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Anonymous artwork on Jackson Avenue protesting Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather” (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

An anonymous work of protest art appeared on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City on Wednesday morning, but unlike much of the protest art that has been seen on the streets of US cities lately, this one targeted a very local and specific issue: another work of public art.

The piece was a response to the $450,000 commission awarded to Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based artist Ohad Meromi for his sculpture “The Sunbather” by a panel picked by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). The anonymous plywood sculpture, which loosely resembled two connected triangles, one tall and narrow and a second long and low, was roughly the same dimensions as the proposed proportions of “The Sunbather.” The piece was sprayed psychedelically with swirling, vibrant colors and covered with hearts and bubbles, a possible parody of the bright pink hue of “The Sunbather.” The protest sculpture was placed in front of the Court Square Diner on Jackson Avenue, possibly due to its proximity to MoMA PS1.

Detail of artwork on Jackson Avenue protesting Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather” (click to enlarge)

A statement outlining the unknown artist’s grievances was written in black magic marker on a plank of wood left leaning against the sculpture: “This sculpture is in protest of the spending of $450,000 on a sculpture to be placed on Jackson Ave. in Long Island City. This is not against the artist. It is against the misuse of our TAX DOLLARS. It cost $350 Dollars to make this sculpture which we are donating to Long Island City and there are many local artists that would do the same so this money could be spent on something constructive like EDUCATION… #streetArt” A five dollars bill was wheatpasted to the bottom of the message.

“The Sunbather” has been at the center of local controversy as members of Community Board 2 seem dismayed by the DCA panel’s choice, Christian Murray reported in the Long Island City Post. One CB2 member questioned why a Long Island City artist, who might have knowledge of the area, had not been selected for the commission.

“I personally do like the art,” another CB2 member, Moitri Chowdhury Savard, said according to the Queens Courier. “But I think the bright pink color and the size of it has been brought up by many residents of the community as too much for the area. I think it might be a little too much for a lot of the residents there.”

The DCA, through its Percent for Art initiative, is on track to install the sculpture within the next 18 months on the grass median at the crosswalk near the intersection of Jackson Avenue and 43rd Avenue. According to the DCA, the 19-member panel that selected “The Sunbather” included voting and adisory representatives from the Queens Borough President’s office, CB2, the office of the local city councilor, local organizations, and a number of city agencies.

Rendering of Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather” (screenshot of the artist’s proposal)

Lisa Deller, head of CB2’s Land Use Committee, appeared to disagree at a recent meeting when she said, “Everyone at this [Community Board] table feels surprised that this [selection process] has been going on for a long time and we have not had any input and that at the last moment they are coming in and showing us what is going there. It is very dis-empowering.”

As the LIC Post reported, another board member added, “with art some people love it, some people hate it… but this looks like you dug up Gumby’s grandmother and threw it on the median.”

Correction, 12/15: An earlier version of this article claimed that “The Sunbather” had been selected by a three-person panel, as was reported by the Long Island City Post. The panel that selected “The Sunbather” was actually composed of 19 members.

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6 replies on “Guerilla Sculpture Critiques Big-Budget Public Art Commission”

  1. This is an interesting article. At first glance it looks like a local artist or group of artists protesting an outsider coming in and getting the money and making a work of art that is out of tune with the community. But after examination it appears that this protest piece is anti-art and anti-artist. Whoever they are, they are protesting an artist getting paid for his work. They seem to suggest that artists should just work for free and art is a waste of time, as compared to education.
    The more I look at it the more right-wing and crazy it seems. It would be more legitimate to critique the work of art for being bad or inappropriate but to just suggest that art is not constructive and should be made out of plywood for free seems a bit draconian.

  2. In my experience successful public art projects are ALL about the process. If the community is engaged in a substantive way, the selected pieces are, by and large, embraced and even protected by the community. Whatever sculpture or installation results, the work and, even the artist, is secondary to the process by which they were selected. Some steps may have been missed here. And, yes, I agree, the protest is anti-art. Artists matter. paying artists matters. Public art matters.

  3. I am going to start a protest against the roaches! Oh and also against lions not being vegetarian! And against the moon because it needs to be full more days during the year!

  4. Do you honestly think $450,000 is a reasonable figure for a local council to spend on a single piece of public art?
    The value of the art is of course up for debate, the cost, however, is not.
    Since it is the taxpayer who must bear the burden of this cost (perhaps take a brief moment to think how many school textbooks this figure could have bought), I feel that it shows a significant lack of respect for the local community – many of whom will be completely unimpressed by the artist’s supposed status anyway.
    Undoubtedly, there is a place for council funded public art, in fact, it’s something that I consider to be very important for inspiring people in their daily lives, the psychological benefits must surely be quite high indeed. What there is no place for, though, is the gross mismanagement of taxpayer money.
    To reiterate: $450,000 for one piece of public art.
    I get the idea that 50 grand a piece for 9 local artists might have offered somewhat better value for money.

    1. $450000 does sound like a good bit. It is a goodly amount but a permanent bronze of this size is extremely expensive. Plus it is not for one guy. This is a team. It is basically like hiring a company or corporation to do this work. Look at how much traffic lights cost. Or pouring new sidewalks or building a small building. We get into the tens of millions quickly. Once you have some perspective on how much a city spends on building a guardrail then $450000 for a bronze sculpture does not seem that much. You also have to realize that the money for this is coming out of the 1% fund. That just says that the city should spend 1% of its money on art. That is compared to 5% on tree pruning and 10% on toilet paper for city hall.*
      In some ways it is sad and pathetic that of all spending an entire gigantic city spends, only 1% is on art and beautifying the city. If we go down that road we get gray cinderblock cities that are only functional and lack all aesthetics.
      You can argue that this piece is blah. Or that we should spread around the money by giving a bunch of people each a tiny bit. But to make memorable works like Cloud Gate in Chicago that are great works activating a city area and drawing tourists then you need to drop some cash to one guy with a vision.

      *might not be accurate stats

  5. Large sums of money like this no longer phase me. Don’t think I work in gallery sales catering to ultra-rich collectors; I work as an artist’s assistant and art handler. It’s an oversimplification to weigh an equation between a single work of art and one artist receiving that funding.

    When people question how this much money could be spent producing a piece of public art, I doubt they get the scope of steps, materials and workers involved.

    Look at the renderings and the proposal. This piece is 15x9x9′. (The plywood in front of the diner doesn’t seem to come close.)

    It’s bronze. The materials alone will cost a ton (and probably weigh tons, too).

    Though the project is awarded to one artist, this project will pay lots of artisans/workers. Teams of highly skilled technical workers will sculpt, make molds, cast, finish, transport, and anchor and install the work using heavy rigging equipment. In fact, most business who can do this type of large scale casting have left the city, so factor in transportation costs.

    Safety and permanence: Bronzes require little to no maintenance and will last ages (literally!). Sure, you could use cheaper materials, but what you save now you may pay later when it starts to fall down, require maintenance, and become a liability.

    (The protest artists seem to not see the irony in leaving spray-painted plywood—which wouldn’t last one winter—out for sanitation workers to demolish and haul away to make a point about taxpayer money being wasted.)

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