Who is the Public?

Roundtable Discussion

Justine Ludwig, executive director of Creative Time; Cecilia Alemani,  Donald R. Mullen, Jr. director and chief curator of High Line Art; and Nasher Chief Curator Jed Morse consider public art during a pandemic and time of social and political change. 


There has been a lot going on, obviously, over the past year, and a lot of institutions have turned to public art to pursue their missions while things have been shut down. I think it might be a good place to start for us to talk about before the pandemic, and before the political and social turmoil over the past year, and to think about how public art functioned. Because public art is this very special animal within the ecosystem of visual art—there’s something different about encountering art in the public realm rather than in a museum or gallery space, and both of your organizations—the High Line and Creative Time—really work within that very specialized area. Could you both talk about what you were doing before the pandemic, and then we'll consider how things have changed?  
Creative Time has a unique relationship with public art—we really are focused on public interaction and socially engaged work. That critical mass mediating the relationship with the art that we're creating and supporting is central to our practice, and so a challenge that we faced when the pandemic hit, specifically, was that we had this great roster of programming that really demanded critical mass in order to be activated appropriately. We found ourselves having to radically rethink everything that we were doing to support projects that still spoke to that mission of centering the public within the work while also challenging the structure of what public art can be in a time when we couldn’t convene en masse. And so that was a big challenge for us, because, to your point, it's a great moment for public art as people are wanting to be outdoors, interacting with things while they're mindful of the pandemic. But work we’re often creating—what we still identify as public art—often happens inside. And so, we've had to do some radical rethinking of the kinds of things that we've taken on, and last year forced some really innovative and strange formats in terms of what we commissioned and supported.  

Justine Ludwig, executive director of Creative Time, talks about using digital space as public space for artists.

