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How does a public art curator make decisions?

This week's essay, In Lieu of Higher Ground, provides insight on how curatorial decisions are made around public art. I visited Will Ryman's site-specific art installation, The Roses, on Park Avenue, which consists of large individually painted sculptures made out of fiberglass and steel. About 40 of these sculptures are towering pink and red blooming flowers with bugs and thorns, while 20 more are flower petals strewn on the ground, some of which double as lawn chairs. They are installed along the traffic medians of from 57th to 67th streets and reach from three feet to up to 25 feet. It will be on view until May 2011.

Through researching this exhibit I learned how it was organized and its impact: its collaborators, expenses, the selection process of the artist and project, its multiple meanings, and how the role of its visitors influences those meanings.

The installation was approved by Adrian Benepe, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in partnership with the Fund for Park Avenue and the Paul Kasmin Gallery (which represents the artist). As Commissioner, Benepe “oversees the operation of about 29,000 acres and nearly 5,000 properties including […] almost 2.6 million street and park trees.” He also is in charge of “[expanding] public–private partnerships” in anticipation of budget shortfalls for his department (New York City Department of Parks & Recreation). However, the artist was responsible for organizing every aspect of the installation. He covered the $800,000 in expenses for the installation and will recoup the costs of the show by selling its pieces. Each sculpture ranges from $25,000 to $200,000. Half of the works have sold and what is left will be loaned out by the Paul Kasmin Gallery (Sawyers).

This demonstrates Cooke’s assertion that “intensely collaborative relationships [are] critical to the production of site specific public works in a plethora of different venues” and that funding for site-specific art installations often comes from “pooling public resources” and/or partnering with commercial galleries willing to invest their financial resources and/or pre-sell work from the exhibit (37).

Due to the collaborative nature of the installation, some compromises had to be made. The Roses is based on Ryman's 2009 gallery exhibit, "A New Beginning," which contained sculptures of trash debris in addition to flowers. However, the sponsors rejected large-scale sculptures of trash for the installation because they are promoting a city-wide anti-trash initiative. The petal sculptures replaced the litter (Lipinski).

The artist’s background proves Cooke’s point that “the monumental scale, theatrical form, high visibility, and rigorous accountability” of public art installations often results in “commissioners [opting] for artists with a proven track record who have previously demonstrated the kinds of ambition, resilience, and rhetorical skills mandatory in resolving such ventures successfully (37). Ryman is an internationally known artist whose previous projects drew serious curatorial and critical interest. These include a 2008 exhibit at the World Trade Center of 15 feet tall figurines of people from the neighborhood and participation in a critically acclaimed 2005 group show of emerging artists at MoMA PS1.

The founder of the Fund for Park Avenue, a co-sponsor of the exhibit, was in the 1950s “an early advocate of urban beautification.” Mrs. Albert D. Lasker “began planting begonias, tulips and flowering trees on some of the malls [of Park Avenue] to demonstrate to the City that plants could survive amidst all the traffic and pollution.” Eventually, she “convinced the Parks Department to take responsibility for their on-going planting and maintenance” (Fund for Park Avenue). While it is immediately apparent that the sculptures reference the neighborhood’s gardening traditions and herald the coming spring season, the fantastically whimsical and surreal imagery can also express the anxieties that lie underneath people’s awareness.

Blue Velvet's Opening Scene (1986) by David Lynch

The large size of the sculptures can seem monstrous and the attached thorns and bugs can seem menacing to the viewers located below. In addition to claiming that he “tried to convey New York City’s larger than life qualities through […] creating blossoms which are imposing, humorous, and hopefully beautiful” (Paul Kasmin Gallery), the artist was also inspired by the opening scene of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. When the “camera pans from a cheerful bed of roses to a churning, bug-filled underworld” Ryman sees this as “primal, menacing and, […] ultimately [a depiction of] the truth” (Spears).

These towering sculptures posit New York City’s population as a teeming mass of divergent ambitions, activities, beliefs, and emotions, which acknowledges the struggles found within and among the inhabitants of a major city. His multilayered artistic vision illustrates Cooke’s point that pubic art exhibits can sometimes “[reveal, critique, and problematize] issues relating to place and site in unprecedented ways” (34).

The presence of the visitor is an important component of Ryman’s installation. In the New York Times review of his exhibit, Ryman says he “[relies] upon Park Avenue residents and passers-by “to complete my piece.” The viewer’s perspective also impacts their experience of the exhibit. He “[loves] that somebody looking out their window could be experiencing an object one way, while someone standing on the sidewalk could be looking at the same object and having a totally different experience” (Spears).

The Roses is an exhibit that exemplifies Cooke’s description of an “intervention in the urban environment” that tests the “boundaries and premises of site-specificity” and “responds eloquently to the social, religious, cultural, political, historic, economic, and other factors shaping the fabric and infrastructure of […] [a] city” (33-34). It showcases the wide range of curatorial decisions that site specific exhibition-makers need to address in order to commission this type of artwork.

Works Cited

Cooke, Lynne. "In Lieu of Higher Ground" What makes a great exhibition? Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006. 32-43. Print.

Fund for Park Avenue. "History" Fund for Park Avenue. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>.

Lipinski, Jed. "Planting Giant Seeds of Imagination." Wall Street Journal. N.p., 22 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. "Contact the Commissioner : New York City Department of Parks & Recreation." New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. <>.

Paul Kasmin Gallery. "Press Release: Will Ryman, The Roses." N.p., 16 Nov. 2010. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>.

Sawyers, Susan. "Will Ryman’s whacky winter roses along Park Avenue." New York Social Diary. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>.

Spears, Dorothy. "Pushing Petals Up and Down Park Ave. "The New York Times. N.p., 14 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>.

#curatorialstudies #sculpture

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