The public was locked out of ‘Fences’ process

A design rendering of a fence that would be installed under the Washington Square Arch this fall for Ai Weiwei’s public-art project about immigration and cultural exchange. The fence would have a cutout allowing people to pass through it.

BY LEVAR ALONZO AND LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Fri., Sept. 1, 7 p.m.: “We were embargoed. We had a gag order,” Terri Cude, the chairperson of Community Board 2, told The Villager on Tuesday regarding a meeting two months ago at which she and two other board members first learned about the city’s plans for a public-art project by famed artist Ai Weiwei for an elaborate “fence” to be installed underneath the Washington Square Park arch for nearly four months.

Cude later said the actual word used was “confidential,” regarding the information that representatives of the Public Art Fund and the Mayor’s Office shared with her and the two other C.B. 2 members at the meeting — Rich Caccappolo and Robin Rothstein, the respective chairpersons of the board’s Parks and Waterfront Committee and Arts and Institutions Committee.

“We were not free to mention it all,” Cude said of what she called this “preliminary meeting.” “It was presented to us as confidential.”

Caccappolo confirmed that the meeting was June 23, two days after the start of summer.

Asked how often in the past C.B. 2 has been asked to keep information secret, Cude said she could not really remember another case.

“Almost never in my experience,” she said. “I don’t ever think I’ve had this situation. I’m not comfortable with information I can’t repeat. It was highly unusual. Our job is normally to disseminate information and provide feedback as quickly as possible.”

Cude said her first reaction at that meeting was to state that C.B. 2 would be holding a public meeting on the issue as soon as possible. That meeting will be held Wed., Sept. 6, at Judson Church, 55 Washington Square South, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Cude said factoring into her decision to respect the gag order was that the project would include several hundred sites around the city.

“It was organized by the Mayor’s Office,” she said. “It’s 300 sites citywide. This is much bigger than Washington Square Park. This is a lot larger than C.B. 2. We were provided confidential information and we released it as soon as we could.”

Added Caccappolo, “They explained that they were working on a citywide exhibition that could potentially include many sites across all five boroughs, but planning was not complete and they were not ready to announce it. They welcomed the opportunity to come and speak to the community, but said they wanted to wait until after the announcement of their initiative, which they did not anticipate happening until mid to late August. Our September meeting is the first meeting after the announcement.”

This fall, Ai Weiwei — considered the world’s foremost creator of political public art — plans to construct hundreds of fence-themed installations throughout Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” as the project is entitled, seeks to reflect on the growing hostility toward immigrants and nationalism throughout the world. The project’s title is a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.”

According to the Web site of the Public Art Fund, which commissioned the project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” would emphasize sites and locations illustrative of that theme, raising important questions about immigration and cultural exchange today.

The project — though viewed as a protest against a growing nationalist sentiment in America — has stirred up some tension in the community around Washington Square Park. The piece slated for under the Washington Square Arch would be placed there during the time the community usually puts up its traditional holiday tree and holds various holiday celebrations there.

The Rob Susman Brass Quartet, and free songbooks, made the season merry and bright at the Washington Square Park Arch during caroling three years ago. The holiday tree is put up annually by the Washington Square Association. Photo by Ken Howard

Indeed, the arch is one of the main images of the project, which the Public Art Fund is touting as “ambitious and unprecedented.” A video on the group’s home page shows Ai strolling in Washington Square Park and snapping selfies in front of the arch.

“The Washington Square Arch is a piece of art itself with history and meaning to the community,” Trevor Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association, said. “The arch shouldn’t be …used for any political gains: We would never see the Statue of Liberty being considered for decoration.”

Ai, who is from China, lived in New York during the 1980s. He stated that this planned project is a reaction to a retreat from the essential attitude of openness in American politics.

“Ai Weiwei came to America to meet American artists, like Warhol,” Clayton Patterson, a Lower East Side documentarian, said. “We ruined him. We showed him what social justice was. He was caught up and photographed the political turmoil in the East Village, particularly around Tompkins Square Park.”

The Washington Square Association’s members protest that they did not have the opportunity to review the proposal and give input before the Public Art Fund released the arch as one of the project’s possible sites.

A rendering of the specific “fence” installation that Ai plans for under the arch shows a cutout that would allow passersby to walk under the artwork and interact with it. But the rendering shows no place or space for a holiday pine tree.

Sumner said association members have no plans or even an idea where the tree would go if a decision is reached to put the installation under the arch.

Founded in 1906, the Washington Square Association is one of New York’s oldest community organizations. It has been doing an annual tree lighting under the arch since 1924. The community group usually erects the tree the week after Thanksgiving and it stays up through mid-January.

