THE other morning, as on most weekday mornings, the front steps of the public library in Flushing, Queens, were jammed with people coming and going. Past the checkout desk and tables of new books, the sunny children's library at the back was mobbed.
The front steps and the big white etched glass window that occupies a wall of the children's library are both public art projects, part of the city's Percent for Art program, completed along with the building in 1998. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville carved the titles of epic adventures and travel stories by writers from around the world in the risers of the stairs. Yong Soon Min delicately overlaid maps and flowers - roses, orchids, jasmine, lilies, lotuses and tulips - representing the home nations of Flushing's immigrant population, into the design of the window.
The phrase "successful public art project" may sound like an oxymoron. The world is full of forlorn statues that go unnoticed. A gallant faith in the alchemical power of art to interact with "the public" has inspired generation after generation of American artists and public officials to pursue well-meaning endeavors that too often have turned out to be visually disappointing or alien ("plop art" is one term arisen to describe what has resulted) or that have become public-relations debacles. (See Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" for Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan, commissioned in 1979 by the General Services Administration, removed a decade later.)
New York's Percent for Art program has had its share of duds and crises. But it has had some triumphs, too, almost all of them below the radar of the commercial art world, which usually pays minimal attention to government-supported public art. The program is celebrating its 20th anniversary: Mayor Edward I. Koch signed it into law in 1982; the first project, a sculpture by Jorge Luis Rodriguez, for a park in East Harlem, was completed in 1985.
Now the Center for Architecture, at 536 La Guardia Place, in Greenwich Village, is holding an exhibition through Sept. 24 to coincide with the publication of a new book, "City Art," edited by Marvin Heiferman, with essays by Adam Gopnik and Eleanor Heartney, looking back on what Percent for Art has accomplished so far.
It has become the largest public art program in the city since the Great Depression. There have been more than 200 projects completed in schools, parks, police precincts and branch libraries. Incrementally, usually without much fuss, they have enlarged the city's visual topography.
There are projects in public squares, hospitals, juvenile detention centers and courthouses. One, consisting of sculptured manhole covers, is along Seguine Avenue in Staten Island; another occupies a wall outside Engine Company 75 in the Bronx; yet another is on top of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant in Manhattan - they're just about everywhere the city has done new construction during the last 20 years.
There's even a project afloat: its kinks are still being worked out but aboard the newest of the Staten Island ferries Werner Klotz and John Roloff have devised a sound installation, consisting of recorded readings from historic texts about the sea, and also a sonar display, of the passing harbor floor.
With the exhibition and new book as unnecessary excuses, I set out recently to see a small percent of what Percent has done. I invited Tom Finkelpearl to come along. Now director of the Queens Museum, he ran the Percent program for six years, until 1996, when Charlotte Cohen, the present head, took over. For our jaunt, he volunteered his 1999 Ford Taurus with its balky air-conditioning.
An Art-Filled Tour
We started out at the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway, meeting up there with Ms. Cohen. Then it was on to the Schomburg Center in Harlem; the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the 107th Police Precinct in Flushing and the Townsend Harris High School in Kew Gardens in Queens; the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn; Stuyvesant High School, P.S. 234 and Foley Square in downtown Manhattan; and a few other places before the battery in Mr. Finkelpearl's car conked out. We had just enough time left to catch the new Guy Molinari ferry to Staten Island and check out the Klotz and Roloff project.
Along the way, Mr. Finkelpearl filled in some details. The idea behind Percent for Art is simple: 1 percent of the budget of certain municipal construction projects (in reality the figure sometimes turns out to be much less, never more) is set aside for art. The architect on the project may suggest where the art might go and might suggest an artist. Names of other artists (they don't have to be New Yorkers) are picked from the program's slide registry and offered by experts on the selection panel, which consists of community representatives, art professionals and Percent staff members.
When New York passed the Percent legislation in 1982 (after many other places had) the city was recovering from near bankruptcy. Public officials, led by art advocates like Doris Freedman, a former director of Cultural Affairs for New York and founder of the Public Art Fund, embraced the concept that art would enliven and humanize the often gloomy, boxy buildings that had come to dominate public architecture.
This was also around the time that the brouhaha over "Tilted Arc" began to reshape discussion about public art. Mr. Serra's sculpture, an 84-foot-long curtain of steel interrupting a windswept plaza in front of the Federal Building downtown, pitted the artist and his supporters against many workers from the area and others who didn't care whether Mr. Serra was regarded as the world's greatest living sculptor; they saw his work as an intrusion and imposition.
The acrimonious debate, which exposed a vast cultural gulf between the art world and a wider public, encapsulated a basic problem for public artists since the beginning of modernism: how can an art that's not meant to be popular - that depends on private codes - be truly public? What does "the public" mean anyway? Whose public?
Partly from a desire to sidestep another "Tilted Arc" ordeal, Percent for Art from the start stressed community collaboration. The emphasis was put on transparency. Ms. Heartney writes in "City Art" that public art came increasingly to be understood not simply as an object but as "a process or a kind of society-wide experiment that uses the public sphere as its laboratory."
That much anodyne and mediocre work was produced; that artists sometimes complained they were just cleaning up after bad architecture; and that some still clashed with communities - all this was inevitable. But a notion emerged: that public art might be good but not successful, or vice-versa.
"Success," as Ms. Heartney writes, no longer would only "be measured using traditional criteria of conceptual clarity or aesthetic coherence." Now it would also depend on how the public responded to, and used, the art.
So, for example, in 1991, when John Ahearn, a well-known sculptor, installed three bronze portraits of local residents - a boy and his pit bull, a young man with a basketball and a boom box, a young woman on roller skates - on pedestals outside the 44th Police Precinct House in a Bronx neighborhood where Mr. Ahearn lived, he provoked a firestorm. While he was respected in the art world for embracing real-life subjects, in the community the art was seen as stereotypical and degrading.
