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N.Y.'s museums without walls

Art exhibitions increasingly are filling outdoor spaces in the Big Apple, giving their visitors carefully curated open-air experiences.

June 26, 2011|Jori Finkel

NEW YORK — Few sculptures by Sol LeWitt actually resemble skyscrapers. But by installing 27 works by the artist in City Hall Park, in view of the lower Manhattan skyline, the Public Art Fund has put LeWitt's art into a playful and powerful dialogue with the city's architecture.

Here, a pared sculpture of a white cube looks like some sort of building block or else the grid of a window. A pyramid form that might in a museum seem a celebration of art for art's sake seems more like an elegant real-estate solution. Even a more organic structure, the colorful cascading-form "Splotch 15" from 2005 that greets visitors at the southern entrance of the park like a fountain frozen midsurge, bears a jolting similarity to the cathedral-like Woolworth Building, visible a block away.

This is not the only ambitious public art project -- make that public art exhibition -- in New York these days. On Governors Island, a short ferry ride from lower Manhattan, the Storm King Art Center has installed 11 steel Mark di Suvero sculptures in sites like picnic areas.

One highlight, called "She," is a massive, steel-beam sculpture made more intimate by a swing that visitors can use while enjoying the ocean breeze and a view of the Statue of Liberty.

Two years ago, this 172-acre island -- a defunct military base that has been transformed into a recreational destination -- hosted a more experimental group show. Organized by Creative Time, "Plot '09" featured videos, installations and other works designed in their lingo to "activate" the island's historic buildings, including Army barracks and a defunct movie theater.

These exhibitions represent the latest wave in public art in New York, far from the classic notion of plopping a bronze monument in a public square. They are more like museum shows in their scope, quality and also complexity, with a curator carefully selecting artists or artworks that speak to one another and situating the works for the sake of artistic relevance and resonance. They are also temporary like museum shows -- with Di Suvero closing end of summer and LeWitt at the end of the year.

In most cities, including Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it can be challenging for cultural producers to install a major work of art, let alone a dozen, in the public sphere. But here the public art scene benefits from having two of the most experienced nonprofits in the field and the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration.

"This is a city where in a way it's easier to do things that are big, ambitious projects than just tinker around the edges. People want to be involved with things that are exciting and making an impact," says Nicholas Baume, who became director of the Public Art Fund two years ago.

He says he brought the museum exhibition model (and his interest in LeWitt, who died in 2007) with him from his previous curatorial posts at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art in Hartford, Conn.

"I think it's fascinating to take the museum model of a curated survey or retrospective and see how that might translate into a public space," he says.

"When I started at Creative Time 15 years ago, everyone thought of public art as heroes on horseback," adds Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. "Creative Time and Public Art Fund together have done a stand-up job of expanding the notion of what public art is: places for engaging broad audiences and starting great conversations."

Baume and Pasternak both reject the notion that the organizations are archrivals, as many in the arts see them. Creative Time tends to be scrappier in style and more performance-oriented in content. But they share similar missions of bringing serious contemporary art to the public, free. And, perhaps spurred on by each other, they have both reached a sort of young middle age in which they have accumulated the know-how and contacts to get things done but still have the energy to accomplish them.

Creative Time, founded in 1974, now has 15 employees, an annual budget of $2.5 million and a board of trustees that includes such artists as Shirin Neshat and Vik Muniz and art patrons such as Beth Rudin DeWoody. As recently as 1994, when Pasternak took over the organization, "we were like a 20-year-old start-up, and I was only the only full-time employee," she says.

Public Art Fund, founded in 1977, now has eight employees and an annual operating budget of $3.8 million. Its trustees include collector Adam Lindemann and former Goldman Sachs partner Jonathan Sobel. Nowadays, 28% of its funding comes from a combination of earned income and investment income.

With both groups, the majority of funding comes from private individuals and foundations. Governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Department of Cultural Affairs in New York, play a smaller role financially. Government funding represents only 3% of Public Art Fund's budget and 8% of Creative Time's.

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