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Ai Weiwei's citywide public art project elicits protest from Village neighborhood group

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The Washington Square Park Association is worried it’ll interfere with its seasonal events

Public Art Fund

Update 9/21/17: Ai Weiwei’s planned installation under the Washington Square Arch will move forward despite protests from some local residents. The local community board voted in favor of the installation earlier this week, Bedford + Bowery reported. The Washington Square Association was upset that the installation would replace the Christmas Tree (the installation will stay up Oct. 12-Feb 11), but the community board ultimately sided with Ai Weiwei’s project.

This fall, Ai Weiwei and the Public Art Fund will team up for a massive citywide art exhibition titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, which will see the installation of more than 300 pieces throughout the five boroughs. The project is one of Ai’s largest projects to date, with pieces going up in major locations like the Unisphere in Queens, Doris C. Freedman Plaza near Central Park, and more.

But because nothing of this scale can happen in New York City without someone finding something wrong with it, the Washington Square Association—a group founded in 1906 as “the first neighborhood association” in the city—has released a statement protesting the artist’s proposed installation under the Washington Square Park Arch (h/t Washington Square Park Blog).

Their reasons are threefold: the group says it was not given the opportunity to provide input before the Public Art Fund released the Arch as one of the exhibit’s locations; the installation would interfere with the park’s annual Christmas tree lighting, along with other seasonal events; and, per its letter to the Public Art Fund, “The monumental Arch is a work of art in itself. It does not need to be politicized with the proposed installation.”

In the renderings shown for the project, one of Ai’s fences is installed below the Arch, with a cut-out so people can pass through and interact with the piece itself. The installation is scheduled to open on October 12, and run through January.

“This installation sets a dangerous precedent that one of New York City's most recognized monuments and pieces of art can be decorated and co-opted for 4 months at a time,” the group wrote in their letter. (Presumably, they forgot about Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls under the Brooklyn Bridge, which stayed up for several months.)

But that sort of interaction with such a well-known landmark seems to be the point, at least partially; according to an interview with Ai in New York magazine, the artist wanted to “engage[] with the city both architecturally and historically.”

The Public Art Fund is currently raising money to stage the project through Kickstarter, and has raised about $33,000 of its $80,000 goal as of this writing.

Update: The Public Art Fund has responded to the the Washington Square Park Association’s letter with a statement from its president, Susan Freedman:

Public Art Fund has prioritized communication with the community, and listening to community feedback throughout the planning of artist Ai Weiwei’s city-wide public art exhibition, presented by Public Art Fund with NYC’s Parks Department and other relevant city agencies. We have been meeting with community boards, and neighborhood groups throughout the spring and summer, including with Community Board 2, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, and the organization of which Mr Sumner serves as President, The Washington Square Park Association.

Recognizing the importance of community engagement, we reached out to Mr. Sumner on July 18th, had a follow up call on July 26th, and a recent in person meeting with him in Washington Square Park on Aug 14th. On behalf of the community, Trevor Sumner expressed excitement about bringing the project to Washington Square Park and we have been in close dialogue with him to ensure that the tradition of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony moves ahead without interruption. We have long been on the schedule to present to the Community Board on Tuesday, Sept. 6, to hear feedback and respond to questions.

The vital qualities of community and open engagement that Washington Square Park embodies are among the characteristics that make it an ideal location for this important exhibition that brings to light the critical causes of the refugee crisis.