BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
After a proposed eight-foot, bright pink sculpture riled Long Island City residents last year, Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl addressed community concerns regarding the Percent For Art program that commissioned it.
Finkelpearl, a former Percent For Art director and the author of a text on public art, joined Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) at MoMA PS1 last Wednesday for a “Cultural Town Hall” meeting. Among other, broader topics, the two discussed possible changes to the program that would enhance community engagement.
As mandated by the City, Percent For Art uses roughly one percent of the budget for new construction projects to create public art. Brooklyn-based artist Ohad Meromi was selected to create a public sculpture for Jackson Avenue near 43rd Avenue as a result of streetscaping on Jackson Avenue.
The streetscaping cost $45 million, $515,000 of which goes towards this sculpture, Percent For Art representatives explained at a Community Board 2 meeting in November. At that time, Meromi’s plans called for an eight-and-a-half foot reclining figure, bronze with bright pink paint; the artist is still in the design process. Several residents and board members were taken aback by the sculpture and called for a smaller or more subdued piece.
Others took issue more generally with the PFA process, arguing that the community does not have enough input in the work that will go up on their streets.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Finkelpearl gave a rundown of the process – from panel selection of the artist, to community board review, to final approval by the Public Design Commission – which he said “has been serving us quite well for many decades.”
However, he added, “that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.”
The DCA commissioner said the agency is discussing legislation that Van Bramer is drafting, which would expand notification of incoming PFA projects and create a forum for public feedback. Although Finkelpearl refused to comment specifically on this legislation, he said the DCA is “very close” to agreement on it.
Finkelpearl also said he’d like to “experiment” with the idea of holding the Percent For Art artist panel selection within the relevant communities, as opposed to at the DCA, so that neighbors can more easily come and observe.
Lisa Deller, chair of Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee, took the microphone to suggest that the community should be more engaged in the site selection process. She was one of a small handful to specifically request greater community involvement in considering PFA project locations.
“Maybe you leave that to experts on who’s the right artist and such, but where it integrates into the existing community, and maybe where there are opportunities for the emerging community, is something that I think we can be more useful in working with you on,” she explained.
From his perspective as an artist, Meromi said he is not opposed to increased community participation in Percent For Art, although he worried about “a process that pleases the biggest crowd possible.”
“[That] is definitely not a direction you want to go,” Meromi continued. “So it’s a question of finding the balance.”
“Constantly discussing the process is always a good thing,” he added.
Another major component of the Cultural Town Hall was affordability for artists in Queens and New York City. Several artists spoke during a question-and-answer session about the rising costs of both living and studio space, and the uncertainty in having to move every few years.
Finkelpearl also addressed expanding diversity in the leadership of cultural organizations, institutions and agencies, including his own. He noted that the DCA has recently hired more Spanish-speaking staff members, and also that he wants to be as “approachable” as possible for artists of all backgrounds.
“It’s not enough to open the door, you have to go out and invite people into the door,” he said.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.