Practice of Commissioning

Vol 3, Issue 2

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Practice of Commissioning

by Kelly Pajek

In the practice of commissioning permanent public works for the City of New York, I have seen a shift in public art preferences in the type of public art various stakeholders and City owners wish to see.

As these locations can vary from public schools, parks, libraries or plazas to name a few, there is an obvious need to consider the work of a wide range of artists with varying practices and methodologies depending on the function of the site and opportunities available to an artist at that location. What has been interesting is the more frequent request from project stakeholders and architects to consider the work of artists who work in a non figurative way or a more design based practice. In these instances the level of experience with art on the part of the stakeholder may vary so it makes me wonder, what is the fear of figuration? Are choices like this just personal preference or based on knowledge of controversial figurative projects that are now case studies for the field as a whole? In 1991, in Percent for Art’s formative years John Ahearn’s Daleesha, Toby and Raymond and Cory was installed at a New York Police Department (NYPD) Precinct 44 in the Bronx and removed shortly thereafter due to controversy. Most recently Percent for Art started working with NYPD, to commission a permanent work for an expansive new training facility in Queens. Early in the design process NYPD requested that the artwork we consider not be figurative. This is a request that can be met but how is it that two decades later there is still a fear that if figurative work is commissioned that history could potentially repeat itself? Generally the desire for more abstract work comes from the perspective that figurative work will somehow be problematic for a greater public; the content will be more specific, potentially offend the public and become controversial. This position also assumes that abstract work will not offend and is more palatable to the owner of the site and greater public. I don’t necessarily think these statements are true but there seems to be a wider opinion to support these ideas.

Equally there has been a desire to consider more design based work as part of the permanent art commissioning process. A compelling example of how design has infused the City’s public landscape and public art is Antenna Design’s collaboration with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and its Arts for Transit program. In your travels through the NYC subway if you have ever used a MetroCard Vending Machine, Help Point Intercom, ridden on one of the new subway cars or travelled through the newly renovated station house at 96th Street in Manhattan on the 1, 2 or 3 lines you have experienced the work of Antenna Design. Not only has the collaboration allowed for better designed industrial elements to become part of the MTA network but it has given Antenna Design the opportunity to create a permanent artwork. I am certainly a proponent of good design in public space but wonder about blurring the boundary of designer as artist. Over the last five years I have increasingly observed stakeholders and architects desire to see more design based firms considered in the artist selection process. I do wonder, does this provide for the strongest aesthetic outcome or is this another circumstance of playing it safe in consideration of a wider public. Is this a circumstance where the artwork is so designed that it won’t upstage the architecture of a site? Or just fear of an artist creating a permanent work in a public space?

I would be curious to know if these trends are applicable nationally or more prevalent within NYC? While the field of public art is constantly growing and shifting I wonder if this is a more pronounced trend or a passing phase.

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