Interview with Harriet F. Senie

Vol 5, Issue 2

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Interview with Harriet F. Senie

by Natasha Khandekar

As the co-founder of Public Art Dialogue, Harriet F. Senie’s research areas include public art, memorials, memory and material culture, the American landscape tradition (in particular themes of the road in American art and culture), and contemporary pilgrimage practice. She is the Director of the M.A. in Art History with a concentration in Museum Studies Program at the City College of New York. She also teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Harriet about her current interests and projects, as well as what inspired her to found Public Art Dialogue.

Your path to public art is a very interesting and inspiring one. Can you speak about your experiences with art, academia, and public exhibitions at different stages of your career?

My first art experience was my mother taking me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and loving (of course) Impressionist painting. She started my museum habit. Eventually I gave my mother an annual membership to the museum; nothing could have pleased her more. My undergraduate years were spent as an English major, an academic interest I exhausted by the time I graduated from Brandeis with a BA. I turned instead to the burgeoning world of computers and worked as a programmer and systems analyst for a number of years. But I also started taking classes in art history at night because I needed something more. Friends suggested I might as well get a degree since I kept accumulating credits and I did just that: first an MA from Hunter and then a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts.

You have said that the art we are exposed to every day influences us. When you were at NYU and concentrating in the Italian Renaissance, you were also passing Noguchi’s work every day on the way home from school. A dichotomy most definitely but also a liberating and illuminating moment for you. Please talk to us about your earlier experiences in New York with public art. And how those early experiences shaped your scholarship and continued interest.

While in graduate school I continued working near Wall Street, where I used to pass Noguchi’s “Red Cube” on a regular basis and began wondering what the relationship might be between this abstract work in a public space and the Renaissance statues that occupied comparable sites in their day. This curiosity, coupled with personal circumstances obviating extended time spent in Italy, prompted the eventual topic of my dissertation, “Urban Sculpture in New York City: 1950-1975.” Also, I did spend some time first researching Alfonso Lombardi and the tradition of Emilian popular sculpture. I should add that pursuing such a contemporary topic did not meet with great enthusiasm at the Institute. I was fortunate to have the support of Professors Horst W. Janson and Henry Russell Hitchcock and later Kirk Varnedoe. Researching this topic proved more challenging than I envisioned; when I looked up public art in the catalogue of the New York Public Library, all I got was “the art of public speaking.”

Recently you were quoted in the New York Times regarding the installation of Ona in front of Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, by the artist Ursula von Rydingsvard and you noted that “Fewer than 5 people out of 100 who were passing by looked up from their phones. Public engagement with art in general is being eclipsed by people’s connections with their cellphones.” What are your thoughts regarding public interest in public art and what will be an effective model moving forward as we embrace new technology and access?

My comments about the Barclay Center were general observations based on an assignment I call “public art watch” that I use in the various undergraduate and graduate courses I have taught at City College and The Graduate Center. Students develop a questionnaire in class and then proceed to observe a work of public art throughout the semester, engaging its immediate audience. [I explained this approach in detail in “Reframing Public Art: Audience Use, Interpretation, and Appreciation,” in Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, ed. Andrew McClellan. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 185-200.] In the future I imagine we will have to develop more apps that alert people to the public art in their midst, and have QR codes available for learning more about works should people happen to look up. This is really a major issue that artists should be grappling with as well and it might make sense to include a question that addresses this problem as part of the commissioning process.

Founding Public Art Dialogue [PAD] and addressing public art as a forum marks a departure from the beginning of your endeavors when you referred to public art as urban sculpture in 1979. May I ask you to define public art as you see it today and to also discuss the origins of PAD?

I was prompted to form Public Art Dialogue after participating in a panel at the College Art Association in 2007 and realizing that the cross section of professions represented in the audience had no other forum where they might come together. At the time I was also concerned that art historians and artists pursuing public art were not given the same kind of academic respect as their colleagues. In fact, I was told on more than occasion that I wasn’t really doing art history. Once this idea took hold, I immediately enlisted Cher Krause Knight, a former student, and now colleague and good friend. I think public art today has as many definitions as gallery and museum art. What distinguishes public art from the latter is its site in a public place that is accessible to all.

You have mentioned that working with Richard Serra enabled you to identify with his Jewish identity and therefore your own. In a way this seems symbolic in terms of reframing the controversy: what you are known for as an art historian and the fact that Tilted Arc controversy is behind us and we recognize the past yet moving forward. How do you move past the controversy in your work, your teaching, and your vision? Or is it simply a matter of: “they took it down, let’s move on?”

Students today weren’t even born when the Tilted Arc controversy took place so it isn’t necessary to confront it in a classroom setting. However, I usually do so in juxtaposition to John Ahearn’s figurative sculpture, which was removed around the same time from its site in the South Bronx at the artist’s wishes after it prompted community protest, thereby raising rather different issues in terms of controversy. [See Jane Kramer, Whose Art Is It? for an excellent analysis.] At one point I was annoyed that the Tilted Arc controversy just wouldn’t go away and realizing that this was at least partially my fault, I wrote “The Controversy that Wouldn’t Die: Tilted Arc and the Triumph of Spectacle,” Sculpture, June 2007. Some time thereafter I was told there was a moment when the GSA, which both commissioned and removed the sculpture, was considering bringing it back. I believe, it is currently stored in a warehouse in Maryland, where it still attracts some art pilgrims. Since controversy is an ongoing issue in public art, there are still and probably always will be lessons to be learned.

Your mission is inspired by an erudite curiosity and deep passion for public art. Can you let us know about your current projects and upcoming publication Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11.

My current book project Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11 argues that the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine school shooting, and the 9/11 attacks all addressed myths of national identity: that the U.S. didn’t lose wars; that the heartland was quintessentially safe; that the American high school experience was great, especially in wealthy suburbs; and that the centers of U.S. power were inviolate. Memorials built to these events created a new paradigm, one that conflated cemeteries with memorials, thereby shifting focus to the dead (often identified as heroes) rather than the events that caused their death. This approach has also created a new class of privileged victims, the victims’ families, who have played a dominant role in the memorial selection process. I argue that a more constructive approach for them and for the memorial process would have them define and manage a temporary interim memorial and/or ritual(s) until such time that a permanent memorial is built.

In addition, I am currently working with Cher Krause Knight on co-editing a Companion to Public Art (Wiley Blackwell), which will include artists’ philosophies, interviews, and academic essays. We also have an anthology on contemporary pilgrimage practice on our collective back burner.

I am also looking for a publisher for a book tentatively titled The Unwritten History of Contemporary Public Sculpture: Unbuilt Projects by Famous Artists. This type of publication is common for architects but not as yet for public artists. It is fascinating to learn how by now canonical public artists had ideas decades before they were able to realize them. I already have a number of excellent contributors lined up.

My essay “Calder’s Public Art as Civic Sculpture: The Realization of a Modernist Ideal?” will appear this November in the exhibition catalogue for Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Nov. 24, 2013 – July 27- 2014).

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