Of course, much of that thrill comes from the dazzling electric signs, the teeming crowds, the overwhelming sensory experience of the place. But the group responsible for its upkeep, the Times Square Alliance – which was originally formed as a Business Improvement District in 1992 to provide additional security and to clean the streets, and subsequently grew to produce New Year’s Eve, Broadway on Broadway and other large events – also sees Times Square as a fertile canvas for contemporary artists, a unique opportunity to bring individual, creative visions to bear on a popular landscape that we think we know. So Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins hired Glenn Weiss, a veteran arts administrator and curator with a diverse body of work that has ranged from putting on shows at Storefront for Art and Architecture and PS1 in the 1980s to implementing local government public art programs in Seattle and south Florida, to bring public art to Times Square.
Business Improvement Districts are more commonly known for putting on events (alongside traditional maintenance activities) than they are for robust public art programs. Weiss cites other examples, like the Downtown Alliance, the Madison Park Conservancy or the Chicago Loop, as examples of local or community-based groups committed to public art. But few places can claim the sheer number of visitors or the indescribable energy of Times Square. With those unique characteristics in mind, we took Weiss on a walk through Times Square to talk about the place, the role of public art in civic life and some of the art works he has facilitated over the past three and a half years. It was one of his last days on the job, as he prepares to move to Houston to take on yet another exciting challenge at the intersection of community engagement, urban placemaking, and contemporary art practice.
What do you do?
For the past three and a half years, I’ve been the manager of public art and design for Times Square. We look for the very best in contemporary arts in all mediums and all forms, and we invite artists to come in and diversify the activities and reputation of Times Square as it is today. We want Times Square to be seen as part of New York as a whole. And since the best in contemporary art and design is part of that whole, we want that to be in Times Square.
I see myself primarily as an arts administrator who also does curatorial work rather than the other way around. The difference is that my goal is to facilitate creative people to do their best work. I’m less concerned with evaluating whether the work is excellent to present or whether it advances the field, I’m evaluating whether or not I can help an artist do something special in a particular place with a particular community. And in Times Square, that community is the 300,000 people who pass through here every day.
Times Square is the most amazing document of the kind of interfaces we create between ourselves and what we broadcast to ourselves.
How did this job come about for you?
When I first heard about this opportunity in Times Square, I was living in Florida, where I managed a public art program and worked in urban design and planning for a suburban, planned community called Coral Springs. I think part of what qualified me for this position – in addition to my experience as a curator in alternative art spaces and as an arts administrator in local government – was a blog about public art I’d been writing for the previous two years or so for ArtsJournal. There were not many people writing consistently on public art at that time.
So you’ve worked with public art in a wide variety of contexts.
When I moved here for this job in 2008, it wasn’t my first time in New York. In the ‘80s, I studied architecture at Columbia, and during that time I became friends with a lot of great artists in the East Village, one of whom is Kyong Park, who founded Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1982. We worked together for two years running Storefront, and we became very engaged in how artists and architects are able to make an impact with their work. We did several major public projects: one dealt with homelessness and how to build shelters, another was our attempt to save Adam Purple’s Garden in the Lower East Side. We didn’t think to label these projects as “public art,” we just thought of ourselves as doing stuff out in the world. To be here, doing that, during those early years was an exceptional experience in my life.
After that, I moved to Seattle, but I simultaneously became the architecture curator at PS1, so I would return to New York to manage the exhibitions I organized up until 1990. When I first moved to Seattle, I curated a series of outdoor exhibitions on people’s front yards. Then I was hired to be the manager of the public art program for King County, which surrounds and includes Seattle. So that’s where I “learned” public art in an official sense.
I’ve heard your early work described as political in nature. Do you think about your work in public art as political?
I don’t. In the ‘80s, in Seattle as well as at PS1 or at Storefront, my work was very clearly political: I wanted to change the world, I wanted to find artists and architects that were interested in changing the world and I wanted to work with them.
In Seattle, after running the public art program for King County, I decided I wanted to be a community activist in my neighborhood, which was a very low income and very diverse community. And what happens when you dedicate yourself to the community is that all those abstract ideas about who is to blame for various kinds of social injustice suddenly seem not to function very well. Not only do you have to work with real people who have wonderfully different ways of doing things, but you also have to start making compromises in order to effect change within your community. When you start to do that, the strategy of being aggressive toward the powerful doesn’t function as well any more.
