Turning cities into art galleries
Public art can generate big revenues and beautify urban areas. Or it can anger residents. How does one measure its success?
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Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.
Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of "New York City Waterfalls" – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York's waterfront.
There "have been attempts, of course," he says, "but I want to push that further." If it is a triumph, "Waterfalls" could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world's most iconic skylines.
"Waterfalls" also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work's ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.
Historically, public art has forced "you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency," says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Rochelle Steiner, director of New York's Public Art Fund, a major backer of "Waterfalls," hopes Eliasson's project has precisely that effect: "People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them."
Eliasson likes to tweak perceptions on a large scale. His best-known work, a 2004 installation at London's Tate Modern titled "The Weather Project," toyed with the illusory power of artificial light. Ms. Steiner, who is also the curator of "Waterfalls," describes it as "an insertion of 'nature' into the urban conditions of the city."
For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.
In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York's Department of Cultural Affairs, "The Gates" generated approximately $254 million.