From the Statue of Liberty to the Washington Square Arch, public art is an inextricable part of the NYC landscape. Outside of these established landmarks, there’s never a shortage of intriguing and thought-provoking pieces popping up across the five boroughs. These are a few public artworks currently on display around the five boroughs that help keep New York a vibrant center of culture, showing you don’t always need to visit a museum to get in touch with the world of art.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
The sometimes controversial Chinese dissident’s latest piece uses the entire city as its canvas. At sites across Manhattan and Brooklyn, Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Makes Good Neighbors serves as compelling commentary on the borders and separations that define our lives. Consisting of steel fences and pictorial banners strategically placed across the city, this piece is just the latest example of global artists using the city’s streets to make a vital statement.
On the more lighthearted side, this bright yellow construction consists of just two letters that carry a multitude of meanings for countless people. The 8-foot tall aluminum piece, depending on where on the Williamsburg’s North Fifth Street Pier and Park you’re standing, reads “YO” as in “I” in Spanish, or the slang “hey” salutation familiar to just about all New Yorkers. From the other side, the two letters read “OY,” perhaps a nod to the city’s many Jewish residents. Either way you choose to look at it, this piece by Deborah Kass is worth experiencing in person.
Flying High for Equality
A highlight of the City Parks Department’s Art in the Parks initiative, Flying High for Equality sits perched on the southern slope of Joyce Kilmer Park along East 161st Street in the Concourse Village neighborhood in the Bronx. A flock of multicolored sparrows representing the varied communities found in the city overlook the colorful neighborhood adjacent to Yankee Stadium.
Another piece sponsored by the Parks Department brings vivid color to the green parks of New York. Queens’ Rufus King Park in Jamaica already stands out thanks to a colonial manor central to the park, and Common Ground brings a more down-home feeling to the compact park space. Brightly colored benches featuring mosaic designs comprise this utilitarian piece of art, providing a place that encourages park visitors to come together and enjoy friendship and camaraderie any time of year.
The work of Polish-born artist Fitzhugh Karol, this highly interactive piece forms steel silhouettes into something new. Part public art, part playground, these works invite visitors to play and enjoy them while offering a highly unique aesthetic to Stapleton’s Tappen Park. Drawing inspiration from the freighters in nearby New York harbor, Eyes combines steel material with bright color.
New York City is an amazing place for art, artists and art lovers. Not just because of the amazing museums, but also because of the art that’s available every time someone walks out their front door.
So, where to find the best public art in New York City? The answer, everywhere! But, more specifically…
Start with the subway
From whimsical, curious political statues to tile mosaics that can be charming, informative (the actual name of the station!) or both, the subway is an underground gold mine of art.
Two of the best? First, get to the 14th St./Eighth Ave. station (the intersection of the A,C,E, and L lines) for Life Underground by artist Tom Otterness.
The permanent installation features a small bronze alligator eating a well-heeled, corrupt, politician. A woman reading a book sits on a similarly rich businessman.
The statuary is based, in part, on the work of 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Otterness told the New York Daily News, in 2016, “I thought not that much has changed in 100 years.”
On the lighter side is the Subway Art Safari, a series of tile mosaics (along the N, Q and R train routes) depicting fun animal families.
Flocks of parrots fly over stairs at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street stop. Penguins can be found by the exit stairs, also at 59th Street (Central Park South) and Fifth Avenue, as can a troop of monkeys. Not coincidentally, the Central Park Zoo is only a few blocks away from these entertaining images.
Above ground, there’s both a permanent and ever-changing landscape of art to explore.
Fearless Girl, by artist Kristen Visbal was unveiled in the Financial District in March, to both praise and skepticism. It put a distinct new spin on the art in that corner of New York (Broadway and Morris) because of the exact location—facing down the iconic Charging Bull statue. Fearless Girl is currently scheduled to stay in place only through 2018.
New Yorkers being who they are, someone recently put a Wonder Woman diadem on the statue, further reinforcing the strength of the piece.
Speaking of strength and iconic images, south of the Financial District at the tip of Manhattan is Battery Park. A trip there earns art lovers a view of perhaps the most iconic of all New York art, The Statue of Liberty.
Dedicated in 1886 and renovated in 2000, the statue is unique (to say the least) for both its meaning, and its colossal size.
Most recently, four Paparazzi Dogs have appeared in Greenwich Village. The work of Gillie and Marc, who are a husband and wife team, the demands-a-selfie art is on the traffic island at of Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue, and Christopher Street.
There is no end date set for the display.
For further proof that New Yorkers love art, head to the upper west side to see an original Banksys, lovingly preserved by the Zabar family.
That’s right, the founders of the family-owned for three generations market, Zabar’s, preserved a Banksy by putting plexiglass over it several years ago.
