On Artists and the City

To mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of Urban Omnibus, we look at themes that have emerged in our content over time and think about what those threads reveal about the needs, desires, and priorities of the city today.

New York City is constantly subject to consternation, debate, and elation about its vitality as an arts capital. Glowing reviews or critical takes on the latest installation generate as much discussion as concern that the affordability crisis has rung the death knell of artistic production in the five boroughs or, conversely, that artists are harbingers of community-destroying gentrification. Beyond these external assessments of the state of art in the city, artists are continually producing: drawing inspiration from, engaging with, and intervening in the physical and cultural environment of New York.


“Shaking Shelter”, 2009 by Emily Henretta

Early on in the Omnibus project, we sat down with four artists to discuss how they interact with the city through their art, including Heather L. Johnson’s take on complex infrastructure systems through drawing and embroidery; Emily Henretta’s use of collage to illustrate, among other dichotomies, construction and destruction; Roberto Mollá’s depiction of the cityscape through mediums as varied as architectural representation and anime; and Swoon’s transformation of the built environment through cut-paper woodblock prints and raft flotillas. And our curiosity over this dialogue between artist and city has continued, from a review of an exhibit that takes the intersection of art and urbanism as its organizing principle to a field trip to a unique mural project to consider the changing realm of street art, observe the murals of Welling Court, and hear how local residents experience them in the neighborhood.

Our interest in the physical city often draws us to public art as an intersection of the specificities of place and artistic production. Take for instance Times Square, which hosts approximately 300,000 visitors a day in public plazas surrounded by monumental flashiness. We walked around this iconic New York streetscape with Glenn Weiss, former manager of public art and design for the Times Square Alliance, and discussed the possibilities and challenges of presenting work in that unique context and the broader role that public art serves in civic life.


Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

In a space far removed from the lights of Broadway — a public housing development in the Bronx — Thomas Hirschhorn created, collaboratively with the community, a monument to his favorite Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. The process of doing so, the live programming at the installation, and the interactions that resulted were as much the art piece as the tangled plywood monument.

Beyond using the city as a canvas, an inspiration, or a place to produce, artists often explicitly engage its contemporary issues beyond the stereotypical realm of art practice. José Serrano-McClain is one such practitioner: he blends art and community organizing to support community institutions and ideas through the Queens Museum’s Corona Studios project and runs Trust Art, a community investigating new forms of support — monetary and otherwise — for creative work in the public realm. We also heard from The Civilians, an investigative theater company, about their piece on the Atlantic Yards debate and the potential for artists to put voices in conversation through performance that may never interact in real life, thereby bringing nuance to a pitched battle that too often broke down into vagaries and stereotyping.

Whether their work appears on stage, in a gallery, or on a metal gate of an auto shop, artists need space to create. Spaceworks, a non-profit real estate developer formed by the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, seeks to identify and make available underutilized spaces in which artists can work and in doing so, keep New York a place where art is made, not just seen. chashama has a similar purpose, but instead of seeking out permanent structures to house artist studios, it works with real estate to repurpose under-utilized spaces on a temporary basis for performance, display, and studio space, activating spaces to the mutual beneficence of artists, developers, and communities.

While the debate over the role of artists in the economic vitality of cities continues, few would argue that a robust cultural life is detrimental to our neighborhoods. To examine how creative production works at the neighborhood level, we took a look at Corona, Queens; Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Hunts Point, the Bronx; and St. George, Staten Island. Each of these is a Naturally Occurring Cultural District, where creative individuals and organizations tend to cluster, and our in-depth reports show how these ecosystems function and what lessons they provide for building stronger communities with homegrown creativity as a foundation.


Cumbe Grand Opening Dance Class | Photo by Josh Gilbert, courtesy of Cumbe Dance


Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina.

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