NEW YORK — Public art, once the domain of corporate plazas and dedicated sculpture parks, has increasingly been integrated into a variety of urban landscapes. And now, it is a gateway to museum collections.
That is the view of Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and senior curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York and commissioner of the United States Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. “Think of the number of large or smaller museums that have outdoor sculpture on their campuses as another way to invigorate the public and to get them into the institution,” she said. “That’s a change in the field.”
Since joining the Conservancy in 2013, Rapaport has been a leader in bringing greater critical attention and museum standards to outdoor public art.
In 2017, she founded the Public Art Consortium, an annual national gathering of museum, sculpture park and public art colleagues to discuss the growing field and possibilities for collaboration.
For Madison Square Park, she has commissioned a dozen ambitious temporary projects by artists including Teresita Fernández, Josiah McElheny and Erwin Redl. They have pushed the conventions of public art in this green space ringed by skyscrapers, including the Flatiron Building, and traversed by 60,000 people a day.
For the first time at the Biennale, which opens May 11, the United States Pavilion is being organized by an institution whose visual arts program is devoted to public art. There, Rapaport is presenting sculpture by Martin Puryear, who blends abstraction, craft traditions and historical forms such as the Phrygian cap worn as a symbol of freedom in the French and American revolutions.
“Martin often references the individual, democracy, questions of allegiance and responsibility, liberty and history, all of which comes forward in this sculpture,” said Rapaport, who collaborated with Puryear, a 77-year-old African-American artist, on his 40-foot-tall sculpture “Big Bling” for Madison Square Park in 2016. That project has been a springboard for the Venice exhibition, where the outdoor forecourt will be a focal point with a monumental new installation.
“I think what it demonstrates is that public art is now a contender rather than an afterthought,” she said.
For a long time, that hadn’t been the case. “Public art was considered second- and third-generation modernism,” she said, referring to sculptures of geometric abstraction often in front of office buildings. “The field of public art is at a time right now when the most distinguished artists working today want to bring their work outdoors.”
Rapaport has given artists including Diana Al-Hadid, Arlene Shechet and Leonardo Drew their first opportunities to do just that. In a significant departure for Drew — known for his wall-size, grid-based assemblages stuffed with weathered objects — he will orient a new work horizontally across the central lawn of Madison Square Park and introduce new materials including multicolored sand. Opening June 3, “City in the Grass” will be a sprawling undulating carpet stretching more than 100 by 30 feet, with a panoramic cityscape built on top of the colors and patterns of a Persian rug.
“This is a beautiful challenge,” said the artist, 58, explaining that the “public invasion” of the park is testing how far he’s willing to let people physically interact with his work. “Brooke is daring, and that’s why she will ask artists to realize outdoor works when they’re not outdoor-work artists. It does take a leap of faith. She’s there before you’re there.”
For Al-Hadid, the experience of conceiving multiple sculptures for the park in 2018 for “Delirious Matter” has changed her work deeply. “It was really about how to think of the movement of people through the park — how they might experience one work to another, how it might surprise them,” said the artist, 38, who built a mountainous figure over a fountain, for instance, and framed wall fragments with planted hedgerows to create an outdoor room. She’s now pursuing new ideas for incorporating natural materials in outdoor commissions.
When the park’s engineers suggested structural changes because the work in the planning stages appeared too fragile, “Brooke trusted that I knew the materials well enough to advocate for the work,” Al-Hadid added.
Madison Square Park has become a destination on the art and culture map, according to Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s not formulaic or predictable who the next commission is — every new piece is a total surprise,” said Zugazagoitia, who has participated in Rapaport’s Public Art Consortium.
“When Brooke creates this consortium, it’s saying, How does the typology of a very urban space like Madison Square Park transfer,” he said. “What can we learn from that experience in a different context?”
A graduate of Amherst College with a master’s degree in art history from Rutgers University, Rapaport, 56, had a long career at institutions including the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum in Manhattan before coming to public art. “Sculpture has always been my specialty,” Rapaport said. In Brooklyn, she worked with artists including Leon Golub and Meg Webster on site-specific projects for the museum’s cavernous lobby, which she feels was a good warm-up for Madison Square Park.
“So many of the problems we solve in the park, how artists have to push themselves in terms of the scale and the materials, I see that in those formative years by working on the Grand Lobby series,” she said.
Rapaport has also applied museum practices to her public art program, including publishing scholarly catalogs, investing more in public programs and taking park projects on tour to other institutions. Puryear’s “Big Bling” goes on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams this year. Redl’s light installation “Whiteout” is at Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City through March 31.
One thing that remains distinct about public art is what’s not hidden.
“When you realize an exhibition in a museum, all of the messy installation happens behind the scenes,” Rapaport said. “In Madison Square Park, the artist, the crew, the rigor is out front and center, no secrets. The public loves to gather around and often applauds when a work is put into place. It’s absolutely cinematic.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.