Unravelling creativity: Does public art have an afterlife?

“There is a history of queer and Black artists making work and having it destroyed,” Council, who identifies as Black and non-binary, said in an interview. “I would hate to see my work have that fate.”
Unravelling creativity: Does public art have an afterlife?

CHENNAI: Pamela Council set a deadline and said a prayer. It had been nearly seven months since the artist’s monument to survivors of the pandemic first appeared in Times Square, with its carapace of 400,000 hand-painted acrylic nails enshrining a bubbling fountain where visitors could reflect on persevering through COVID-19.

But when the artist’s commissioned exhibition with Times Square Arts ended in December, and the 18-foot-tall grotto was moved into a Brooklyn storage facility, Council was shocked to get a bill for $5,000 in monthly fees and insurance, an expense that would quickly drain the artist’s bank account. Times Square Arts would pay for the first five months of storage, but it was up to Council, the organisation said, to foot the continuing bill, or choose to dismantle the work.

Without gallery representation, the artist decided crowd-funding was the best chance of saving “A Fountain for Survivors,” buying time to raise $26,000 to pay for storing the 20,000-pound sculpture until a permanent home could be found.

“There is a history of queer and Black artists making work and having it destroyed,” Council, who identifies as Black and non-binary, said in an interview. “I would hate to see my work have that fate.”

A public art commission, dozens of which are awarded annually, represents one of the highest honours that an artist can receive in a city like New York, where space on the sidewalk is limited, materials are expensive and competition for a commission is fierce. The city’s most prestigious commissions are distributed by non-profits, which typically award established artists, who have galleries willing to shoulder production costs and ensure a fruitful afterlife for the sculptures. But many go to emerging artists with no gallery representation, who lack the resources to ensure that every monument and sculpture has an afterlife, which can leave them scrambling to save their own work — or choosing to destroy it.

“Artists are responsible for the artwork before and after display,” Megan Moriarty, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department, said in a statement, adding that “our staff work closely with artists and can provide recommendations for other organisations, locations and agencies that they might work with beyond the exhibition term.”

For example, Diana Al-Hadid was able to arrange a tour of her 2018 Madison Square Park Conservancy exhibition, called “Delirious Matter.” With help from the conservancy and her dealer, Kasmin Gallery, the sculpture traveled to Williamstown, Mass., and on to Nashville for the next two years. “Immediately it had a life, and it’s at that point when it’s possible for the artist to sell the work later,” Al-Hadid pointed out in an interview.

Kara Walker enjoyed a similar arrangement for her 2014 exhibition with Creative Time: “A Subtlety.” That work focused on an enormous sugar sphinx looming over the interiors of the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. When the show ended, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the artist’s gallery, arranged for a film crew to document the deinstallation. The dealer also helped store the sphinx’s left hand, which was later exhibited in 2019 by the Deste Foundation on the island of Hydra in Greece.

Small is a reporter with NYT©2022

The New York Times

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