Keeping the “Public” in Public Art

The Harriet Tubman Memorial Statue in Harlem, New York, is an example of public art commissioned by the Percent for Art program.
The Harriet Tubman Memorial Statue in Harlem, New York, is an example of public art commissioned by the Percent for Art program.

Money for the arts: Where does it come from and where does it go to? Every day there is another multimillion-dollar art auction some place. In New York City, the Metropolitan Museum — where entry had been on a contribution basis — recently instituted a hefty ticket price for non-New Yorkers. Just recently, the appointment of two white curators to the Brooklyn Museum’s African Art exhibit caused a furor.

Then, there’s public art. Starting in the 1930s, the US Treasury required 1 percent of the cost of federal buildings to be applied to art and what they called “decoration.” Now, more than half of the states maintain 1 percent for their art programs. In New York, the Percent for Art program has commissioned hundreds of site-specific projects by artists whose work they believe reflects the city’s diversity. But who decides where that 1 percent goes? If we all agree that arts and creativity are important ingredients of life, including city life, are we doing everything we can to support not just art, but also artists, including the ones that live in our midst?

I spoke to three guests who make it their job to figure out how we democratize access to art and art-making. Betty Yu is an artist and organizer of the Chinatown Art Brigade. Amin Husain is co-founder of the MTL Collective and professor at NYU. Charlotte Cohen is executive director of the Brooklyn Arts Council. For more forward-thinking interviews, go to

Laura Flanders: There’s so many places we could begin, but let’s just start with the public part of art. In your view, Charlotte, what is public art and why do we need it?

Charlotte Cohen: We can talk about public art objects. That’s one place to start and that’s what the Percent for Art programs that you just mentioned, Laura, fund. That’s funding that comes from capital budgets for construction in the city. There’s temporary public art that happens by individual artists in many different places and by city agencies, private companies, you name it. Then, there’s the work that Brooklyn Arts Council does, which is in funding individual artists, collectives and very small nonprofit organizations with grant money that is mostly from public sources like the city and state. Those are in the amounts of $2,000 to $5,000. They often make or break an artist’s project. That money is really designated for the public part of that work. It’s not to buy the paint or the studio rent. It’s really to bring that artwork out to the public realm.

Betty, why is it important to you?

Betty Yu: For Chinatown, our brigade, I think public art is an incredible opportunity to really reflect on what’s happening in certain communities. When we first launched, we launched because [CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence)] had an organization that they started to call “Chinatown Tenants Union.” After 9/11, there was a lot of massive displacement in Chinatown. They’ve been doing lots of organizing to prevent eviction. They realize they were really strong on their organizing strategies and direct action, but they really wanted to incorporate art and culture and wanted to do these outdoor projections at night. We collaborated with the illuminator that came out of Occupy Wall Street and we started to project these messages.

What were the messages?

Yu: Tenants were very clear about the three target audiences. One was reaching other immigrant tenants to get involved with the anti-eviction organizing. We’ve lost already 30,000 units of affordable housing in Chinatown or Lower East Side alone since 9/11, and 30 percent of the Asian population has declined. It’s a dire situation. We had messages like “Tenants unite,” “Get organized,” “Do you know your rights?” [and] “Do you know landlord harassment is [illegal]?” Different things like that in Chinese and in English and even Spanish. They also wanted to reach policy makers.

The third audience was artists and galleries who have been playing the role of the gentrifiers in Chinatown. The real estate developers know that they need to bring these galleries and artists in to raise the real estate level — what we talk about as the “Trojan horse.” These real estate developers have gotten so sophisticated in using artists — maybe artists that look like me in Chinatown — to come in with the 130 galleries that used to be mom-and-pop places and bakeries. They then raise the real estate. In about eight to 10 years, and then they’re big box stores. Then, even those galleries can’t afford it any more.

How do we prevent artists being [pitted] against one another, especially working-class, low-income artists like myself who are trying to survive doing the work that we do? When we talk about public art, we have to talk about accountability. Public art for who and for what? If it’s in a community, it must not, it cannot be used to displace people.

We have many things on the table here, from public funding of public art to how artists and art are sometimes used to “art wash” development that might displace artists. Part of your project is to democratize some of this decision-making.

Amin Husain: We collaborated with Chinatown Art Brigade as part of Decolonize This Place. For three months, we were in Tribeca. We got offered an exhibition and we said we’d take up the space and make it a movement space, a commons, where we could incorporate art and culture and these communities that are participating as a way to take a stand and have a conversation amongst ourselves as artists, cultural producers in the city, recognizing that we are complicit in the gentrifying, displacement and dispossession that’s happening. We have to build power in the process while recognizing our complicity.

