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Art In The Parks – Our Interview with Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art and Antiquities for the NYC Parks Department

Jonathan Kuhn is a busy man with a big job.  He’s the Director of Art & Antiquities for the New York City Parks Department, and as such, he and his team have three jobs to do.

First, they’re responsible for the permanent collection of artwork and monuments in parkland all over New York City, which may well be the greatest public outdoor art museum in the United States, as it includes over a thousand monuments, ranging from small commemorative tablets to enormous triumphal arches.

Second, they’re responsible for overseeing the temporary public art program, which brings both experimental and traditional art to settings in City parks, and which has given hundreds of artists the opportunity to exhibit their work in public spaces, and millions of people the opportunity to see it.

Third, they are the keepers of NYC parks history: they create historic signs; keep correspondence, documents, plans, and artist renderings as part of the historic record; answer questions from the public and from the press; and generally make it their mission to contribute to the civic and cultural life of the city.

In the arena of public art, artists bring a range of personal visions to their creations; even though many projects are conceptually-based, Jonathan believes that their success or failure ultimately is based on actual human experience on the part of the public.

Museums, he points out, have the luxury of rearranging their permanent collection.  The Parks Department does not.  And the art, and the historical fabric of the City, need ongoing care, vigilance, assessment, and a maintained connection to the people of New York City.

Therefore, there are rather rigorous standards in place about the installation of new public art in city parks, and all proposals for such are carefully evaluated for site appropriateness (for commemorative monuments, there is usually a historical association with a community or a location, for example), compatibility with the existing landscape, their potential impact on park use, aesthetic merit, and the financial feasibility of the artwork’s maintenance (current installations generally require an endowment fund to ensure proper care for the piece in perpetuity).

You’ve probably seen Jonathan around if you spend any amount of time in New York City…he’s well known for biking back and forth between his Central Park office and his home downtown, as well as just about everywhere else in the five boroughs.

Although I’ve known him for about 15 years, we’d never had lunch together before, so we went to Gene’s Coffee Shop, a narrow, old-school greasy-spoon on East 60th Street and caught up.  He says it was the longest lunch he’s had in ten years.  (We did make sure to leave a good tip for the waiter.)  Here’s some of what we talked about while our food got cold. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

The NewsWhistle Q&A with Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for the New York City Parks Department

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Date of interview:  January 28, 2015
Age: Turning 57 in March
Hometown: I grew up in Princeton, NJ. (I was born in Bryn Mawr; my father was a professor of Mathematics there, and later at Princeton, in Math and Economics.)
Current town:  New York City, since 1980
Occupation: I think of myself as an art historian; I came to my job in local government from a visual arts background.  My master’s thesis was about how John Marin, a modernist specializing in early urban abstracts, was inspired as an artist by New York City itself, and was the first American to emulate European modernism, a year before the famous 1913 Armory Show (the one that introduced Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2.)

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What’s your favorite movie?

I’m a cinephile and am so fortunate to live in Greenwich Village where there are so many movie theaters showing art films and classics.  One of my favorite movies is Breaking Away, from 1979: it takes place in Indiana, it’s a piece of Americana, it’s got a great heart, and it’s got bicycling.   And Brief Encounter (from 1945) is a perfect love story.  Recent ones that are really good are Boyhood and BirdmanPride, which is about gay rights activists supporting striking Welsh coal miners, was both funny and touching.   First their worlds collide, and then they unite.

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What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

I’m a stick in the mud.  I’ve had the same apartment, the same job, and the same spouse for over twenty-five years.  But they were all a leap of faith at the beginning.  When I moved west of the High Line the neighborhood was almost desolate; I didn’t know it was going to change, but it got more expensive and gentrified around me.  I didn’t know anything about parks when I took this job.  I read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (about Robert Moses, urban planner and “master builder” of New York), which is an enormous book, in two weeks, in preparation.  I have no regrets about any of it.

