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Object in the Open Air
After a cold winter, spring weather invites us to go outside and enjoy the world, and for many, that means spending time in playgrounds and public parks. A few months ago, when it was still cold and snowy, a conversation about public sculpture brought to mind a project documenting each piece of public art in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This conversation was in my mind as I went through the Museum of Contemporary Crafts archives, and an exhibition about public art and public spaces caught my eye.
“Object in the Open Air” dealt with the “enrichment of man-made space.” Such a message is difficult to express in a museum environment, and to complement the exhibition the Museum of Contemporary Crafts organized an event in New York City’s Central Park. The “Cartoon Performance” was an artistic “happening” that invited artists and the public to participate in painting more than 100 yards of canvas stretched across the park’s Cedar Hill. The parks department commissioner, Thomas P. Hoving, was a supporter of the arts and museums that organized several such happenings during his short tenure as commissioner (he later became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). A press release for the happening suggested that “parks can be a stage - or a canvas - we have to find more and more ways of bringing more and more people into parks by innovating.”
In the early 1960s, support for public art was slowly building. At the time, there was a surge of interest in shaping man-made (public) spaces with beautiful design to combat the perceived ugliness of the urban environment. After years of austere, practical civic and governmental building projects, people were beginning to focus on creating welcoming public spaces. For some it was a matter of attracting people to cities and enticing them to stay, for some it was about creating a distinctive and impressive city, and for others it was about the well being of the human spirit, a crusade to create a beautiful and harmonious environment to nurture people.
In 1959, Philadelphia became the first city to approve an ordinance mandating that building projects set aside a percent of its budget for art, and in 1964 Baltimore followed suit. The mayor of New York City issued an executive order supporting the inclusion of artwork in city buildings in 1965, and in 1966 a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator became the parks commissioner. The political and artistic climate in New York created a perfect situation for a unique exhibition, and in the spring of 1966, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts presented an exhibition that championed the use of sculpture, design, craft, and architecture to make public spaces more welcoming and interactive.
The happening helped bring the exhibition outside the academic space and into the “open air,” but the exhibition space also showcased some ideal urban design projects through the display of large-scale photographs slideshows with descriptive text. Also included were landscape drawings and a handful of pieces that illustrated the use of sculpture for interactive play pieces. One such piece was a whimsical design concept for a play structure in the shape of an elephant with a slide in place of a trunk.
Hopefully you are ready to go spend some time outside, appreciating the environment and enjoying public art. But before you go outside, there are some excellent resources online to help you find public art. The one I mentioned above is Start Seeing Art, and there are similar websites for other cities. Philadelphia has an innovative audio program called Museum Without Walls, and Portland has a public art phone app. For excellent resources on public art including a magazine and an online public art toolkit, see Forecast Public Art.
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