Public Art

Temporary Public Art in New York City

Every city exhibits permanent public art: monuments, statues, sculptures meant to be on site forever. Many cities also display temporary art outdoors, there for a short time only, with announced starting and ending dates. According to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation: “Temporary installations are defined by an exhibition period of less than one year, typically remaining on view for three to six months”.

Temporary public art installations in New York City have in the last decade become so numerous and embody such a rich variety that few other cities – if any – can match New York. “I think it is fair to say that what we are witnessing is nothing less than a golden age for the public art in New York City, says Jean Parker Phifer, the author of Public Art New York.

(Public Art is a broad concept including art in any media, not only objects, intended to be staged outdoors or in buildings accessible to the public. This website of mine shows, however, only objects, mostly sculptures.)

Temporary installations have become a way for New York City to show contemporary and experimental art. The Bloomberg Administration has been very supportive of temporary public art with the belief that it helps to bring visitors to the city.  But, public works of art can be controversial and the city has seen many fights between the art world and the public. Yet, a potentially controversial piece, that would be difficult to establish as a permanent public artwork, is often possible as a temporary installation.

There are around a dozen main sites for temporary art in Manhattan. One site is the Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park or 60th and 5th Avenue.  Doris C. Freedman was a pioneer and driving force for public art in New York City. Among other activities, she founded the Public Art Fund. This plaza has rotating installations: when one ends a new one is often ready to be installed.

City Hall Park, Union Square (usually the small triangle in the southeast part) and Madison Square Park are other sites where a visitor can often study a new artwork.

During the summer months Park Avenue Malls (the green spaces in the middle) host many, often large, works by a single artist. Lever House and Seagram Building plaza also host temporary artworks, but on an irregular basis. The Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows art every summer.  

Temporary public artwork can occasionally be found in Rockefeller Center and Columbus Circle, as well as further up Broadway. These sites are used less often, but when they are the installations are spectacular.

Three new sites for temporary public art have been established in later years. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza between First and Second Avenues close to the UN Complex, Riverside South between 59th and 72nd and the popular High Line. A five-year partnership between New York City and The Art Students League has reserved Riverside South for art students whose work can be seen for an entire year. Perhaps a forth new site could be Josie Robertson Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center?

Today these are the main “gallery sites” for temporary public art in Manhattan. But, sometimes a single object is shown elsewhere.

And, there is more to see outside Manhattan! As of February 2014 “Arts in the Parks” lists one site in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, six in Queens, and one on Staten Island as ongoing spots for temporary public art. At these sites there are 24 works of art by 31 artists. In the Bronx, seven art students have worked together on a large sculpture.

Meanwhile, Manhattan offers 10 sites with 38 pieces of art by 26 artists.

And, this is winter, the low season for temporary public art!

According to the Official Website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation: “The sculpture collection in New York City’s Parks constitute the greatest outdoor public art museum in the United States….More than 1000 monuments, 300 of which are sculptures, grace our most prominent civic spaces…”


 Interaction With Public Art

Seeing the same work of art in a gallery versus seeing it outdoors is a different experience. Visitors to the gallery go there to see a sculpture, in an environment that focuses on the work with perfect lighting, typically moving slowly and talking in low voices. The gallery shapes the environment.

In contrast, those who plan something temporary outdoors have no control over the environment, which in the highly urban New York means a mix of almost everything, physical, human and natural. The “visitors” are not there to see art. They have other, maybe urgent, things on their minds. Many pass by the installation without having seen it, others give it an uninterested glimpse, some hurry by at the normal New York tempo but give it a smile, a nod, or quizzical look:What is that? A few stop, take a picture with their phone and hurry on. Others snap a photo with the piece as a backdrop for a portrait.

But there are those who show a keen interest in the artwork: those who walk around it, study its details, take several pictures of the installation itself, study the information available about it, discuss it, point to it, touch it, smile or frown…

Visitors to the city seem to me to react more often than New Yorkers, but this is probably an illusion. When we see an artwork for the first time we react, whereas we’re less likely to react the same way or at all passing by a second time. This happens to me when I return and find some installations from my last visit still there. I just pass by in a hurry to find the new thing I am there for.

