriately wary of the city trying to just create and plunk down an arts district out of nowhere. You can’t expect art to save the city, he said, or you end up exploiting artists and gentrifying the place. “We want to do things in a holistic way,” he said — not the Art Basel way.
Artlantic: Wonder is now open to the public and on view in Atlantic City. More information can be found here.