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N.Y.'s museums without walls

Few sculptures by Sol LeWitt actually resemble skyscrapers. But by installing 27 works by the artist in City Hall Park, in view of the lower Manhattan skyline, the Public Art Fund has put LeWitt’s art into a playful and powerful dialogue with the city’s architecture.

Here, a pared sculpture of a white cube looks like some sort of building block or else the grid of a window. A pyramid form that might in a museum seem a celebration of art for art’s sake seems more like an elegant real-estate solution. Even a more organic structure, the colorful cascading-form “Splotch 15" from 2005 that greets visitors at the southern entrance of the park like a fountain frozen midsurge, bears a jolting similarity to the cathedral-like Woolworth Building, visible a block away.

This is not the only ambitious public art project -- make that public art exhibition -- in New York these days. On Governors Island, a short ferry ride from lower Manhattan, the Storm King Art Center has installed 11 steel Mark di Suvero sculptures in sites like picnic areas.

One highlight, called “She,” is a massive, steel-beam sculpture made more intimate by a swing that visitors can use while enjoying the ocean breeze and a view of the Statue of Liberty.

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Two years ago, this 172-acre island -- a defunct military base that has been transformed into a recreational destination -- hosted a more experimental group show. Organized by Creative Time, “Plot ’09" featured videos, installations and other works designed in their lingo to “activate” the island’s historic buildings, including Army barracks and a defunct movie theater.

These exhibitions represent the latest wave in public art in New York, far from the classic notion of plopping a bronze monument in a public square. They are more like museum shows in their scope, quality and also complexity, with a curator carefully selecting artists or artworks that speak to one another and situating the works for the sake of artistic relevance and resonance. They are also temporary like museum shows -- with Di Suvero closing end of summer and LeWitt at the end of the year.

In most cities, including Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it can be challenging for cultural producers to install a major work of art, let alone a dozen, in the public sphere. But here the public art scene benefits from having two of the most experienced nonprofits in the field and the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration.

“This is a city where in a way it’s easier to do things that are big, ambitious projects than just tinker around the edges. People want to be involved with things that are exciting and making an impact,” says Nicholas Baume, who became director of the Public Art Fund two years ago.

He says he brought the museum exhibition model (and his interest in LeWitt, who died in 2007) with him from his previous curatorial posts at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art in Hartford, Conn.

“I think it’s fascinating to take the museum model of a curated survey or retrospective and see how that might translate into a public space,” he says.

“When I started at Creative Time 15 years ago, everyone thought of public art as heroes on horseback,” adds Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. “Creative Time and Public Art Fund together have done a stand-up job of expanding the notion of what public art is: places for engaging broad audiences and starting great conversations.”

Baume and Pasternak both reject the notion that the organizations are archrivals, as many in the arts see them. Creative Time tends to be scrappier in style and more performance-oriented in content. But they share similar missions of bringing serious contemporary art to the public, free. And, perhaps spurred on by each other, they have both reached a sort of young middle age in which they have accumulated the know-how and contacts to get things done but still have the energy to accomplish them.

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Creative Time, founded in 1974, now has 15 employees, an annual budget of $2.5 million and a board of trustees that includes such artists as Shirin Neshat and Vik Muniz and art patrons such as Beth Rudin DeWoody. As recently as 1994, when Pasternak took over the organization, “we were like a 20-year-old start-up, and I was only the only full-time employee,” she says.

Public Art Fund, founded in 1977, now has eight employees and an annual operating budget of $3.8 million. Its trustees include collector Adam Lindemann and former Goldman Sachs partner Jonathan Sobel. Nowadays, 28% of its funding comes from a combination of earned income and investment income.

With both groups, the majority of funding comes from private individuals and foundations. Governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Department of Cultural Affairs in New York, play a smaller role financially. Government funding represents only 3% of Public Art Fund’s budget and 8% of Creative Time’s.

But the city can offer other forms of support, such as providing public sites for art projects and facilitating construction permits. “You really need all the city departments behind you to realize projects like this,” says David Collens, director of the Storm King Arts Center in Mountainville, N.Y.

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The Di Suvero show is the first time Storm King has staged an exhibition outside its main campus. It was, Collens says, “a huge logistical challenge,” in part because of the size and weight of the works (some approach 40,000 pounds) and in part because of their destination -- an island accessible only by ferry, not bridges. The works came from as far away as Atherton, Calif., home of the Don and Doris Fisher collection. Collens reports that the show cost $1 million to produce, all raised by Storm King.

The LeWitt show also includes works from far afield -- including loans from a foundation in Switzerland and a museum in Minneapolis. And Public Art Fund worked closely with the city, conducting archaeological studies to make sure it wasn’t disturbing an 18th century burial site underneath the park and completing engineering studies to make sure some works by LeWitt would not compromise the subway tunnel underfoot.

Baume did not disclose the total costs of the show but said they were “on par with those of producing a major museum exhibition.” He ticked off a long list of city officials, including parks and cultural affairs commissioners, who helped facilitate the exhibition.

As for Bloomberg himself, Baume says, “I don’t know that everything we do is something he’d love to have at home, but he’s totally on board with the idea that creativity drives the spirit and energy and future of New York.”

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One small example of the mayor’s involvement: Last year he participated in a Creative Time project by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas called “The Key to the City,” designating a key that Jonas designed to unlock secret spaces throughout New York the official key to the city for a month.

A larger example has been Bloomberg’s ongoing support of cultural programming at Governors Island, led by the island’s trust president, Leslie Koch. She says one of her strategies for bringing the moribund island back to life is to open the door to artists, including letting them design a mini-golf course (or this summer a tree house) and facilitating big shows like the Di Suvero.

“We have no programming budget and no curatorial staff. We don’t get involved with selection of artists or works any more than we get involved with the selection of plants on our organic farm in the summertime.” Rather, she says, she encourages projects by “constantly talking to the city’s arts organizations.”

The island is open to the public Fridays through Sundays during the summer, and one lead attraction is free bicycle rentals. Koch believes art is another. “We had 26,000 visitors in 2006, the first year the island was open to the public. Last year, we had 443,000. I believe the arts have played a huge role in the island’s popularity.”

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Reached by email, Bloomberg says he makes public art a priority not just because it exposes people “of all different backgrounds and ideologies” to culture but because it reconnects citizens to their own city.

Public art, he wrote, “encourages us to look at our neighborhoods in a new light and with new appreciation. New York City has many of the finest museums in the world, but there’s something special about encountering artistic works in an open and public place and as a part of one’s everyday life.”

Pasternak says she has not seen a more supportive administration when it comes to public art.

“With [former Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani you usually didn’t ask for permission, you apologized later,” she said. “A bunch of us who program in New York have reason to be nervous for when Bloomberg is no longer mayor.”

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jori.finkel@latimes.com


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