It was removed. Having believed that a sculpture might "speak to someone on the street and also the art world," Mr. Ahearn realized afterward that trying to please two worlds at once was risky. "To say it is possible - that is easy," he told Mr. Finkelpearl in an interview for a 2001 book, "Dialogues in Public Art." "To say you are doing it is more difficult."
That public art has its own criteria, apart from those of the conventional art world, is clear from one of the projects Mr. Finkelpearl and I visited, Donna Dennis's work for P.S. 234 in TriBeCa. We plunged into the cauldron heat to see her courtyard fence, finished in 1998: 14 arched panels with silhouettes of the historical ships that used to cruise New York harbor when the site was Washington Market and the waterfront came up to where the school is now. A signpost for the neighborhood, screening off the playground, the fence is seamless with its surroundings, cheerful, a dollop of education, beloved by the community and also practical.
We drove a few blocks to Stuyvesant High School and saw the 1992 project by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, "Mnemonics": more than 400 hollow glass blocks embedded here and there, like Joseph Cornell boxes, containing exotica and artifacts - fragments from the Great Wall of China, water from the Ganges, sand from the Sahara. More blocks have memorabilia from graduating classes. Some are empty, awaiting the remnants of future classes. Mysterious and enlightening, linking the high school's past to its future and to the world at large, the project blends into the daily traffic and proud mindset of the school, popularizing a sort of conceptual art that might in other circumstances seem arcane.
As Mr. Gopnik writes: "The program has midwifed into existence a kind of artwork that takes the forms of 'conceptual' and 'installation' art as it has evolved since the 1970's - that by-now familiar conglomerate of found objects, borrowed photographs and obliquely poetic texts - and shaped it into something more modest and discreet.
"The occasional mystifications of such art becomes arrestingly enigmatic in the new public work, and its weakness for didacticism becomes compellingly poetic."
Which is to say that in place of the statue of the general on horseback, which sits there on a pedestal, Percent projects strive to be insinuating. Mr. Klotz and Mr. Roloff, with their ferry installation, exemplify exactly what Mr. Gopnik suggests: midway across the harbor a computer program randomly picks from a roster of prerecorded poems and historic snippets about the sea to broadcast (not too loudly, I am glad to report) a single selection aboard one of the ferry decks. It is user-friendly, nondidactic and contextually relevant. Weary rush-hour passengers near the speakers seemed to perk up at the broadcast, which briefly interrupted their routine with a letter from Alonzo del Campo y Espinosa, a Spanish vice admiral, to Capt. Henry Morgan, a British privateer.
What is the difference between successful public art and good art? In Foley Square is Lorenzo Pace's granite fountain, "Triumph of the Human Spirit." Inspired by a carved antelope effigy figure from West Africa and alluding to the African burial ground nearby, it aptly honors slaves but is formally weak and unprepossessing. That the mobs of office workers who enjoy the spray of water couldn't care less about the aesthetics is testament to the work's success, as a civic amenity.
A Sense of Place
By contrast, Alice Aycock's project on the rooftop of the 107th Police Precinct is decent abstract art, but it's not successful public sculpture. It caused almost as much of a ruckus as Mr. Ahearn's project did when Ms. Aycock installed it in 1992. Inspired by a medieval astrolabe, resembling a giant Rube Goldberg contraption, with a huge circular metal shape at the center that looks like a satellite dish, it was interpreted by residents, where tensions with the police were already high, as a surveillance device. They said it was ugly. Some people even complained, because they imagined that it jammed their television reception. Ms. Aycock had not reached out to the community. The police resented the stress her work caused them.
Mr. Finkelpearl and I drove by. It has aged better than the building. I inquired in the precinct, where one officer scratched his head. He had never noticed it. Another officer joked about it being some sort of electronic equipment. A passerby, a woman who said she had lived in the area for years, had no idea it was there. I pointed toward the roof. She squinted into the sunlight and shrugged.
The Percent projects that work best clearly recognize and reinforce the importance of place. They grow more interesting over time. They often deal with the passage of time. Mags Harries's aluminum topiary sculptures of chameleons, eels and a giant octopus gamely turn a leafy passageway in the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn into a playland of evolving greenery. The sculpture will change as the plants grow.
In the New York Hall of Science in Queens, Fred Tomaselli has installed a time capsule inside the second-floor handrail around the rotunda at the entrance: it entails 72 peepholes, like points on a compass, showing, via snapshots, what was 10 kilometers away in each direction when Mr. Tomaselli did the project a decade ago.
At the Schomburg Center, Houston Conwill, Estella Conwill Majozo and Joseph DePace have devised a terrazzo floor as a tribute to the poet Langston Hughes, whose ashes are buried there, and to the bibliophile Arthur Schomburg, after whom the building is named. And in the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, Daniel Galvez has painted a mural with scenes from Malcolm X's life. There is a life-size bronze of him by Gabriel Koren on the steps leading to the ballroom.
Finally, on the plaza beside the Unisphere in Queens, Matt Mullican has installed 464 blocks of black granite pavement etchings, like hieroglyphs, documenting the two World's Fairs that took place on the spot, in 1939 and 1964. Fair buffs come to make tracings.
Mr. Finkelpearl said he often sees people stop to look. On the morning we were there, a few bicyclists slowly passed by, and several walkers gazed at the blocks, as it were reading a bit of the city back in time. It was quiet and instructive work, like so much of what Percent has tried to do - the sort of art that meets you halfway, a public reminder that in New York there is always something more to find.
The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].