The context that you work in, Cecilia, with the High Line—since it is outside—does provide an ideal environment during the pandemic and I'm curious about what you were thinking of before the pandemic, and then how things have changed?  
The High Line has a physical space, and that's what we use as a big stage for public art or, as we like to say, a museum without walls and without ceilings. So, in a way, our core mission, which is to support artists and in commissioning and producing new thought-provoking artworks, hasn't changed with the pandemic simply because the space is still there. It is a space where people are even more eager to go now, because they’re looking for outdoor spaces. What has changed dramatically, of course, is the critical mass of the visitorship on the High Line. We are far from the 8,000,000 visitors that would visit the High Line in a year who, even if they didn't come to see art, would still have an encounter with art, since the way we install our art projects is often intertwined with the gardens. Now, the visitorship has dropped tremendously, which in a way is like a new beginning, because you finally can come have a walk without the crowds. It is really, really pleasant, and I think it allows visitors to have a 360 experience, which is what we care about—it’s not just the art, but it's the architecture, the gardens, and the cityscape around this multifaceted experience.  
“The High Line has a physical space, and that’s what we use as a big stage for public art … a museum without walls and without ceilings.” - Cecilia Alemani 
I'm curious about how each of you have adjusted in terms of programming.  Justine, you were talking about shifting the model a little bit. How have you done that? 
We worked on a project with Jill Magid, which was in direct response to the pandemic. She created an intervention on 120,000 2020 pennies, which was the amount of the initial stimulus check that went out [$1,200], and on the edges [of each penny], she had engraved the text, “The body was already so fragile.” Those pennies were then dispersed through the economy, originating in New York, but I've been informed that there are some across the country. I know there are quite a few in Dallas, since I'm getting messages about it, so we're thinking about what it means to create a public artwork that exists primarily as rumor, frankly, or a serendipitous encounter.  
We wanted to challenge what it means to have public art exist within the quotidian rhythms of one’s life in a truly atypical and unanticipated way. So, even interrogating currency as a national political art commission and challenging what it means when you start thinking of currency as public art commissioned by the government. We were also questioning what it means to create a memorial or monument to a form of suffering that went primarily unseen over the course of the past year—people were unable to mourn loved ones collectively, as they normally do when experiencing tragedy. And so, the project was really intended to speak directly to the conditions of the time. We really want to support the art of the Now that's responding to the sociopolitical in real time, so it was exciting working with an artist that proposed such a radical format for creating a monumental work.  
There's also something really touching about the way that it participates in the social fabric. You don't expect currency to move around a lot during a lockdown. 
With the sculpture center, we wanted to provide ways for people to see art when we were closed, so we commissioned installations by North Texas artists in our vestibule space, which could be seen from the street, and it was an interesting form of connection. Those connections have been rare during the pandemic. They've also become heightened in their importance.  
Cecilia, I wonder if you've experienced that on the High Line as well in terms of your audience?  
All of a sudden, the people that come to visit the High Line are the community that we want to target: the local communities. Before, we would do public programs targeted to these communities, but it was really hard to access the park, and [local visitors] were a tiny percentage of the big numbers. Now that all the tourists are gone suddenly, it makes it even more sense to have that specific local community in mind and to be more intentional. And so, we can break those barriers that we had before. We have also just announced that the High Line will be extending its physical park to connect on one side to the new Moynihan Station: basically a walkable path that exists among these new giant buildings part of Manhattan West. Then on the other side, it will be connected to new pier that is called Pier 67 that is being transformed into a public park along the Hudson River. It's interesting that these two projects, which were not necessarily scheduled to happen during the pandemic, send a strong message that we care about making access and are thinking about the local surroundings: Who are our neighbors, and how is the city changing around us? And how can we create an experience that extends the High Line to be a bit less isolated? So, I think connections, dialogues, and collaborations will be the new norm for the years to come—not that they weren't, but before, we were a bit more focused on our own little garden, now we're focused on the connections.  
Justine, you talked about the Jill Magid commission, a piece that responded directly to the conditions of the pandemic. Has commissioning changed for you during the pandemic?  
“That was quite new to us—really thinking actively about digital space as public space. Especially during the pandemic, that’s where people were convening.” - Justine Ludwig 
There were a few things that we did that were quite different. One of them was opting to use digital space. At the onset of the pandemic, we started talking to a lot of artists in our community, and they were saying, “I have no support to make work right now. I'm sitting at my dining room table, and I'm drawing all day.” So out of that we ended up commissioning a series of comics that were rapid responses by artists to the time, which we released on Instagram. They were a series of nine panel comics that really were made to be seen on Instagram, and so that was quite new to us—really thinking actively about digital space as public space. Especially during the pandemic, that's where people were convening.  
We're all involved in this broader conversation with a variety of communities, and how one reaches out to those communities is something that we have to redefine as we're responding to the conditions of the world. The program in the vestibule at the Nasher morphed into something called Nasher Public where we continue installations in the storefront space here at the sculpture center, which people can now enter. But also, we've extended that out into the community where we're partnering with organizations and property owners around the city to commission and display works, focusing on North Texas artists to provide that kind of support and exposure. It's been fascinating to have that conversation, particularly with property owners, who haven't traditionally been involved in the arts and who are nonetheless really interested in providing space and support for temporary works of art. I would imagine that you both have partnerships with members of the community to do similar things. I'm curious if that conversation has expanded or contracted for you over the past year. 
Generally, the way we work is that an artist comes to us with an idea and we work with them to find a location where we think is going to have the maximum impact and provide a strong dialogue between site and commission. What we've found to be challenging in this moment is working with the city and an unknown future, and that we can plan all we want, but we can't completely envision exactly what is around the corner. We always make plan A, B, and C, but now we're also making D, E, and F, and I feel that strategizing around everything we're doing, thinking about how space is changing. 
Also, to a point that Cecilia made earlier: Who is the public? Who is the audience in this case? [We have] an opportunity to interact much more with a very localized public. I think something that we're feeling in New York right now is that people are staying much closer to where they live and where they work. And so, your relationship with the city has changed pretty radically, and so that's something that we're really taking into consideration when we're working through citing our programming over the course of the next year.  
A project I think has the potential of continuing, besides of course, thinking about the local New York communities, is a group we created called the High Line Network, a network of public projects across North America that have similarity with the High Line, meaning that they either are or will be public spaces of sorts—parks or other kind of public spaces that are built on linear, industrial infrastructure or natural infrastructure repurposed for public use. What we created is a network of organizations that are similar to the High Line and with whom we can share knowledge and best practices on how to build a sustainable public space. It's less about programming, it's more about policies. Many of these institutions are not necessarily on the scale of the High Line, but in a way we all face the same challenges when it comes to creating a brand-new organization that is often a collaboration between the public and private sectors, and it has been very productive to share experiences.  
One of the most heartening things about the past year is how colleagues have stayed connected and created support groups. A group similar to the one that you've put together around the High Line, Cecilia, is the Public Art Consortium. The Collaboration Committee of the Public Art Consortium has been getting together monthly to talk about what's going on outside of the pandemic with the incredibly important political and social issues that are begging for some kind of response—the Black Lives Matter movement and broader questions of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. I wonder if, Justine, you can talk about how that imperative has had an impact on what you've been doing over the past year.  
These issues are very much built within all the work that we do, but this year we have three major projects, one of them dealing with how we engender community and safe space in light of the past year. Another directly speaks to the need for empathy among different species and the climate crisis, and the need to think beyond our own lifespan when we're trying to envision a better future. And then another project speaks directly to the legacy of slavery and labor in this country, and to the fraught nature of the American dream. And so, our work is really rooted in addressing the most pressing issues of our time. That is a particularly challenging charge in a moment like this, but it makes the work feel vital.  
I think there is an important need here—to talk about how art fits into these larger ecosystems, to acknowledge the multifaceted roles of the arts. It is quite complex because the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our fields, and the conversations that we're having about them today, are just so long overdue. And these are not solely questions of the projects that we're producing, but how we're producing them, and: Who art is for? There is so much work to be done addressing that question.  
I'm also curious, in particular, about the potential for healing at the High Line, Cecilia. Just to be able to get outside and walk is one of the really glorious things about the High Line, and the fact that it's elevated in the middle of the city makes for a slightly out-of-body experience. I wonder if the High Line has been a space that offers healing from everything going on in the world?  