So, maybe most of those New Yorkers I see passing by without showing any interest pass by that place every day? Maybe they were surprised, stopped and wondered when they saw the artwork for the first time?

There are also more down-to-earth uses of public art: installations can become a place to sit on, a playground for kids, a bike rack, a board for a message, a wastebasket for used drink cups or fast food containers, a backdrop for fashion photos and so on…

People’s reactions depend of course of the work of art, but the time and place play a part too.

Time of day and weather conditions determine the light on the work. Warm morning sunlight falls on the East River shore of Manhattan, but there aren´t many works of art there to enjoy it.  On the other side of Manhattan along the Hudson River — Battery Park, Hudson River Park, the High Line, Riverside South – many works of art are “lit” by the golden evening light from the sun setting over the river. When the light is at it’s most spectacular, the art becomes more interesting, details are highlighted, and people notice and react.

Visiting Park Avenue during the day is no favorite of mine, but it can become magical late evenings when the artworks there are lit by spotlights and surrounded by the lights from buildings and cars. Or, visiting a group of sculptures at Rockefeller Center at night without spotlights can give a different experience than viewing them in stark daytime sunshine.

Experimental artworks, not “beautiful” to most people, seem to get more frowns if lighted by a dull gray sky. But, artwork that is funny, whimsical, humorous does not seem to depend on lighting to make visitors smile.

Time of day also determines what happens around the piece. They say that New York never sleeps, but it does early mornings at most “gallery sites”. As seen in some pictures on my site the city seems almost deserted those mornings I was there. A few hours later the same place can be crowded…

The sites where temporary public art is displayed are different from one another. Riverside South, City Hall Park. and the High Line are examples of sites where many visitors seem to be tourists or New Yorkers on leisure time who are open to surprise. The High Line can be very crowded…

On workdays Union Square, Columbus Circle, and Park Avenue are filled with traffic and New Yorkers with little time for art. Doris C. Freedman Plaza is a dense mix of cars, busses, tourists, horses, hucksters, and joggers coming in and out of the park. But, the installations here are often eye-catching and surprising. There are many reactions to the artwork here regardless of the light, sometimes even from someone in running sneakers.

Traffic lights also change the rhythm and flows around an outdoor work of art. Sitting on a bench in City Hall Park one notices that tourists coming from the south enter in groups when the light changes to green. Many stop and look if there are installations onsite. They leave and the place is empty for a while until the next group arrives. Looking up or down Park Avenue the changes in the flows of people and cars surrounding the installations are a striking portrait of New York when all traffic lights change at the same time. Depending on where you stand on Second Avenue the environment around an installation in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza changes, the art piece even disappears when the cars start racing on green.


Other websites

The following websites have information about past, present and future temporary public art in New York City:

Art in the Parks is a page on the Official Website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. ( Scroll down or search for Art in the Parks where a list of Ongoing Installations is shown) This listing is not always complete.

Public Art Fund’s website shows detailed information about the installations the fund commissions.

The Fund for Park Avenue’s website gives information about sculptures and other activities along the office and apartment building lined Park Avenue. Many large installations have been staged here and are documented in the History section.

High Line Art

Curbed is not primarily a site for art but if you start by selecting New York and then enter Public Art in the search field you may find different information than on the websites listed above.

The Union Square Partnership’s website covers everything going on there. A little searching also reveals what public art is showing in the square.

Madison Square Park Conservancy’s website has a section on Art. It also shows Upcoming Events.

Time Out New York’s website has an Arts & Culture section, which is worth taking a look at if you’re planning a visit to the city.

Public Art is a broader concept than objects such as sculptures. Here are two organizations with a very broad perspective on public art, including art that’s intended not only for cities like New York, but even for places as far out as outer space:

Creative Time

Art Production Fund