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Topical Tuesday: What Happens When Public Art Is Not Publicly Lauded?

Public outcry in New York City is generally directed more toward pedestrian concerns affecting personal budgets, such as the MTA fare hike, but when it touches on the arts, particularly public art, you know you’re in for a long fight.


Local Project, an art mainstay in Long Island City

Local Project, an art mainstay in Long Island City


Nowhere is this more apparent that in Long Island City, with the current debate over Ohad Meromi’s public sculpture Sunbather. The sculpture, intended for the intersection at 43rd Street and Jackson Ave in Long Island City, has raised some dissident voices who adamantly protest the size and color of the reclining figure. The precedent looms for outcry against art projects intended for public spaces: most notably, that fierce battle in 1991, John Ahearn vs. (most of) the South Bronx with regards to his doomed 44th police precinct sculptures, which saw the artworks’ removal. The ambivalently received images Ahearn created (one sculpture depicted a Bronx resident wielding a boombox) seemed to be out of sync with how the community viewed itself and how it wished to be represented, especially at a police precinct of all places.

When art and public intersect for better, great things happen, but when they lock horns it makes for an ugly sight.


Meromi Installation Shot-web_620_620

work by artist Ohad Meromi for Art in General, installation view (Meromi’s sculpture is being scrutinized for Long Island City)


Speaking of ugly sites, one major complaint about Meromi’s sculpture, a monumental abstracted reclining female figure over 10 feet tall and colored bright pink, is its location at a traffic intersection. The argument goes that drivers and pedestrians may be blinded by the figure and be distracted at the intersection, causing potential injury. Maybe a traffic intersection is not the best place for a large bright object of any kind, but this journalist for one doubts that had the sculpture been propositioned for a quiet clearing in a waterfront park that it would have any less controversy surrounding it. Generally speaking, publics prefer art that is harmonious with the environment, that won’t cause any significant change or disruption (a la Tilted Arc by Richard Serra) to their daily routines and that they deem beautifies their neighborhoods. And rightly so–who has more say in how their community expresses itself than the members of the community themselves? That being said, it is worth considering where the true impetus lies for protesting this piece. Is a grand, larger-than-life figure in pernicious pink the true culprit? Or is it the perceived slight suffered by Long Island City residents who weren’t ‘in’ on it from the beginning?


Long Island City Councilman and Cultural Affairs Chair Jimmy Van Bramer (courtesy Councilman's website)

Long Island City Councilman and Cultural Affairs Chair Jimmy Van Bramer (courtesy Councilman’s website)

Percent for Art is a Cultural Affairs program which ensures that 1% of the entire City budget is used for public art in the city of New York, controls art sites around the City and commissions artwork for these sites. Two major figures weighing in on arts & culture, LIC Councilman & Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs Jimmy van Bramer and DCA Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, have worked to draft and will put forward legislation including community hearings at the early stages of public art proposals. It goes without saying that this measure is long overdue, as Percent for Art has run its own show since 1982. But how much transparency is needed, or even asked for? Will community members have the right to veto public art placed in their neighborhoods? Will the process involved multiple reviews that will become costly and onerous for the City? Only time will tell, but one thing stays certain: if community residents are not allowed the chance to review and voice their opinions on works placed within their neighborhoods, we can expect continued and likely escalating public brawls over art on the public malls for a long time to come.


Articles reviewed for this opinion piece include the NY Times’ After Outcry Over Pink Sculpture, Queens Councilman Wants Public Hearing on Art Plans (Kirk Semple, 3/29/15) and the Gotham Gazette’s Is Public Art for the Public?  (Jonathan Mandell, 5/6/2005).

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