Essays

Lessons from 30 Years of NYC’s Percent for Art Program

Jorge Luis Rodriguez and NYC Mayor Ed Koch at the dedication ceremony of "Growth" in 1985 (photo courtesy the artist)
Jorge Luis Rodriguez and NYC Mayor Ed Koch at the dedication ceremony of “Growth” in 1985 (photo courtesy the artist)

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Jorge Luis Rodriguez’s “Growth” and the public art program that initiated its creation. “Growth” was the first project completed under the auspices of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs’ (DCLA) Percent for Art program (PFA). Growing out of the cobblestones of East Harlem Artpark on Manhattan’s East 120th Street, its image now serves as the program’s logo — and fittingly so, as the harmony of its design with the daily activities of the neighborhood comes as close as any project has to what the program’s founders had in mind.

PFA’s near flawless relationship with the public (more on that qualifier in a moment) was challenged a few months ago when a torrent of social media responses to an online presentation of sculptor Ohad Meromi’s “Sunbather,” proposed for Long Island City’s Jackson Avenue, migrated from the blogosphere to the community and subsequently to City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer. The result was the only amendment ever made to the original 1982 law. Drafted by Van Bramer and current DCLA Director Tom Finkelpearl (who directed PFA for six years in the ‘90s, and whose current office oversees the program), it passed the City Council last month, adding a public meeting early in a PFA project’s design process and other enhancements to the advertising of hearings.

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

Following a trend that began in 1959 in Philadelphia, the creation of New York’s PFA program required patience and persistence. Introduced as a sketch by Mayor Robert Wagner in 1965 and developed sometime later into a bill that, to no one’s surprise, sat idle during the fiscal mess of the mid-’70s, the Percent for Art program finally garnered the necessary council votes in 1982 (and soon after inspired a number of other local and state agencies). No controversies marred the creation of Rodriguez’s “Growth,” or the 300 other projects that have been completed since 1985 — with one notable donnybrook in 1991 that ended in the removal of John Ahearn’s bronze figures from a site in the South Bronx.

John Ahearn's South Bronx bronzes (photo by Tom Finkelpearl, courtesy Department of Cultural Affairs) (click to enlarge)
John Ahearn’s South Bronx bronzes (photo by Tom Finkelpearl, courtesy NYC Department of Cultural Affairs) (click to enlarge)

What was so troubling about the Ahearn episode was that the artist and PFA had followed established protocols to the letter. Too much space would be taken here to list which agencies and community representatives had approved Ahearn’s design over its six-year gestation. Yet the day the sculptures were installed, the people who actually lived nearby complained so emphatically that the work was removed on request by the artist before the week was out. His imagery was judged demeaning and racist. Ahearn and the PFA program staff were genuinely shocked at the response. Somewhere in what seemed a soundly formulated, if not overly cautious process, a giant miscalculation had been made. Considered an anomaly at the time, the incident did not prompt any changes to PFA’s design development process.

Though the “Sunbather” dustup is not burdened by anything as personal as the ethnic undercurrents exposed during the Ahearn affair, a PFA project has once again brought the program to the barricades of public disapproval. A post online of the artist’s rendering of the proposed sculpture was met with a flood of blog posts ranging (as blog posts tend to range) from articulate outrage to sophomoric sarcasm. Predictably, some hated the way it looked. Many others resented the half-a-million-dollar price tag. “Why not a piece of performance art, where they throw $450,000 directly into a toilet, instead?” read one comment. Another characterized the piece as “an enormous pink bowel movement.” Local issues were raised: “This money could have gone to completing the still unfinished (for years now) Hunters Point Library”; “My kid goes to the local school in LIC and they don’t have art in school. That money could have employed several art teachers and provide supplies for the kids, rather than have parents and teachers pay out of pocket.” Aside from a few too many references to poop, most sentiments were firmly grounded in community concerns.

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)

According to Ryan Max of the PFA press office, Meromi has taken the criticism seriously, making personal appearances at no fewer than three public meetings about the proposed sculpture, including a reportedly well-attended town hall gathering at nearby MoMA PS1. Max further offered that “’Sunbather’ is still going through the Percent for Art design process and will be presented to the Public Design Commission for preliminary review later this year. Percent artists refine their proposals between conceptual and preliminary review based on feedback from the community and other stakeholders.” It will be interesting to see how or even whether Meromi’s final work will reflect concessions to any of the complaints leveled at it.

Richard Serra, "Tilted Arc" (1981) (image via Wikipedia)
Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc” (1981) (image via Wikipedia)

The changes recently made to the law imply that the PFA and other local officials interpret the problem as one that could be corrected by more effective public exposure to future proposed projects, an interpretation that assumes — portentously, considering the Ahearn case and others outside the purview of PFA — that the public can always be persuaded into accepting the will of an artist. That argument was made often and eloquently by a small army of supporters during the “Tilted Arc” (1981) hearings, and yet “Tilted Arc” is no more. The federal office of the General Services Administration had it removed in 1989 — or destroyed, as its creator, Richard Serra, more accurately characterized the action.

It bears noting that the “Tilted Arc” chapter is not the whole story of public art projects stirring up trouble. Carl Andre’s “Stone Field Sculpture” in Hartford, Connecticut, caused such an outcry of public disapproval following its installation that it is remembered by some as the Great Art Debate of 1977. Protestors had trouble reconciling the materials — large boulders in neat rows — with the cost of the project, which personally netted Andre about $87,000. The sculpture prevailed, due in no small part to the fact that its funding came from the private Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the National Endowment for the Arts, not local tax revenue. Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris was not as lucky. He had to sue the Veterans Administration in 1982 for expenses he incurred while fulfilling his obligations as the contracted artist to design a sculpture for one of their hospitals. Apparently the art committee was surprised to learn months into the contract that Morris planned to use the two surviving steel casings of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the sculpture.

Though unique in significant ways, each example reveals the hazards of placing confidence in the outstanding reputation of an artist, and in the notion that all it takes for the public to accept assertions by the avant-garde is time and patience. New York’s PFA design process, though cautious to a fault, shares a similarly optimistic belief that public resistance is never permanent. It is as if one of public art’s undervalued and poorly recognized functions is to test the idea that no matter how negatively people perceive a work of art at first, they will in due course acquiesce. Public response to public art remains the last challenge to this irrational yet firmly held article of faith.

Throughout this latest debate, Ohad Meromi has maintained a respectful and modestly independent attitude. He told Hyperallergic that the proposal published online, the one that instigated all the noise, “was abandoned a while ago for a slightly more horizontal version.” He is currently “working on the full-scale figure, giving much consideration to the surface and details,” adding further that, “It’s been hard to work in this atmosphere, but as this is a public piece and these are public funds, I am accepting this as part of the process. And I am still very excited to be making it.”

Jorge Luis Rodriguez’s “Growth” (photo courtesy the artist)
Jorge Luis Rodriguez’s “Growth” (photo courtesy the artist)

PFA is currently working on 80 new projects. Last weekend they dedicated an hour or so to a ceremony at Harlem Artpark to mark both the installation of Jorge Luis Rodriguez’s “Growth” and the beginning of the program’s extraordinary contribution to art in New York City. In recognition of his symbolic position in that history, Rodriguez was invited to install a temporary piece in Tompkins Square Park that will remain there until next May. John Ahearn’s removed bronzes currently stand just inside the entrance to Socrates Sculpture Park, where one can assess in less fraught circumstances what may have caused the residents of a South Bronx neighborhood to find them offensive. And we will all get to see the final version of “Sunbather” on Jackson Avenue in spring 2016 — as well as how the neighbors respond.

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