Public space is vital to democracy and critical for the interconnected life of a city. Our public spaces are our public commons—shared places for recreation, social engagement, artistic practice, cultural expression, and political action.
In New York, it sometimes feels like there are too few opportunities for individuals to come together across race, class, and generation to participate meaningfully in shared experiences and civic life.
Artists—local and international; performing and visual; traditional and avant-garde—create works that animate and activate our public commons. A powerful sculpture, an outdoor jazz performance or community dance class, or a few lines of poetry engraved in the pavement can spark a leap of imagination that transports us beyond ourselves and connects us to others. When wellmaintained and safe public spaces are accessible to a diversity of people and cultures, in every neighborhood, it sends a powerful message: all belong here.
Through CreateNYC, residents voiced a clear desire to make cultural experiences in public spaces truly welcoming and inclusive. Proposals to achieve this included working to reduce the barriers for artists and cultural organizations to initiate and implement ephemeral, temporary, and permanent works in public sites, and to encourage more equitable and diverse participation of artist and audience alike.
As we expand access to our public spaces for artistic practice, social engagement, and cultural activities, we also benefit from an increase in neighborhood stewardship of these spaces. Vibrant public spaces can serve as powerful drivers of local economic development and improved quality of life for residents, creating thriving New York City neighborhoods.
New York City has a strong history of commitment to public art. Sculptures have graced and enlivened our parks for centuries. In fact things got so lively in the late nineteenth century that in 1898 the State established the Art Commission (now known as the Public Design Commission) to approve public art. The Commission is the City’s design review agency, with jurisdiction over permanent structures, parks, and open spaces, streetscapes, signage, and art proposed on or over City-owned property. The city was the site of great public art commissioned by the federal government under the Works Progress Administration. And by the late twentieth century, the city was joining the national public art movement. The City’s Percent for Art program, signed into law by Mayor Ed Koch in 1982, requires that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on public artwork. Managed by DCLA, Percent for Art has completed over 330 site-specific projects in a variety of media, with 95 more commissions underway. In 2017, Mayor de Blasio signed a package of cultural legislation bills passed by the New York City Council that strengthened the public’s involvement in the Percent for Art process and will more than double the size of the program over the next two years.
But this is just one of many public art programs in New York City. MTA Arts & Design, (formerly known as Arts for Transit) has been commissioning public art in the subway, bus, and rail lines since 1985. It is a bedrock of the improved perception of the subways coinciding with massive capital investment by the MTA. Creative Time and the Public Art Fund commission temporary public art throughout the city—adding vitality to the urban experience.
Joining cities around the country including Los Angeles, Boston, and St Paul, in the last two years, DCLA has begun to expand its portfolio and definition of public art to include municipal residencies. The Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) program, launched in 2015, is an experimental residency program that embeds artists in City government to imagine creative solutions to civic challenges. Inspired by the pioneering work of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles with the New York City Department of Sanitation, PAIR enables artists to work collaboratively and in open-ended processes with partner City agencies toward long-term community impact. To date, DCLA has placed PAIR artists in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (artist Tania Bruguera); the Department of Veterans’ Services (pilot: Social Design Collective, and now Bryan Doerries/Theater of War Productions); Administration for Children’s Services (The Lost Collective); Department of Design and Construction (Mary Miss); and the New York Housing Authority (J. Bouey and Paloma McGregor). Public art is indeed murals and statues, but it is also artists working in public agencies.
ENGAGEMENT AND PARTICIPATORY PROGRAMMING
Throughout the CreateNYC engagement process, residents called for the City to build on New York City’s commitment to public art and expand this commitment beyond site-specific installations to community-engaged, participatory art and programming in public space. Residents in every borough, from artists to public school parents, seniors to small business owners, are hungry for opportunities to enliven public spaces across the city with arts and culture.
Public spaces such as libraries, schools, parks, and plazas are our social commons. As such, they form a vital five-borough network of opportunity—collective assets with the potential to be further activated by arts and cultural programming that reflect and engage community residents. New York residents understand this at a neighborhood level. According to a poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, 76% of residents requested more arts programming closer to home, 60% called for access to arts programming at local parks, and 48% would like to participate in arts programming at neighborhood libraries. A number of neighborhood-based groups also submitted proposals to CreateNYC that put forth a vision for their communities anchored in public arts programming at local sites.
Expanding access to public spaces for cultural use will also help New York City achieve a more equitable distribution of arts and cultural opportunities across the five boroughs—a key objective of the CreateNYC process.
OPPORTUNITIES TO INFUSE ARTS AND CULTURE IN PUBLIC SPACES
Public input revealed a deep desire for showcasing and sharing local, citywide, and global arts and cultural programs in local public spaces. Community gardens, plazas, and small parks, especially in neighborhoods identified by SIAP as having concentrated disadvantage, provide opportunities for investment. The map shows that both eastern Brooklyn and the Bronx boast a wealth of small parks and community gardens. Far Rockaway in Queens is home to a number of plazas. These community spaces provide excellent opportunities for cultural programming and civic engagement.
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
This October, Public Art Fund presents Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, a timely new exhibition across multiple boroughs by world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei inspired by the international migration crisis and tense sociopolitical battles surrounding the issue in the United States and worldwide
A pop-up installation of curated book collections by the Uni Project enlivens New York City streets and creates welcoming places for New Yorkers to read, draw, and learn together in public.