Cecilia Alemani, Donald R. Mullen, Jr. director and chief curator of High Line Art, talks about the need for public spaces.

I think so. Anecdotally, in the months immediately after we reopened I saw two people on two separate occasions praying on the High Line— it’s literally been a spiritual moment. So, hopefully people will also understand that they can use space in another way that is not just walking to or from one point to the other, but that it's also a space of breathing. 
I have to say, as a New Yorker now, who has been in the city for the majority of the past year, which is a very disorienting reality in many ways, the High Line and spaces like it have been such a gift, and I don't know what I would have done this past year without them. As a visitor, thank you for that space. Our physical world became so small, and going places where you see the sky, you see these expansive vistas, plants, and you get to really contemplate art in a safe environment, has just been such a gift.  


Cecilia Alemani is an Italian curator based in New York. Currently, she is the artistic director of the upcoming 59th International Art Exhibition (2022) in Venice. Since 2011, she has been the Donald R. Mullen, Jr. director and chief curator of High Line Art, the public art program presented by the High Line in New York. In 2018, Alemani served as artistic director of the inaugural edition of Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires. In 2017, she curated the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Justine Ludwig is the executive director of Creative Time. She has previously held positions at Dallas Contemporary and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Ludwig has curated projects with many artists including Shilpa Gupta, Jill Magid, Pedro Reyes, Laercio Redondo, Paola Pivi, and Pia Camil. Her research interests include the intersections of aesthetics and architecture, violence, and globalization. Ludwig has an MA in global arts from Goldsmiths University of London and a BA in art with a concentration in art history from Colby College.

Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
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