Times Square is one of the things New Yorkers love to hate. It has come to be one of the most defining aspects of our great city but it repeals its inhabitants with the reputation of being a kitsch-filled tourist magnet with little to offer other than discount deals on Broadway shows and garish billboards that scream “BUY STUFF!” But what most people don’t think when they ponder Times Square is art, but Sherry Dobbin is working to change that.
Formerly of Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, Dobbin is currently the director of public art at Times Square Alliance, and she is responsible for presenting temporary art and performances to the 360,000 daily visitors that arrive at the hectic crossroads of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, often referred to by insiders as the “bowtie.” The fact that Times Square is the number one tourist destination in America also makes it one of the highest profile public arts spaces in the country. Dobbin has her work cut out for her. I spoke to Dobbin about what this all means.
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Hrag Vartanian: In the art world, we’re always talking about the issue of audience but in Times Square you don’t really have that problem, do you?
Sherry Dobbin: Times Square has an average of 350,000 pedestrians a day. Even when Times Square Moment, our daily digital art installation of artist video across 15 jumbotrons, runs from 11:57pm to midnight, we have approximately 15–19,000 people in the ‘bowtie.’ We are the highest [by number of individuals] US tourist destination; making us the largest public platform for leading contemporary art and performance. We will always have an audience.
What is harder to control is who may be your audience and how that audience behaves. When one is outside the traditional venues, one needs to consider how to place markers that indicate audience behavior.
… 10% of the NYC workforce is based in Times Square …
What we battle are stereotypes and misnomers. For example, while many New Yorkers claim never to come to Times Square, 10% of the NYC workforce is based in Times Square’s district. We have the busiest transport interchange. I always have asked that we consider the notion of tourists. Not only are tourists people who spent money to travel, a lot of money to stay here, and who chose to get off their sofas and away from their televisions, but they come to this spot to experience something new; they come to be surprised or shocked. They are the ideal crowd for experimental work. Forty-five percent of Times Square tourists are international, and the majority of all tourists visiting hold high-learning degrees and live in households with a combined income of $100,000 or more. So this is actually an ideal audience to introduce new work and experiences.
HV: What kind of work do you think works best in Times Square? Or do you think it’s more about the approach then the type of work?
SD: We are very interested in a larger vision of Times Square than its role with the cultural sector. As the center of NYC, we have an opportunity to be the leading platform for contemporary art and performance. As a cultural hub, we can promote the work of the artist, the cultural partner, and draw from the diverse audience. Artists need to consider scale, duration, and participation as no other traditional or outdoor venue. Each project needs to appreciate and respect the environment and the performative aspect of each project, regardless of the art form. The screens surround the audience and therefore behaves like an installation more than a screening; the installation of a sculptural form is on view; the performance needs to accept the involuntary performers of the pedestrians in the plazas. The artist can never control the space; they can set frames, platforms, and vistas and present work that participates in the landscape.
HV: Have there been any surprises working in Times Square? Have any of your perceptions of the space and how it is used changed?
SD: Everyday is a surprise in Times Square. When we did the “Agoraphobia” piece, we had several surprise visitors and participants: Black Israelites, prophets, Miss Kitty, Batman, the Asian Grandpa version of Naked Cowboy, Elmo, and Catwoman.
I have always know traditional text-based work doesn’t work; scale can be grand or small but the frame or presentation has to strike a balance.
Every project teaches you a new lesson. Every time you do it. The most important lesson: no matter how much you prepare with data, you will never predict your audience. The best part of that: it is the best cross-section of global profile.
The most pleasant surprise: 19,000 people per day for “Times Square Moment” at 11:57pm.
HV: Whoa! That’s an impressive number. What do you say to people who think Times Square has become too Disneyfied? It is a constant media narrative we hear about the area.
SD: I see Times Square as a reflection of our contemporary culture. Yes it has corporations, yes it has commerce, yes it has many screens. We experience our lives on a multitude of screens everyday. Like it or not, our Western culture focuses on shopping. This is who we are. People take photos of everything. Why is a tourist taking a photo a derogatory cliche, but a New Yorker posting on Instagram not? Artists have a plethora of content if they spend time in Times Square. Every meeting I have is on the street, on the plazas and reintroducing artists to the reality of what exists so it rewrites their memory.
There are also unique and quirky venues that still exist throughout the district. I will initiate programming that will divert people across and throughout the district in search of unique and quirky experiences. Capturing Times Square is about capturing a spirit of adventure and wandering into the unknown. There is endless opportunity still within this district.
HV: You are working on a project though that will excavate some of the history of the area, correct?
SD: The pedestrian plazas have been a great hit and now in the Spring of 2013 we shall embark on permanent pedestrian plazas with graded paving that create a much more cohesive sense of open space. The end result will be a better presentation platform for the program. We will begin to cultivate ambitious bowtie-wide co-commissions. In the interim, we will have a reconstruction process that will open areas of our iconic footprint. An artist often looks, when others feel the need to turn away … that is all I am saying for now.