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New York City Bill Could Give Citizens Greater Say in Public Art Process

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

New legislation to be submitted to the New York City Council on Tuesday could bring an end to a decades-long debate surrounding democracy and public art.

According to the New York Times, Democratic City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl have drafted a bill that would let New Yorkers have a say in what public art gets commissioned through the city’s Percent for Art program. First inaugurated in 1982, the program requires that 1% of the budget of capital construction projects be used to commission and install art in squares, subways, streets, and other shared spaces. Currently, these decisions are made by a committee of city officials and local art experts behind closed doors. The law would mandate that the Cultural Affairs Department “hold one or more public hearings on such works of art” prior to including them in a project. It would also require that citizens be notified in advance through the Cultural Affairs Department website about intentions to commission a public artwork.

The bill was spurred by recent controversy in Long Island City, after the government revealed renderings of a statue by Israeli artist Ohad Meromi to be installed on the median between Jackson and 43rd Avenues (an area that Van Bramer represents). Following their release, the eight-foot-tall magenta “Sunbather” — as the artist dubbed it — became the subject of controversy, including one community board member likening it to “Gumby’s grandmother.”

Artwork on Jackson Avenue protesting Ohad Meromi's "Sunbather" (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)
Artwork on Jackson Avenue protesting Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather” (photo by Arthur Nersesian for Hyperallergic)

The artwork was selected last year from a pool of 30 finalists by a panel of four city officials, members of the Socrates Sculpture Park and Sculpture Center, and one local artist. Officials first presented the design to a representative of Long Island City Community Board’s Land Use Committee in late November, but it was kept under wraps until being officially approved — strange given its high price tag. Different figures have been quoted for the final cost of the project, but according to the LICPost, the design cost $100,000, materials $225,000, and installation $45,600. The Times quotes a final cost of $515,000, though even that would exceed the $400,000 limit the Percent for Art program is allowed to spend on any single work.

Bushwick artist Hunt Rodriguez protested the lack of transparency in the process through a guerrilla public artwork he installed on Jackson Avenue in December. It featured a sign that read:

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

Whether or not one believes public funds could be spend in better ways, public artworks commissioned by the government have often been well received in New York City (perhaps because they’re often inoffensive). They have enlivened urban spaces and hopefully enhanced people’s appreciation for art. Controversies like the pink sculpture debacle are rare, but they do cast a long shadow.

Richard Serra's 1981 sculpture "Tilted Arc" (Image via Wikipedia)
Richard Serra’s 1981 sculpture “Tilted Arc” (image via Wikipedia)

Most famously, in 1981 (just before Percent for Art began), the federal General Services Administration installed a Richard Serra sculpture outside its office in lower Manhattan. “Tilted Arc” was a curved slice of steel that stretched 12 feet high and 120 feet long, cutting through the heart of Foley Square. Less than a decade later, the government was forced to remove it because the public hated it so much — a $175,000 blunder.

Then, in 1991, three John Ahearn sculptures commissioned by Percent for Art and installed in the South Bronx drew outrage from the mostly black local community, which perceived them as racist (the journalist Jane Kramer told that compelling story in her book Whose Art Is It?). Ahearn’s sculptures cost about $100,000 and lasted only five days before they were taken down.

Van Bramer’s bill could help avoid such mishaps, which waste funds that could have been spent on enhancing public life. Though they’re few and far between, these incidents damage contemporary art’s credibility and increase the perception that it’s elitist. It’s understandably offensive to people when public works they don’t like are foisted on them in the name of an abstract concept. Van Bramer told the Times he expects the bill to “enjoy widespread support,” while City Hall Spokesperson Monica Klein said, “The administration supports efforts to increase community input and transparency in the Percent for Art program and is working closely with the Council to achieve this goal.”

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