When Adrian Benepe went to work in Central Park 25 years ago as a park ranger just out of college, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were first proposing that the famous park be the site of one of their massive outdoor works.
But even from his lowly perch, Benepe could see why the project they called “The Gates” would not happen then, if ever.
For starters, the artists’ plan to install thousands of colorful “gates” around the park would have required “the digging of 30,000 holes,” he recalled, some in concrete pathways and others in rock formations. “It just didn’t seem tenable,” he said, and nor did their desire to do it in the fall, which for the park “is a very busy time, particularly for bird migration.”
Perhaps even more problematic was the sprawling Manhattan park itself, “which then wasn’t ready for something of this scale,” Benepe said. “Central Park itself was really a disaster. It was crime ridden, all its lawns were denuded, everything was covered with graffiti, the historic buildings were abandoned.... The important work of restoring the park had not yet begun.”
However, the turnaround of the park was well underway by 1996, when Benepe became the commissioner of parks for Manhattan. “It seemed like every year or two Christo and Jeanne-Claude would come back politely,” Benepe said, “knocking on the door to ask, ‘Are you ready yet?’ ”
Now the city is ready -- or at least it’s getting ready -- for “The Gates.”
Last week, a group of local officials that included Benepe -- now parks and recreation commissioner for all five boroughs -- announced that the 15,000 steel bases for 7,500 gates would begin arriving at a central staging area in the park on Wednesday.
Saffron-colored fabric panels being prepared at a Queens warehouse will adorn the gates throughout the 843-acre park. The effect, the artists say, will be like “a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees.”
The installation is set to open Feb. 12. During the 16 days “The Gates” will be on display, city officials are expecting crowds to rival the 100,000 or more that flock to the park on prime spring days. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the eastern side of the park, is planning to open its roof garden for overhead viewing. The city’s tourism agency is promoting “Gates"-themed hotel and restaurant specials -- including a slew of dishes made with saffron.
“I would compare it to having the New York Marathon every day for 16 days,” said Benepe. “This is much more than an artwork. It’s an art happening.”
The 69-year-old artists seem to be taking in stride the prospect of finally seeing one of their monumental outdoor works become a reality in New York, where they have lived for four decades, and in the park where they used to take their son to play on the rocks.
The Bulgarian-born Christo and French-born Jeanne-Claude have become used to rejections, decades-long delays -- and then large crowds -- around the world.
“We have until now created 18 projects. We have failed 37 projects -- we got a refusal and we lost interest,” said the artists, who insist on speaking with one voice.
Their 1991 project, “The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.” -- which ran simultaneously in Japan and along 18 miles of the Tejon Pass, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles -- was a “very fast” project, taking 7 1/2 years to realize.
The artists will pay for “The Gates” installation and the extra security required -- and donate an extra $3 million to city parks -- by selling Christo’s preliminary drawings and collages for $30,000 to $600,000 each. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is among the purchasers to date.
“Listen, if we don’t sell we cannot build,” the artists said. “We’re not rich people. We spend everything we have and everything we can borrow from the bank and [get] no money back.”
City officials say a series of adjustments to the original concept was crucial to getting the project approved 2 1/2 years ago, following the election of Bloomberg, a longtime fan of the artists.
The steel supports for the gates no longer will be sunk into the ground, or even placed on grass or rock areas. Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy -- the nonprofit agency that runs the park for the city -- said he walked every path with the artists carrying a 16-foot pole to make sure the gates would not damage overhanging vegetation.
“The most important thing was looking at trees, agreeing where you would put gates and where you wouldn’t,” Blonsky said.
“They had agreed we wouldn’t do it in the woodlands ... as well as around the reservoir running track.”
Benepe said that, in addition to measures designed to minimize disturbances to the land, joggers and dog walkers, timing the project for February rather than the fall helped win over the city and community boards representing neighborhoods that ring the park.
He and other city officials can only guess how many people will come to see “The Gates,” but they note that the artists’ 1995 “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin drew millions of visitors.
On their website, Christo and Jeanne-Claude say they began trying to get that work approved in 1971 and over the years visited Germany 54 times and saw 352 members of parliament.
Though the New York project has taken even longer to realize, they say they do not care how many visitors come this winter to see “The Gates.”
“We don’t do it for the people, we do it for us,” they said. “If other people like it, it’s a bonus.”
Benepe offered his own perspective on the process that took about 26 years.
“It’s actually gone very fast,” the parks chief said, “since they got the approval.”