One of the few public art works in Morningside Park: the Carl Schurz memorial. Photo by Dave Pelland via Flickr.

One of the few public artworks in Morningside Park: the Carl Schurz memorial (photo by Dave Pelland/Flickr)

The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance has ambitious plans for a new program of public art to commence in 2016 with works primarily situated in Marcus Garvey Park and other public spaces in east and central Harlem — an endeavor that will involve several museums, advocacy groups, community collectives, and public arts organizations.

Connie Lee, president of the Alliance’s board, says the institution is in the early stages of establishing collaborations with the Studio Museum in HarlemArt in Flux Harlem, the West Harlem Art Fund, and potentially, El Museo del Barrio. The Alliance’s focus is on creating arts and culture programming. So far, the organization plans to install a sculpture, a “DNA Totem,” by the artist Suprina in Marcus Garvey Park in March of 2016. It worked with Suprina, writing letters to support her grant application, securing private funds to create the work, and promising to provide insurance for the piece. In earlier conversations, the Studio Museum has proposed placing a piece of public art at each of the four historic parks: Jackie Robinson Park, Marcus Garvey Park, Morningside Park, and St. Nicholas Park. The expanded vision Lee articulates includes adding public art to the East Harlem Art Park, Park Avenue under the elevated train, and the Lenox Avenue meridian.

Lee says there are three main objectives the partnership aims to fulfill:

  1. More fully connect local institutions to the communities around them.
  2. Give local artists access to wider audiences, while giving international artists access to Harlem communities.
  3. Activate public spaces to make them more meaningful to the community.

The city’s Department of Planning’s comprehensive report on key community issues that affect Harlem, the East Harlem Neighborhood Study includes community “visioning sessions,” the results of which will inform the Alliance’s efforts. The study addressed ideas and initiatives regarding wellness, infrastructure, economic development, and workforce. Lee sees this moment in Harlem’s development, as it becomes gentrified and the residential profile evolves, as a crucial time. She says, “when neighborhoods are changing, that’s the opportunity to make sure they change in a way that’s inclusive.”

The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, operating with an all-volunteer staff, has consistently been instrumental in supporting the cause of public art in Harlem. It was formed in 2000 to “take back” the park from illegal activities that were preventing people in the community from enjoying the park and fully utilizing its resources. By 2010, they had raised enough funding, largely through a million-dollar donation of by the Richard Rogers family, to restore the amphitheater. Since then, the Alliance has collaborated with the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation to allocate funds for re-greening and revitalizing the park, and added two free libraries.

The Alliance sees its role in this initiative as an organizer and facilitator, helping artists in practical ways by acting as the insurer for their work, and acting as a liaison with the city, shepherding groups through the Parks Department application processes. If the Alliance is successful, by this time next year the communities of east and central Harlem will have a great deal more public art in their neighborhood to interact with and more public programs to explore.

Editor’s note: Subsequent to this article being posted, the writer and Hyperallergic were contacted by Connie Lee, president of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, who requested that certain clarifications be made. The article has been revised to reflect her suggestions. 

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...