It’s very difficult to live in New York City at all. But it’s impossible to live and not be a gentrifier, recognizing that we’re already on stolen land. We have a [Christopher] Columbus statue that’s public art that’s barricaded. Monuments in this city for whom? Public art for any purpose? Especially in a time when ICE is bordering our communities and taking immigrants from their homes. What’s the point right now?

Tom Finkelpearl is de Blasio’s appointed [commissioner] of the Department of Cultural Affairs. De Blasio is a progressive mayor who came in with a cultural agenda, which was kind of exciting in and of itself. Create New York brought in some $18 million, but also got a lot of grief. Charlotte, tell us a little bit about what you understand to be the agenda and then I want to hear some of the critique and where this could go.

Cohen: There has been a lot of critique of the plan and rightfully so. The plan is very aspirational as most strategic plans are. It lays out a whole series of potential ways to support individual artists, artists’ communities in different forms, collectives and neighborhoods. Part of that plan is about really providing access to the arts and culture in a way that probably hasn’t had a light shined on it in other administrations. The five arts councils — one in each borough of New York City — received more funding this year to re-grant to individual artists very specifically. That was a directive from the Department of Cultural Affairs. That was one way to try to get a flow of money out to individual artists. The city just appointed a nightlife mayor, which is a way to really take very seriously the challenges of DIY spaces that pertain to arts and culture and how they can remain in their spaces without being succumbed to the kinds of raids by the Fire Department and the Department of Buildings.

When you say “DIY spaces,” are these squatted buildings?

Cohen: No. They’re typically artists’ collectives or possibly nonprofits, 501(c)3s or even individual artists who have leases, but those leases are jeopardized by the incredible cost of running those spaces. Sometimes they have to sell liquor at shows that they would prefer to be all ages. That counts people out who would otherwise have access to that work. This has been really a very important case in Bushwick, for example, the Brooklyn neighborhood, and many other neighborhoods across the city where artists have been really challenged in regard to maintaining real estate, which is the biggest challenge of all in New York City, as we all know.

Amin, what’s your vision of how we move forward in a better way? This can’t just be a city of high-priced art auctions and high-ticket museums and then everybody else living as well as they can, stepping on each other’s necks.

Husain: In a way, we need to reorient towards each other. I think that the idea of galleries and the idea of people moving in as gentrifiers is a reality that we’re living in. It’s not about trying to create sides and demonize and not be productive. We need to move from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance.

The issue with art is that it creates spaces for people to care for one another at a time when we’re not allowed to. You saw this during Occupy. The previous administration moved everyone out of a park based on sanitation reasons when it was actually an issue of dissent in relation to the conditions — our economic conditions.

Are there pressures that we can put, not just on our public budgets, but on private developers and private industry, too? Betty?

Yu: In Chinatown, we’re in the front lines of ground zero in many ways, of art-washing. In terms of these private galleries and the insidious nature of how developers are using these galleries, we had Artist Space [and] Decolonize This Place organize a town hall meeting where a lot of galleries came out and they didn’t want to be the ones to be picked on, but we said, “It’s not about you as an individual. It’s about the system of gentrification. We understand that you’re a part of it, you’re complicit, but you’re obviously the little cog in the machine.” How do we figure this out together, and [give] them an opportunity to figure out how do you not be the A-hole in the community that only sees Chinatown as a cheap food and cheap rent and a place to sell your $10,000 paintings, but that you’re a part of community?

If you want to create equity within art in the city, you can’t do that without addressing the fundamental issues that working people are facing: gentrification, police violence, economic instability. What we’re seeing in our communities is an increase of police violence toward people who are actually from the neighborhood who’ve been living in the neighborhood, and the police are there to protect the newcomers and industry city, for instance.

Is there an example where a city program has really worked, Charlotte, in your view, on both a displacement and the art creation side?

Cohen: That’s a really big question. City programs really tend often to address very focused areas; for instance, arts education. The Su Casa program … funds creative aging programs all over the city. With many, many different disciplines in art, I think art’s education is a very grounding place to start in terms of then building up to communities that can be more vibrant and aware of the arts that exist right in their neighborhoods.

If you could do one thing, what would it be?

Husain: It would be for the galleries to open up their spaces for the communities in their neighborhoods to actually organize, make art, be that space.