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.