As of now, plans are for the commissioned project to be installed Oct. 12 and run until January, which would overlap the entire time that the holiday tree would normally be there.

“Residents enjoy the tree. The holiday tree is welcoming to all passersby,” said Peggy Friedman, executive director of the annual Washington Square Music Festival. “You wouldn’t see them take out the tree at Rockefeller Plaza to make room for a political statement.”

Community opponents, though against the “fences” installation under the arch, are not criticizing the installation because of what Ai’s work represents. Their main concern is that the public artwork would diminish and block holiday celebrations, including — beyond the festive evergreen tree — the Children’s Halloween Parade and the Sukkoth sukkah shelter that is erected nearby in early October.

“I don’t have a problem with the work of art because of what it will represent,” Friedman said. “But for four months the installation will disrupt our whole holiday celebration.”

Another group that represents and advocates for the park has also issued a statement expressing concern about the community not having advance notice about or involvement with the installation.

“The Washington Square Park Conservancy has no connection with the project,” spokesperson Emily Collins stated. “We are disappointed that the installation was approved by the city without broad community involvement and hope that in future instances the city will adopt a different approach.”

As Cude said, the issue will go before C.B. 2 in early September. However, the board’s recommendations are advisory only, not binding on the decision’s of city agencies or, for that matter, the mayor.

On Monday, the Public Art Fund released a statement refuting the accusations that it has been making decisions about the project in a vacuum.

The fund’s president, Susan Freedman, said, “Public Art Fund has prioritized communication with the community, and listening to community feedback throughout the planning of artist Ai Weiwei’s citywide public art exhibition, presented by Public Art Fund with the Parks Department and other relevant city agencies. We have been meeting with community boards and neighborhood groups throughout the spring and summer, including with Community Board 2, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, and the organization of which Mr. Sumner serves as president, The Washington Square Association.

“Recognizing the importance of community engagement,” Freedman continued, “we reached out to Mr. Sumner on July 18, had a follow-up call on July 26, and a recent in-person meeting with him in Washington Square Park on Aug 14. On behalf of the community, Trevor Sumner expressed excitement about bringing the project to Washington Square Park, and we have been in close dialogue with him to ensure that the tradition of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony moves ahead without interruption. We have long been on the schedule to present to the community board on Tues. [sic], Sept. 6 [the meeting will be on Wed., Sept. 6] to hear feedback and respond to questions.

“The vital qualities of community and open engagement that Washington Square Park embodies,” Freedman added, “are among the characteristics that make it an ideal location for this important exhibition that brings to light a powerful statement about division and separation at a global, national, local and personal level.”

In response to The Villager’s question as to why the project was kept under wraps before seemingly be a done deal, Nicholas Baume, the Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator, provided the following statement:

“A number of factors contributed to our outreach among the community. When we first announced the project in late March, it was to share details on the broad themes and identify several locations that were fully confirmed. At that time, we were still in design development on numerous other sites, Washington Square Park among them. Throughout the spring and early summer, we were working to determine which of these sites were viable from a fabrication, engineering, cost and technical perspective. In June, when the artist finalized the design for the work and we felt confident it would be approved by all regulatory bodies, like Parks, Landmarks and others, we started our outreach to the community, beginning with the leadership of Community Board 2 to get their initial impressions and feedback. To do so earlier, without a design or any engineering assurances, would have been premature. Of course we would have preferred to begin outreach sooner, and we are eager to a find a path forward working with the community.”

In addition, a Public Art Fund spokesperson noted that it has proposed to pay for the relocation of the Washington Square Association’s annual holiday tree to accommodate the planned Ai Weiwei artwork under the Washington Square Arch, and also “will work with the community on appropriate placement” of the tree.

The spokesperson also forwarded to The Villager a statement from Chabad House Bowery saying Ai Weiwei’s artwork will not negatively impact the park’s annual Sukkoth sukkah shelter or celebrations, which occur in October. “Public Art Fund has been in close communication with Rabbi Korn and Chabad House Bowery about the Sukkoth sukkah shelter,” she said. “They confirmed that the art​work will not in any way impede with the Sukkoth holiday celebrations​.

“As the article states,” the spokesperson added, “we had met with C.B. 2’s chairs and Trevor Sumner and very much want to continue to work with all local stakeholders to ensure that all the holiday traditions continue.”

A statement from Chabad Bowery House confirming that the proposed Ai Weiwei “Fences” installation will not negatively impact the Washington Square sukkah structure.