The piece, a boy taking a carnival-style hammer to a fire standpipe, is at 79th and Broadway. Incidentally (or not) that’s also the location of the market, which means there’s great food and drink options available to refuel for more public art touring.
Finally, keep an eye out for random acts of art.
Being New York, in addition to temporary and permanent installations, there’s also straight-up street art.
The blog worleygig.com features all things New York, but has a “street-art” tag that highlights the near-graffiti, colorful, often political, art that pops up on walls, posts and construction sites around the city.
A recent post points out face relief sculptures by French street artist Gregos that adorn the facades of buildings and other random objects all along 14th Street.
Worley also keeps an eye on art that could easily fall prey to graffiti, refurbishment, or the elements. According to the blog, Nick Walker’s mural of his signature Love Vandal character in a parking lot at the southwest corner of 17th Street and 6th Avenue, painted in the fall of 2014, “still looks great!”
In short, there’s art around every corner in New York City, and you don’t need to pay for museum entry to see it. One might say the city in itself is a gallery, and given the scale of art it holds, we’re inclined to agree.
New York City is a city with many reputations, not all of which fit neatly in a box. The restless metropolis is both a financial and artistic capital, known as much for Time Square’s neon ad-space as it is a canvas for renowned creators from poet EE Cummings to muralist Banksy.
Walk down a street and you’ll see a flashy Apple billboard on one side and street art on the other. Jump on the Q train, and you’ll see a Seamless campaign on the wall alongside a poem by Walt Whitman. New York has managed to allow ads and art to share space, even when the former is not as financially viable. How can this be, and can there be harmony between the two—and just as importantly, those behind them?
It’s important to begin by prefacing that ads and art have a lot in common. Overlap exists in the skills used to create them, and in their impact: catching the eye, heart, or mind’s attention, or eliciting a certain emotion. The difference is all in the intent: art isn’t selling anything, except itself or an idea from time to time.
New York City’s history as an artistic hub is well-known. To this day artists flock to New York City for its vibrant art scene, though the barrier to entry—not to mention the rent—has gone up since the days of beat poets and starving artists. Home to some of the world’s best art museums, like the MoMA and the MET, New York City is an artistic mecca in all fields: music, theater, writing, painting, you name it. And why not? With a rich history, diverse populace, and colorful culture, the streets are steeped in inspiration from the Bronx to Brooklyn.
Still, as much as artists are drawn to its lights like moths to a flame, New York has always been about the money first: think Wall Street, Upper West Side mansions and TriBeca penthouses. A beacon of hope in theory, the city of opportunity is also incredibly cut-throat. These days, “making it” means making money. And one way to do that? Go commercial.
Advertising is far from the only field that has commercialized art, but it’s certainly notable from an aesthetics perspective. The site of the hit AMC show Mad Men and the real life ad scene that inspired it, New York has also been an international hub for advertising for over a century. Among others, New York is home to the Omnicom Group, the second largest ad agency in the world with an annual revenue of over $15 billion.
Times Square is the most obvious, visual representation of NYC’s ad status. As early as WWII, the area has been a major intersection and prime vision of ad-space since the late 1800s. The first electrified advertisements appeared in 1904 and grew significantly in the 1920s. Though it declined and rose with the city over the years, especially following the Great Depression, WWII, it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world to this day. This is stunning when you consider that people are traveling across the world to essentially see advertisements in bulk.
It’s worth noting that Times Square isn’t a godless vacuum of cheap Elmos, naked Cowboys, and Coca-Cola ads: it’s also the heart of New York City’s theater district. Broadway has been a safe haven and love of artists for decades, but it’s also a multi-billion dollar industry, much like other forms of entertainment: music, movies, etc.
Is it surprising, then, that you can walk down the street in New York and still consume art for free? As Jordan Seiler, founder of the Public Ad Campaign,” told the New York Times, “Advertising frames the public environment as being for sale but public space is not inherently commercial.” New York has always valued art and will always have people in the public and private sector pushing to showcase it.
Seiler’s project, Public Ad Campaign, advocates for artists taking over public ad space. It also promotes an app called “No Ad” that uses augmented reality to transform ads into a “curated digital art experience” — among other partnerships, tools and exhibitions. The idea is for artists and art-lovers alike to resist ads in favor of artistic messages.
This renegade approach may not be wholly necessary, because it appears that New York is already on board with not-for-profit ads; the two coexist and not compete. People who work or study advertising, for their part, often create their own art on the side (there’s a reason the industry attracts writers and illustrators). More importantly, public projects commissioning local artists to decorate subways and “beautify” neighborhoods are proliferating. Heck, the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” was even brought back by popular demand.
This just goes to show that people like art for art’s sake, and the city knows that. It’s in their best interest to keep this in mind in order to attract residents and keeping commuters happy. For this reason, we can expect to continue seeing artists given a seat at the table, even if they’re sharing elbow space with Don Draper.