When It Comes to Art in New York City Parks, Jonathan Kuhn Knows His Stuff
NYC is known for its famous art museums, but art in the city is not limited to the MET or the MOMA. You’ll also find art in unlikely places: in public parks, playgrounds, and traffic islands. Some exhibitions are permanent and others come and go like the changing of the seasons.
Jonathan Kuhn is the Director of Art and Antiquities for the NYC Parks. With over 800 public monuments in the permanent collection across the city, and a roulette of temporary art exhibitions throughout NYC’s 5 boroughs, the Art and Antiquities Department of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation works with artists, art organizations, galleries, and museums to host temporary exhibits such as Isa Genzken’s Two Orchids, which is currently on display outside Central Park near the Scholars Gate at E. 60th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The department’s public art programming was established as a conscious initiative in 1967, and seen as a way to augment its mission to preserve and make public space available across the city, in all of its variety, for beauty and recreation. Next year will be their 50th Anniversary. In addition to maintaining and preserving the permanent collection of art across the five Burroughs, the Art and Antiquities Department documents the history of New York City’s renowned parks. In a recent interview with Garden Collage Kuhn spoke about the history of art in NYC’s parks, the upcoming artists whose work centers around nature and the environment, and highlights from some past artists who were inspired by gardens– both in this city and around the world.
GC: What are some upcoming exhibitions in NYC parks that relate to gardening?
JK: We recently opened the highlights from the Society of Illustrators called Great Outdoors in the NYC Parks’ Arsenal Gallery. It features a variety of images, some historical, from the Museum of American Illustration’s collection. It will be on view through April 21.
We also have some projects coming up later in the year where artists will literally be building gardens. Juanli Carrion, for example, will be doing a project in Fort Greene Park later this year called the Outer Seed Shadow Project #2. He’s conducting a series of on-camera interviews with immigrants living throughout Brooklyn, especially in the district around Fort Greene Park, about their experiences arriving to the city. After the interview, he selects a plant that represents their country of origin. He’ll be planting this in a garden that’s in the shape of Brooklyn. I expect the project will be on view for several months of this year beginning in May.
From May 3rd – 31st, there will be an exhibition called Bed of Roses in the Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem. Artist Leah Poller will exhibit a raised bed of roses on a metal bed frame. This piece will be one of 30 that are part of the 2016 “Changing Landscapes” exhibition curated by Art in Flux.
In terms of past exhibitions, there was a Polish artist, Julita Wojcik, who did a conceptual piece in 2003 called My Garden. She created a picket fence and planted a garden you might have in your backyard, and she would tend to it, so to speak, but in this very public setting in Downtown Long Island City in Court Square Park.
Noah Baen, a horticulturalist at Wave Hill, created an ecological sculpture in 2004 in Lentol Garden, Brooklyn, which was called Persephone. He fashioned out of compressed leaves a form of a female figure based on the legend and myth Persephone. It was a very temporal artwork that decomposed before ones eyes and then returned to the soil as did Persephone herself.
GC: How have the art exhibitions and installations in New York City changed over time? How is what you’re working on now different than, say, 20 years ago?
JK: [The pieces] are certainly much more conceptually-based now and they often have a more complex intellectual underpinning. Sometimes it can present difficulties, as I think we still experience art in a very visceral way, that doesn’t and often need not require all the conceptual information. Indeed the public may respond in a way that was entirely unintended by the artist, as the artist’s intellectual concept may not be instantly apparent. Materials have also changed. People are using new technologies. Climate change is certainly a big overarching theme that people are interested in, and artists concerned with sustainability are often using found objects and existing material.
GC: What would you say makes for a successful public art installation? What are the components that need to be in place?
JK: I’m not sure I could say one thing. Certainly an understanding of the site, and an understanding of the use of the space and who passes through it. What you put on Park Avenue might be very different, and should be [very different], than what you put in a community garden.
“Polish artist Julita Wojcik did a conceptual piece in 2003 called My Garden. She created a picket fence and planted a garden you might have in your backyard, but she would tend to it in this very public setting in Court Square Park.”
Beyond this, I believe there’s constant tension in a work of art because that artwork is created largely in the imagination of a single individual, not by a committee, though many art works are a collaborative process. The public that receives this work of art in a public space is the broadest population possible, especially in New York. So how do you bridge the gap between the two? I don’t think it’s necessarily about the numbers of people who see the work. I think has to do with the richness of the individual’s experience of a work of art, and that’s a little bit difficult to define. There might be something that’s rather modest but somehow engaging. I think the most successful works of art allow the viewer to interpret it in a variety of ways, and they are not so literal as to permit only one response. But [the number of ways in which] that’s achieved is infinite– it’s as infinite as there are people and artists.
GC: How has working with public art affected the way you envision the potential of art to contribute to society?
JK: The original pioneers of our program were aiming for a kind of “museum without walls”. There’s no question in my mind that the people who pioneered public art were victorious in a sense that now it’s almost considered essential to our experience of public urban environments. The notion of rotating public art is similar to way that we have temporary exhibitions in museums and they draw large crowds of people who might otherwise not pay attention to the permanent exhibitions.
The same might be true in that we may become [attracted] to the spaces we encounter everyday [because of an art installation]. Tp see something new in that space, which doesn’t permanently alter it, might cause us to reconnect with that location. It’s almost as if people have come to expect the unexpected through a thoughtful and engaging work of art. I would hope that public art is really simply [with respect to] the imagination, causing people to rethink their surroundings and their place within them– and perhaps to have an emotional or intellectual experience that elevates their understanding of the world and themselves.
To me, the experience of temporal art elicits the same kind of response to flowers blooming in the spring, when there’s a beautiful floral display that lasts two weeks and then they perish and return to the earth. In some sense the intensity of experience that we have with gardens is not dissimilar to the one that we have with temporary art as it sprouts in a park for a while and then is removed and moved on– either to be replaced by another artwork or to simply return the park to being as it was before.