Critics Blast New Forms of Public Art as It Goes Mainstream

15 High Line - Publc Art

Street and public art is having a heyday here and abroad, thriving in once-desolate parts of cities. And while it’s exciting to see an art form that harkens back millennia to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, there’s a question of whether its power and its artists are being coopted by gentrification.

New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz is quoted in Vulture as saying he worries that the cultural forces responsible for “something like a new golden age of public art,” also support soulless and synthetic art and architecture that he loathes. And UK curator and author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, Rafael Schäcter, prompted a flurry of discussion last month on the site The Conversation when he claimed that street art has moved from “dissident to decorative,” and sold out.

Schäcter explained in his piece, “Street art—as well as its artistic forebear graffiti—are often thought of as radical, rebellious aesthetic practices. Both the artists and their works are portrayed as the very definition of “edgy”; dangerous and dissident, but also creative and avant-garde. Yet within the last five years or so, street art…has been commandeered by the corporate interests of the ‘creative city’.”

Schäcter describes the creative city doctrine as “one in which public space is privatized and monetized.” City authorities in these cases look to “draw the emerging creative class to their sites” by marking themselves out “visually and recreationally to entice the key demographic of well-educated professionals and ‘bohemians’ (the coders, the designers, the “knowledge-based” professionals) who form the basis for a post-industrial economy.”

At or near the top of Saltz’s list of offenses in New York City is the High Line project, which he calls “that stretch of elevated rail lines strung through the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and the Hudson Yards, refurbished with private money a dozen years ago as the spine of the massive luxury redevelopment of each of those neighborhoods.” The mile-long public park, which snakes over and across a section of New York has, since it opened in June 2009, “had more than 27 million visitors.” And with annual attendance in excess of 6 million, it’s more popular than the city’s Museum of Modern Art or Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now developers have even more ambitious projects for art and entertainment centers to construct at either end of the High Line—Pier 55, at the southern end of the High Line, and the even bigger Culture Shed, at the northern one.

Saltz is not at all a fan, and he can envision problems of epic scale for these centers, the larger of which he calls a behemoth projected to cover 200,000 square feet (roughly the size of 3.5 NFL football fields). “The hubris of all this will be how costly these spaces are to build and maintain—predicated as they are on the belief that there will always be enough money for crews and equipment to come in at night and restore them for the next day’s audiences and merrymakers,” Saltz said. “It’s fitting that when this cycle of abundance recedes, these caprices may become the very “ruins” that inspired them.”

Saltz envisions the following dilemma: having new opportunities for putting art in the public sphere is good, but the creation of environments that mix experiencing art with planned programming and entertainment may change the dynamic in ways that aren’t beneficial.

He sees the High Line as a “harbinger of a bad pathogen now transforming public space into fussy, extra-busy, overdesigned, high-maintenance mannered playgrounds, curated experiences, and crowd-pleasing spectacles.” He admits that the “semi-privatization of public space has produced some of the best public art the city has seen in decades,” but at the same time he worries that “the money people who make major projects happen” are too interconnected.”

For his part, Schäcter believes this “transformation is due, in part, to the steady rise of the street-art festival. From Miami to Manila, these festivals have given institutions a way to establish the ultimate delivery system for creative city policies. They make and market “place”, turning physical space into a branded commodity. The “edgy authenticity” of street art makes it the ideal fit for this task: it is just perfectly, marvelously edgy enough.”

He continues,

“Much of the street art pumped out through the festival apparatus provides an aesthetic of transgression, while remaining perfectly numb to the social realities of its setting, treating public space like a blank canvas, rather than a site already loaded with cultural, historical and personal significance.

“It appears political while in fact being perfectly non-partisan. It performs a charade of rebellion and insurgence, while being officially sanctioned by commission and invitation.”

It’s not hard to see just how mainstream “street art” has come. One has only to look to Madison Avenue, which has just come up with an Instagram campaign for the color-trend-setting company Pantone. To gain consumer awareness for its #ColorOfTheYear (actually two colors this year), it’s having street artists “with large social followings in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami” create art installations to “showcase the colors’ harmony and their dominance in fashion, art and design.”

And in Toronto, a children’s art studio just announced it will be offering “Express Yo Self,” graffiti classes for kids, to introduce them to street-art techniques. Purists will certainly find this unsettling.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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Art for Public Spaces: Isabelle Garbani

Isabelle Garbani, is an emerging artist who lives and works in Brooklyn,
NY

1. When did you get your first opportunity to do a public installation, and what was the objective?

My first opportunity was with a non-profit group called Figment, for
their sculpture garden on Governors Island in New York City.

Their objective is to make art more accessible to the general public,
and they work very hard to make that happen every summer.

I share a lot of their philosophy about art: it should be free and
accessible to all, and engage the public in a non-intimidating way.
My exhibit called Knit for Trees was entirely made with plastic from
recycled bags, and wrapped trees in tree “sweaters”.

Every weekend, I set up a knitting circle and invited park visitors to
knit with me or learn how to knit. The panels created during the
summer were added to the installation, which kept growing over time.

2. What permissions, specific guidelines do you need to have work in a
public space?

I generally work with larger groups (a city commission, or a non-profit
art group) so all the permits and publicity is taken care of in advance
of the work being installed.

As a one person operation, I find it more manageable to go that route
because it allows me to concentrate on the work without having to do
any paperwork.

When my career is further along, and I can see having folks working
with me, then I can start thinking about finding more specific sites
and asking for permits.

3. Are there safety or aesthetic considerations that influence this
type of work?

Safety is always an issue with public art: both for the public and for
the art!

The work must be sound and be able to withstand un-monitored pedestrian
high traffic.

There’s always some risks that the artist must take because of that,
and a certain amount of letting go, because one cannot control all
events.

I have had one installation vandalized in the past, which is
heart-breaking, but is part of having art in the public realm

4. How is it different for you as an artist to do these types of
installations?

The main reason I chose to go to public art is that I wanted to avoid
going the gallery route.

Galleries cater to a very specific clientele, which I feel is limited,
and I wanted my art to be visible to more people.

I spend a lot of time sending proposals which tend to be site specific,
and those can take a lot of time to put together.

I am however getting better at it!

Isabelle Garbani has had exhibitions at Payne Gallery in PA, Figureworks Gallery in Brooklyn, the New York Academy of Art and the Benrimon Gallery in New York City. She had her first solo exhibit in 2008 at the Earlville Opera House and her second in 2011 at her gallery, BoxHeart Gallery in Pittsburgh.

Her work from the 2010 show Single Fare was shown in the New York
Times. In 2011, she completed the public installations Knit for Trees
on Governors Island in New York City, and Forces of Nature for the
Sculpture Center in Vermont. She has recently returned from Taiwan
where she participated in the 2012 Cheng Long Environmental Art Project
with the installation Invasive Species.

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