BPCA’s Public Art Collection Represents Multiple Layers of Value
The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), at the urging of Martha Gallo, the vice chair of the agency’s board of directors, has completed an inventory and appraisal of its public art collection. This is part of a broad effort to take stock of the Authority’s ongoing role as a patron and custodian of pieces that represent an integral thread in the fabric of the community, as evidenced by the fact that space and funding for public art were both set aside decades ago, in the neighborhood’s first master plan, before the first building was erected.
At the June 25 meeting of the BPCA’s board, Eric Munson, the Authority’s chief operating officer, said, “a few months back I described the measures we were taking to improve our management of the Authority’s public art collection, which we have known for quite some time to be world class in many ways — a foundational element of the neighborhood as a whole. Ms. Gallo asked for a comprehensive plan, and so as part of that effort, we engaged the Art Dealer’s Association of America to appraise the collection. Last month, the 15 pieces compromised in the collection were collectively appraised at $63,514,098.”
This is a striking valuation, given that most of the pieces in Battery Park City’s collection were originally commissioned at costs ranging from several tens to a few hundreds of thousands of dollars. This estimated worth may be driven in part by the soaring reputations of many of the artists who contributed work to the collection decades ago, at the dawn of their careers. Three have gone on to represent the United States at the renowned Venice Biennale, which is sometimes described as “the Olympics of the art world.” They are Martin Puryear, in 2019 (he created the Pylons, adjacent to North Cove Marina); Ann Hamilton in 1999 (she designed the Ice Wall in Teardrop Park); and Louise Bourgeois, in 1993 (who fashioned the Eyes sculpture in Wagner Park).
Remarking on the need to insure any asset worth tens of millions of dollars, Mr. Munson continued, “we’ve been working to secure fine arts coverage for that collection, which would cover claims related to among other events, terrorism, wind, and water damage. We’ve received one proposal so far with the remaining due back later this week. That policy would meet our needs and cost approximately $37,000. And so I’m requesting authority to bind coverage for a fine arts policy for an amount not to exceed $40,000 contingent upon receipt of the remaining policies.”
The push to catalog and estimate the value of the Authority’s art collection began in September, 2018, when Ms. Gallo noted during a discussion about a $500,000 contract to repair two art works (the Pylons, and the lighted glass benches alongside the Irish Hunger Memorial) that, “it’s a big number, half a million dollars, for two pieces of art. One of the things I would request the team to pull together is an inventory of the pieces, a current valuation, and some kind of aging report. I mean, half a million dollars is a significant amount of money. I love these Pylons, but I don’t depend on their lighting system.” (This was a reference to the need to repair the interior electrical circuity on the Pylons sculpture.) Ms. Gallo continued, “and I like those benches, but you can sit on them without the lights. I mean this is a big investment, half a million dollars for two pieces of art.”
BPCA board member Donald Capoccia observed that the BPCA had recently spent $2.5 million renovating Irish Hunger Memorial. (The total cost of repairing the Irish Hunger Memorial, which was plagued by leaks and drainage problems for more than a decade, came to approximately $5 million.)
Ms. Gallo replied, “for the second renovation of the structure. So these are not insignificant dollars. I love these pieces of art, and I think this comprehensive view will help us.”
Authority board member Louis Bevilacqua observed, “these are valuable parts of the community. They may not be economically valuable to everybody, but they’re important parts of this community. And it seems to me that if we have a valuable asset for this community, we ought to have built into the budget plenty of excess to take care of those assets. It seems to me that this is the type of thing that ought to be built into the budget.”
Mr. Bevilacqua’s point is underscored by a raft of studies indicating that public art works confer a broad range of benefits, from higher levels of social cohesion and community engagement, to increased property values, to more positive health outcomes for nearby residents.
BPCA board chair George Tsunis remarked that, “we have a fiduciary duty of oversight. Before we even start making ad hoc decisions, one by one, one was two and a half million, this was $595,000, let’s get a global view of what this will cost, and candidly what the opportunity cost is, what else we’re giving up. I, for one, would like to maintain these. They’re beautiful and such. However, there’s a lot of things that I want. I mean someone once said, we dream about things in poetry, but we have to execute in prose.”
Mr. Munson continued, “in recognition of the really renewed focus on our public art collection, Abby Ehrlich, who used to be the director of community partnerships and engagement, is now the director of community partnerships and public art. And we’ve also brought on a part timer who has both gallery and public art experience to supplement her efforts around this conversation work.”
BPCA board member Catherine McVay Hughes added, “Abby’s been here now 20 years as well. So I want to commend her for all her work.”
Following this exchange, the BPCA retained consultants to appraise the collection and identify deficiencies in its condition. The appraisal work yielded the valuation of $63 million. The condition report identified conservation issues commensurate with a portfolio of outdoor sculpture on the waterfront, where harsh weather and the Hudson’s brackish water can accelerate wear and tear. In the months ahead, the Authority plans to address these issues through long-term engagements with specialized contractors. On a larger scale, in addition to the soon-to-be-completed conservation work on the Pylons, the BPCA recently completed a renovation of New York artist Mary Miss’s South Cove, an environmental landscape artwork on Battery Park City’s southern Esplanade.
Moving forward, the BPCA more recently partnered with artists Dharmesh Patel and Autumn Ewalt to bring their work “Sunrise, Sunset (Revolution)” — an installation consisting of 27 aluminum panels embedded with 9,000 crystal prisms activated by natural light — to Pier A Plaza in 2017. In an arrangement largely overseen by Ms. Ehrlich, the work was originally scheduled to remain there for less than a year, but was so well-received that its stay was extended through most of 2019. (The piece will soon be removed to make way for construction, but residents can view it through October 19.)
This represents an ongoing evolution in the BPCA’s approach to public art, focused on collaborating with artists on temporary installations — in addition to the BPCA’s traditional paradigm of commissioning and taking permanent ownership of such works. This model, while it still offers financial support to artists, spares the Authority from the greater capital outlay involved in outright ownership, and also relieves the agency of the financial and logistical responsibility for maintaining the works in perpetuity. It also creates a new dynamic in which works from a broader range of contributors rotate in and out of the community, lingering for months or years at a time, before being replaced by fresh pieces.
“Public art that is accessible and inviting is important because a city or a community is more than essential services,” Ms. Ehrlich observes. “It’s also a network of connections — verbal, nonverbal, tangible and intangible. Art provides ways to connect with our own curiosity, an artist’s intentions, and each other. People intuitively know this and experience the connections. It’s not important to know who the artists are or other facts. Art speaks for itself, in many languages and to all ages, and that’s its gift to us.”
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