Given the trajectory of your career — moving from being a curator in the vanguard of art and culture to a role in municipal government instituting public art policy — what does “public art” mean to you? How would you define it?
Public art, as I see it, began as an idea that architecture had failed to humanize its environment, that the bad modernism and strip-down economics of government buildings had left public architecture bereft of any human intimacy. Public art as we think of it today emerged from a passionate urge to bring back that sense of human intimacy.
But these days, architects are finding ways to bring that intimacy into our built environment. So public art, when it works well, becomes about finding ways for artists, administrators and curators to work together – in collaboration with communities of people who use or visit a particular place – to create the conditions for some new thing to be born.
What does Times Square mean to you?
From 1990 until I moved back here in 2008, I hardly ever visited New York. And in 1990, Times Square was a very different place than it is today! Even when I did live in New York in the ‘80s, I would rarely ever come to Times Square. 42nd Street was very active, whether it was with movies or porn or drugs, but Times Square itself was very quiet. There weren’t even very many electric signs at that time. Other than when people came to see Broadway shows, there was a sense of emptiness.
When I came back for the first time in 2008, it was completely surprising to see the number of people, the number of stores, the kind of transformation to a place that seemed more normal in a way but also not normal at all. Times Square is the most amazing document of 21st century entertainment, of the kind of interfaces we create between ourselves and what we broadcast to ourselves.
There is no other place like it, maybe in the world. Times Square is a place of visceral experience; it is not a place of thought. And making that connection in an artwork – to experience, rather than to thought – can be extremely difficult.
So what was the process for presenting public art in that context?
We started by identifying the public space throughout Times Square, both the plazas and the privately-owned public spaces. We did two open calls for ideas, one in 2009 and one in 2010. Basically we just said “give us your ideas about what you would like to do and we will evaluate the quality of the proposal and the feasibility of actually making it happen within that space.” Our criteria for selection, beyond making sure every proposal considered was functional and safe, prioritized projects that somehow spoke to Times Square and the people who would be here.
When I first came, we started out at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with Tattfoo Tan’s giant mural on the front of the bus terminal and then a smaller mural on a fence on 8th Avenue by Kai McBride. Our idea was to go from all these corners because, here in Times Square itself, there is very little space. When the Mayor closed Broadway to traffic, then everything changed.
How has the public art program interfaced with the urban design changes that happened over the past few years, if at all?
Tim Tompkins is very concerned, and rightly so, that Times Square be a great public space with valuable civic events and people on the ground. The Times Square Alliance did not want Times Square to be just left as an empty plaza or open only to corporate events. The public art program became a kind of demonstration project to show how these plazas could be a benefit to the general public. Remember: on an average day, 300,000 people pass through Times Square.
One thing about Times Square is that an audience is always here, in a way that does not exist when you are in, say, Madison Square Park or in front of the County Court House. So one of the main objectives for artists or designers is to figure out what to do with that audience. How do you engage them, where do they physically place themselves? How do they as a group go in and out?
One of the great projects from Performa in 2009 was Arto Lindsay’s dance performance where a line of fifty dancers slowly made their way through Times Square. I loved the way the crowd dealt with how to keep up with the performance. They had to keep running around ahead of the dancers. So you have the dancers in a line, but the people move in blobs and waves as they try to keep up with the the dancers — and the strange phenomenon is that the crowd didn’t give the dancers any space. They would keep crowding around them again and again, so the crowds become part of the interactive potential for the artist.
Here is another type of interactive project, a piece called Performer by Adam Frank, installed in Anita’s Way, which is the name for the pedestrian passageway of the Bank of America Tower. Adam calls this a “self-affirmation piece.” If you stand in this spotlight on the ground, your presence triggers the sound of beautiful applause for you and only you.
Tell me about some other artists and artworks that you brought to Times Square, and how they responded the context they found here.
One of the major ways that visitors to Times Square engage with the place comes from photography and the public’s desire to make a visual record of themselves experiencing something new. As an artist, how do you take advantage of that?
In 2009, Gage / Clemenceau Architects attempted to do just that with Valentine Heart. They made a sculpture of a heart and also designed a little stage in front of the sculpture with up-lights. People waited in line to have their picture taken on the stage with the heart. Gage / Clemenceau understood what people wanted to do and how to create a setting for it in Times Square.
The first and only time we tried using the three billboards at the southern end of Times Square — the NASDAQ, the Reuters, and what was then Panasonic News, which is now the Sony News — was two years ago during Performa ’09. For a piece called Snorks, the artist Loris Greaud had all three screens playing images of fireworks for 20 minutes that relate to a complicated project of underwater animals and fireworks in Abu Dhabi.
We did a piece with the Cuban artist Alexander Arrechea on the NASDAQ Board right after the economic crisis, which was a giant animation of a wrecking ball smashing against the NASDAQ sign. Not only did the public not really recognize what was happening, but even NASDAQ did not necessarily recognize the relationship between the piece and what was going on in the world.
What we found is that for the artists as well as the people who come to Times Square on a daily basis, the memory of being in Times Square and the projection of being in Times Square is almost as important as actually doing the work in Times Square.
That seems to reflect what you were saying about people’s primary point of engagement being photos of themselves in this place, the desire to create a memory of having been in a place seems a primary reason that a lot of people come.
People come here to experience the center of New York. For example, my wife’s relatives are from Argentina. When they come to New York, they don’t think about whether or not they might come to Times Square. They have to come to Times Square on a visit to New York.
Another thing that interests me about Times Square is that a lot of the social services remain. Right in front of us is the Woodstock Hotel, which provides services for very low-income seniors, and there are facilities for the homeless nearby. These types of uses may no longer be considered to be part of the character of the place in the way they might have been in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, but the living legacy of the senior center in the Woodstock Hotel is just as much a part of Times Square as the history of the Paramount Theatre, the site of the first youth fan craze for a musician, for Benny Goodman in the ’30s. Years later there was an actual riot for Frank Sinatra, with teen girls fainting as he arrived to perform. These historical moments become part of the density of the experience.
Do you consider the billboards and signs themselves to be a form of public art?
No, I don’t. They are very infrequently used to engage or empower an individual community or to bring the artist and the community together. But I do think what makes Times Square unique is the way that it fills up your whole cone of vision and your peripheral vision: everywhere you look, there’s this lighting and this crazy energy that you don’t experience in physical space anywhere else in the world. When you’re here, you feel the space of it as opposed to a combination of the particular buildings or other individual components.
But, speaking of billboards, a little known fact is that 1 Times Square on the southern end has no occupants, aside from a Walgreens on the ground floor. It is completely economically supported by the advertising from the billboards.
You’ve worked at the county level in Seattle, at the town level in south Florida, and in Times Square you are working at the relatively small scale of a district, albeit one of the most iconic districts in the world. In terms of having a coherent, influential or successful public art program, do you like working at the district level?
I think the great public art administrators and curators in the country are those that have a single place of operation where they continue to work over and over again. Of course there are groups like Creative Time that do great work pretty much everywhere. But, for me, a sustained effort will produce better results than what’s possible in a county or a large city or a state, where you would have to come into a community one time, learn once, listen once, and then leave. I think it’s far more difficult at larger scales to do work that’s the same level of quality, unless you are very lucky or have the benefit of an artist’s sheer determination to do a great job.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to run the Art League Houston, which is an art center near downtown Houston. My goal is to expand its capabilities in serving the artist community and those people who want to make art – fusing adult education with community engagement. I have this idea in my head, after being here in the land of the virtual, to get back to something my parents dreamed of in the ’50’s and ’60s, which was for people to make art together. In their generation they called it a hobby; in ours we call it Do-It-Yourself; but whatever we call it, there’s a desire for physical and collaborative activities, for people to come together and make art together. I’d like to try to help create space for that in Houston.
Glenn Weiss has maintained a diverse professional practice assisting governments and civic organizations with physical transformations of cities and neighborhoods through urban planning, architecture, landscape and public art. Since May 2008, Glenn Weiss has developed and managed the new public art program for the NYC Business Improvement District responsible for Times Square and the Broadway Theater District. He is currently the executive director the Art League Houston.