A summer solstice “music holiday” presented by Make Music New York invites music makers of all ages and backgrounds to perform in public plazas and parks, on sidewalks and in front of shops, across all five boroughs.
Permitting, insurance requirements, contracting, and procurement all present bureaucratic challenges to working in public space that can be difficult for individual artists and community groups to navigate. At an installment of CreateNYC Office Hours with the Commissioner that was dedicated to the theme of public art, artists requested reducing these barriers to create more opportunities for artist-initiated public projects. In addition, artists and plaza managers alike wondered how they can better navigate these challenges, and how the City might help.
PUBLIC ART PROPOSALS IN CREATENYC
The following proposals include a series of strategies to increase arts and cultural programming in public space including providing grant and technical support and increasing transparency. This increased support, transparency, and technical assistance will help community groups and stewards of public spaces better understand how they can infuse their neighborhoods with arts and culture.
CreateNYC also seeks to expand our definition of public art and increases its inclusion in both underutilized public and private sites. The expanded definition of public art to arts and culture in public space recognizes that New York City is home to a wide range of ideas, needs, and desires for arts programming in public space.
Perhaps most importantly, CreateNYC affirms our public spaces as our public commons: vital places to come together, express our diverse cultures, and engage in free speech. In doing so, CreateNYC maps a vision for the future of New York City that celebrates the voices, experiences, and values of all New Yorkers.
PS.1 Increase opportunities for artists to work in public agencies and public space
Support artists and cultural organizations in navigating the permitting process for arts and cultural programming in public space.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, DOT, Parks, SAPO
Create mechanisms for artist-led and artist-initiated projects in public space and/or with City government.
- Sustain and expand Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) program which embeds artists in city government to use creative practice to address civic challenges.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, Private Sector
Create a resource guide for artists who work in public spaces.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, DOT, Parks, SAPO
Encourage inclusion of public art in all development projects on private sites.
TIMEFRAME: Long PARTNER(S): DCLA, Private Sector, City Council
Increase support for the Percent for Art program, which commissions artists to create public artworks that are integrated into infrastructure and architecture of eligible City-funded projects.
- Support the maintenance of completed Percent for Art projects.
- Create opportunities to support socially engaged practices in combination with Percent for Art commissions.
TIMEFRAME: Long PARTNER(S): DCLA, City Council
PS.2 Actively encourage, support, and strengthen public spaces as vital places for creative expression and community building
Support diverse programming in neighborhood plazas, parks, and community gardens with specific emphasis on public spaces in underrepresented communities.
- Provide technical assistance and support to neighborhood plaza managers to connect and partner with local cultural organizations and artists.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, DOT, Parks
In 2017, the first artist selected for the Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) program was Tania Bruguera to work with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA). The question at hand: how can immigrant communities begin to trust the government and how will the government demonstrate that it trusts immigrant communities? Her solution: bring in long-time collaborators, the Mujeres en Movimiento, a Corona, Queens-based group of Spanish-speaking mothers, cyclists, and activists. Coming together at Immigrant Movement International, an art project/think tank/community center, initiated by Bruguera and now sponsored by the Queens Museum, the Mujeres had become neighborhood leaders, using tactics from art and community organizing to advocate for neighborhood improvements.
The Mujeres worked with Bruguera and trained with MOIA to develop strategies to educate and engage immigrant residents about rights and services available to them. Working with the Kollektiv Migrantas, a participatory design collective specializing in migrant rights, Bruguera, the Mujeres, MOIA, and DCLA co-created picture-based materials outlining critical MOIA services to share with the Corona community. Every weekend, the Mujeres become creative bike messengers delivering this specially crafted information on acid yellow CycleNews bicycles. In this role, the Mujeres serve as direct points of contact between immigrant communities and government institutions and bring first-hand feedback, ideas, hopes, and fears to City officials.
At the announcement of CycleNews on the steps of City Hall, the Mujeres en Movimiento read a statement that said in part: “Cyclenews … is a symbol of freedom and respect that connects us with the knowledge of our rights and makes us feel more proud of our roots. With Cyclenews we feel we can fulfill our citizen duty to help our community and our people, all the people who live, dream, and work in this great city of New York.”
WHAT WE CAN LEARN
Artists are communications specialists. City government can
employ them to break through barriers.
The people best equipped to communicate in a community often live in the community, like Mujeres en Movimiento in Corona.
Socially based public art is a natural partner for the public sector. Government can allow artists to work at scale.
Art can be used to build meaningful relationships, instigate social activisim, and address current issues.
The Lost Collective participant
Public Artists in Residence with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services
When I first met The Lost Collective, I didn’t want to do art stuff. But they came in with an amazing energy, and they motivated me. They taught me so many things about art and why it’s important. We did a lot of projects together, like autobiographical video shoots.
It was amazing to reflect on my own story and to get insight into everyone else’s. I learned more about the lives of my peers and fellow residents than I had known before. I gained gratitude from listening and watching their stories. I always thought that my life was harder than theirs, but I learned that everyone has struggled. I am not alone.
At the end of the year, we had an exhibition called Big Bang at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. I was nervous at first to see my own work, but I had to put hard work and dedication into it, and it was successful. I found passion in art this year. I would do this program over and over again because New York is based on art. Art is in front of your face, everywhere, and we got to be part of it.