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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"New York City Waterfalls" is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues "that the city would not get otherwise," says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.Skip to next paragraph
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Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.
"New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected," Levin says. "Waterfalls," may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.
"Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline," Eliasson says.
The next question: "Can we go beyond the spectacle?"
Trafficking in the spectacular
Yet public-art projects are just as often almost purely spectacle. The most recent example: "Electric Fountain," a sculpture installed in February by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. (It is set for deconstruction April 4.)
Even by the gaudy standards of Rockefeller Center, home to the "Today Show" and America's most famous Christmas tree, "Electric Fountain" is a study in extravagance. Reaching 35 ft. in height, and lit by a fusillade of LED bulbs, the 61,000-pound sculpture was designed to evoke a sense of "otherness."
"Bringing space to life for the individual or for small groups – to me that's the foundation of building communities," says Christopher Janney, a public artist near Boston. Mr. Janney, who works with light and sound installations, says his primary consideration is how to enliven an otherwise ordinary space. He is currently at work on the facade of a 12-story parking deck in Fort Worth, Texas.
A complex practice
But Janney and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra's infamous "Tilted Arc," a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.
"That really marked a sea change," says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. "Even though it's understood that you're not going to find a piece that all people will like, there's a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge."
Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC's Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. "They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training," says Janney.
Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can "make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it."
One of the intentions of "Waterfalls," she says, "is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural."