Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City, Part 1

Map created by WXY Architecture + Urban Design

Long Island City covers a huge swath of Queens — 1,664 acres, or 500 square blocks, between Newtown Creek and 33rd Street — and encompasses such neighborhoods as Hunters Point, Ravenswood, Astoria, Dutch Kills, Sunnyside and more. Its history is one of transition from farmland to industrial center, accompanied by large-scale infrastructural development, as bridges, tunnels, ferries, rail lines and roads criss-crossed the region, to support the many steel, stoneworking, food processing and manufacturing companies that populate the area. But while industry continues to be an active and present part of LIC life, these days residents and visitors recognize the neighborhood’s thriving contemporary arts scene.

Individual artists and cultural institutions have fostered the evolution of Long Island City’s cultural landscape. In 1976, PS1 Contemporary Art Center opened its doors in a former school building on Jackson Avenue (PS1 merged with MoMA in 2000). The Thalia Spanish Theatre was established in 1977. In 1985, 24 years after first opening his studio in the neighborhood, sculptor Isamu Noguchi founded The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City. One year later and one block away, sculptor Mark di Suvero (who had also had studio space in the area since the early 1970s) established, with a coalition of other artists and community members, Socrates Sculpture Park, a foundation and public park on the site of a formerly abandoned landfill and illegal dumping ground. The establishment of these two cultural centers amplified LIC’s burgeoning identity as a contemporary arts hub, soon joined by the Museum of the Moving Image (which opened in 1988), the Fisher Landau Center for Art (1991), the Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs (2001), the Museum for African Art (2002), SculptureCenter (2002), and MoMA QNS, the temporary home of the museum during the two-year renovation of its Manhattan space, which took over factory space on 33rd Street as its central exhibition space from 2002-2004.

For both Noguchi and di Suvero, affordable real estate and proximity to suppliers and fabricators with whom they worked made the area appealing and logical for studio space. But their impact on the neighborhood extended beyond the studio and out into the public spaces of Queens, and the cultural institutions they founded underscored the existence of a local residential and cultural community that deserved attention and support. Now, the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park have come together to organize Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City, a multi-phase project, in the spirit of Noguchi and di Suvero, to conceive of new approaches to the neighborhood’s growth. They invited Natalie Jeremijenko, Mary Miss, Rirkrit Tiravanija and George Trakas, artists known for their socially-engaged work, to lead teams comprised of designers, writers and others in envisioning a future Long Island City that will retain its cultural, industrial and residential texture — as well as the still-evolving legacy of its artists — as it grows.

Opening tonight, October 12, 2011, at the Noguchi Museum, is an exhibition of the projects created by the four teams. Over the course of the fall and spring, the organizations will present a series of public programs to engage the public in the conversation and further investigate many of the issues at play. In the spring of 2012, the teams will install large-scale prototypes for elements of their proposals in Socrates Sculpture Park. A publication documenting the teams’ processes and projects will be published to conclude the project.

Last week, we had a chance to sit down with two of the forces behind this ambitious project: Jenny Dixon, the director of the Noguchi Museum, and Alyson Baker, the former executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park (now the director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum). Read on to learn more about Civic Action, the legacy of these two prominent artists, and how big-thinking, creative approaches to planning and development can encourage growth while maintaining character, honoring local history and recasting the role of the artist in urban development. Then click through to get a preview of the projects created by the four artist-led teams, on view at the Noguchi Museum, tomorrow through April 22, 2012. —V.S.

R/Call: IF ONLY THE CITY COULD SPEAK installation by artist Mary Miss and project team as part of Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City | Photo by Bill Taylor, Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Urban Omnibus (UO):

Tell me about Civic Action. How did you conceive of the idea and what was the process of turning it into the project it is now?

Jenny Dixon (JD):

The idea started with our concern about how development might drastically change this neighborhood, and the environment and experience of the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park. Alyson and I, along with my colleague Amy Hau, were invited by the head of the local community board to come and look at a proposed project for a building right behind the Noguchi Museum. The plans referenced the Noguchi garden and Socrates Sculpture Park, but the architect and developer had never asked us or talked to us.

Alyson Baker (AB):

The crux of the problem, illustrated by that story, is that there is an awareness and acknowledgement of how important the legacies of figures like Isamu Noguchi and Mark di Suvero are to this area, and yet development is going on without including, or even speaking with, people from the creative sector who are such a big and important part of this community. The acknowledgement is there, but the inclusion is not.

Here we have this tremendous legacy of two artists shaping a significant section of New York City and we need to make sure that legacy is not only acknowledged, but becomes part of the future. That really inspired the project.


For those who aren’t familiar with Noguchi and di Suvero’s histories with Long Island City, can you summarize their relationship with the area?


The short version is that Mark di Suvero established his studio here, saw an empty lot next door and had a vision that probably no one else could have possibly had other than Mark di Suvero, which was to transform it into a park and a residency and exhibition opportunity for artists.


Noguchi’s story is not dissimilar. Noguchi came here first in 1960, and around 1980 he decided to build the museum. Noguchi’s vision for the Museum was to house his work and be the place for people to understand who he was.

Here we are, in the shadow of these amazing visionaries — of course, Mark is still living and working here today — who lived within spitting distance of each other. It’s our job to carry forth their legacies. That’s what we’re trying to do with Civic Action.

