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50 years of public art in NYC celebrated in new museum exhibit

The history of public art is linked to the history of the city

An installation view of “Art in the Open” at the Museum of the City of New York.
Rob Stephenson courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

What would New York City look like without public art? Pieces like Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube in the Financial District or Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture in Midtown feel as though they’ve been part of the urban landscape forever, but the concept of “public art”—that is, bringing contemporary art out of museums and into the city’s open spaces—is relatively new, dating back to 1967.

The Public Art Fund was only established in 1977; the MTA’s Percent for Art program, which brings installations underground, is only about 30 years old. But in the decades since, those programs have enriched New Yorkers’ lives, whether they realize it or not; it’s as impossible to imagine a city without the Astor Place Cube as the buildings that surround it. “It would feel so truly different,” says Lilly Tuttle, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York.

Isamu Noguchi’s “Red Cube,” installed at 140 Broadway, circa 1968.
Photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon/Museum of the City of New York

That institution recently debuted “Art in the Open,” an exhibit looking at the 50-year history of public art in New York. By looking at the thousands of open-air projects that have been staged in the years since 1967—from The Gateway to Soho on Houston Street to Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Refinery in 2014—the museum hopes to shed some light on “the quantity and diversity of public art over this 50-year time period,” according to Tuttle.

The exhibit includes 18 case studies that examine both singular works of art—such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s landmark “The Gates,” staged in Central Park in 2005—as well as artists like Keith Haring, whose career in New York City began when he began scrawling quick drawings throughout the subway system. (One of his most famous works, the “Crack Is Wack” mural, remains in place in a Harlem playground, 31 years after it was installed.)

Keith Haring’s “Yellow Arching Figure, w/ Untitled (Three Dancing Figures),” installed at Doris C. Freedman Plaza in 1997.
Photograph by Frederick Charles/Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

There are actual artworks on view, too; the museum worked with donors to bring Rob Pruitt’s “The Andy Monument,” first shown in Union Square in 2011, to the exhibit, along with one of the small, molasses-covered sculptures of a young boy featured in Walker’s “A Subtlety.”

Installing these pieces wasn’t without logistical challenges, according to Tuttle; plexiglass vitrines protect them from museum-goers, a very different experience from when they were in situ. “When it’s outdoors, it’s something that’s meant to be touched and appreciated, and you can’t put barriers around it,” she explains. “Once those public art pieces go off view … it is a very different matter as to how we treat it. We as a museum can’t treat works of art that sat in public the way they were treated when they were in public.”

Installation view of the exhibit, with one of the pieces from Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety.”
Rob Stephenson courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Throughout, the exhibit links the history of public art to the history of New York City; as Tuttle explains, “art is a really interesting lens through which to see changes in the city.” For example, Christo and Jeanne-Claude originally envisioned “The Gates” in 1979, but it wasn’t realized until 2005, after former mayor Michael Bloomberg approved the project.

Ugo Rondinone, Human Nature, Rockefeller Center, 2013.
Photograph by Bart Barlow/Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Tuttle credits Bloomberg’s administration with giving artists the freedom to envision “big, bold projects,” as well as the creation of new venues—such as the High Line, or Governors Island—where open-air artworks are an intrinsic element. But Tuttle also hopes to show people that public art isn’t simply about huge spectacles by big-name artists; she namechecks Rudy Shepherd’s “Laundromat Project,” in which he asked Harlem residents to join him in sketching portraits, as an example of how “art making is a completely democratic act.”

Ultimately, public art serves a similar purpose. By bringing these pieces to, well, the public, it proves that art need not be siloed in imposing institutions; it’s for everyone, not just an elite few.

Museum of the City of New York

1220 5th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10029 (212) 534-1672 Visit Website