This project stems from the idea of Noguchi as somebody who looked at public spaces, who was engaged in the realm of planners and architects. Noguchi was an artist who hired architects, hired planners — and he worked for them as well. His relationships with Gordon Bunshaft or with Louis Kahn were very much collaborations of mutual respect. His very dear friends at the architectural firm of Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao were right next door. It was in that light that we chose to have artists lead the Civic Action teams.


How did you identify the artists who are participating and how did they assemble their teams?


We both did a lot of research, reached out to peers, and then put together shortlists. We knew that we would be asking these artists to jump in with a relatively short time frame and that they really needed to be able to come to the table with a good solid background in socially engaged work. We also wanted each artist to have a unique perspective, but one that would complement the others.

Though they are artist-led, the teams include designers, architects and landscape designers as well. But this wasn’t an architectural competition. We wanted to make sure that the artists, the public and everyone participating knew that this was a collaboration. It was about complementary ideas coming together, with as broad a perspective as possible.


Once the artists signed on, you charged them with finding an architect or planner and a scribe to complete their teams. What did you imagine those three roles would accomplish together?


That goes back to the idea of Isamu as an artist who hired architects to work with him. He was, as an artist, the leader of the team and the director of the concept, and was looking to architects to support his vision — not that he didn’t also work in support of architects as well. We took that model and translated it within the framework of this project. The artists would be the initiators, the driving forces behind the teams — and we didn’t limit it to just an architect and a writer, they were welcome to open up their teams beyond that as well.


The writers, documenting the teams’ work, are key to the project. We will be producing a catalog, in which each team will explain their process, their ideas and their thinking. We want to offer this project as a model in some ways. So the catalog will be more like a workbook or a journal.


Collaboration is something I’m really interested in because of the years that I’ve spent at Socrates working with young artists, mentoring them through a process of understanding how to work on a larger scale, with materials that might be unfamiliar to them. We have just initiated a new project at the park where we are creating a forum where young architects and young artists work together, on separate projects, on their own things, but in the same studio. I think that kind of collaboration is important, especially when it comes to work within the public realm, and when you have so many artists who are interested in architecture, urban planning, design — a much bigger picture.


What was the brief that you presented to the teams? What did you challenge them to do?


We gave them a big briefing book on the community, with information about neighborhood demographics, local industry, things like that. We also gave them a list of people who had agreed to be community advisors, people like Alan Suna from Silvercup Studios, community board members, residents, the principal from a local school.

Then we told them a story similar to the one that we’re telling you, about how we wanted to empower them to look at this community, in the spirit of di Suvero and Noguchi, and come up with ideas about how to maintain the existing texture. Everything changes — we’re not saying there should be no development — but how can we participate in that change in a way that affirms the missions of our respective organizations and their founding artists.


In a way, we didn’t tell them so much what they should do, as we told them what Mark and Isamu had done. We said, this is the legacy of this neighborhood and the impact that artists have had, and now we’re handing the baton to you to look to the future.


We didn’t enter into the project with any preexisting expectations. We didn’t know what they were going to come up with. We presented information to the teams and gave them access to resources and people — it’s important to recognize the advisory group we had for the project: Hugh Hardy, Donald Elliot, Diana Balmori, Richard Meier, David Childs and Richard Maltz. We set up meetings with the artists and the advisory group, moderated by Claire Weisz, who was our project strategist and has been key to the project, and Laurie Beckelman. Those meetings were where these ideas and conversations began.


We informed the teams that there was going to be a component of the exhibition at Socrates next year, which represented an opportunity to do real scale, real time prototyping in the landscape — to realize something substantial. But it was about vision, too, so we knew that some of the ideas might be far-fetched. But George Trakas has actually completed amazing projects with the City, so has Mary — we knew that these artists were capable of realizing projects.

Jenny Dixon joined The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum as director in April 2003. She began her arts career in 1977, when she joined the Public Art Fund, where she served as executive director from 1980 through 1986. Among her many accomplishments at the Fund was the initiation of the New York City “Percent for Art” program. In 1986, Dixon joined the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as executive director, and in 1999 was named director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts. She has taught at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Parsons School of Design, and New York University. She is on the boards of the Public Art Fund and the New York City Arts Coalition, among other organizations.

Alyson Baker is the executive director of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and was formerly the executive director of the Socrates Sculpture Park for over a decade before she ended her tenure in June 2011. Prior to joining Socrates, Baker was director of Pat Hearn Gallery (1987-1992), an associate director of Gagosian Gallery (1992-1997), curatorial assistant in the Contemporary Art Department at the Carnegie Museum of Art and assistant to the 1999 Carnegie International exhibition (1998-2000). Ms. Baker is a co-founder and former president of the Long Island City Cultural Alliance, a non-for-profit partnership of arts organizations that works in concert with artists, businesses, and residents to encourage and enrich the arts community in Long Island City. In 2009 she founded Makers Market, an annual craft and design fair, in partnership with American Craft Magazine, The Noguchi Museum, and R 20th Century. Most recently, she initiated a collaboration with The Architectural League of New York to create “Folly,” a studio residency and exhibition program at Socrates Sculpture Park for architects and designers.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.