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What’s the hardest thing you’ve done?

It’s probably singing in public.

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What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

I have a budding sideline as a cabaret singer.   Which has been great, I’ve met some wonderful people and made new friends.

Oh, and I also play pick up soccer at Pier 40 regularly.  I learned to play soccer when I was a kid, and my father was on a sabbatical and I we spent a year in Rome, Italy.  I played with a bunch of street kids there, and I’ve never stopped.  Now I play with people decades younger than I am.

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?

My mother used to quote Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”  She worked for the ACLU and always stood up for the principles of civil liberty.  She worked on cases about gerrymandering school district lines and about the right to protest on college campuses. The lesson I learned from both of my parents is at the end of the day, all you have is your integrity.

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What’s a book everyone should read?

Some of the books one reads as a child stay with you.  It was great reading The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) and reading the Sherlock Holmes stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) with my kids.  And Dickens: Oliver Twist and Bleak House.

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Tell us your favorite joke.

A man goes to see a doctor and says, “Doctor, I have a problem, I have five penises. “ The doctor says, “Whoa!  How do your pants fit?”  “Like a glove.”

A more kid-friendly one: Why was the number six afraid of seven?  Because 7 8 (ate) 9!

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Do you have a favorite celebrity?

I really appreciate actors who transition between acting in movies and the stage, and who are not afraid to show their vulnerability.

Also, Mario Cuomo, who recently died, was one of my favorite people; he was able to communicate complicated concepts truly effectively, and was a man of principle.

And Pete Seeger lived a good life.  He was really generous with his time.  My wife and some friends and I were once organizing a benefit concert and asked him to perform and he said yes.

They were both imperfect, of course.  But they had an honesty and that ability to connect with people.

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What are your favorite monuments or public art pieces in New York City parks?

I don’t know if I have favorites, but one really good one is the Straus Memorial on the Upper West Side, which commemorates Isador and Ida Straus.  They were German immigrants to the United States, and Isador and his brother opened Macy’s, the world’s largest department store.  He and his wife were wealthy philanthropists, and they died during the maiden voyage of the Titanic.  She stayed with her husband, refusing to save herself by boarding a lifeboat with the women and children.  The City named the park after them, in a location close by where they’d lived.  The monument is site-specific and allegorical, with a bronze female figure representing Memory.  There was a reflecting pool there, but it was subsequently replaced with a flower garden.  The Straus family also established a maintenance endowment for the monument.  A century after it was built, the monument still has the ability to connect with people.

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Image of the Straus Memorial Courtesy of New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Another one I’d like to highlight is Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, Night Presence IV, at Park and 92nd Street. It was a gift of the artist to the City, very different from the Straus Memorial, using contemporary materials (which had problematically weathered; we recently finished a lengthy and complex conservation).  Different, but beautiful.  It’s abstract, but has a reference to nature, a wave pattern.  It’s not explicit but it puts the viewer in mind of the waters surrounding Manhattan.

The monument collection reflects an evolving City.  We honor the author Ralph Ellison and his famous novel Invisible Man, in Riverside Park, near where he lived, and also Eleanor Roosevelt, who maintained a residence in New York City while her husband lived in the White House.

The City grows, not with a plan, but with a certain order, organically.

There’s a United States Supreme Court case that we participated in (filing an amicus brief) which crystallizes our role and responsibility in “curating” the permanent collection (Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum (2009):

“While government entities regularly accept privately funded or donated monuments, their general practice has been one of selective receptivity. Because city parks play an important role in defining the identity that a city projects to its residents and the outside world, cities take care in accepting donated monuments, selecting those that portray what the government decision makers view as appropriate for the place in question, based on esthetics, history, and local culture. The accepted monuments are meant to convey and have the effect of conveying a government message and thus constitute government speech.

Here, the Park’s monuments clearly represent government speech…”

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What monuments aren’t so well known, but ought to be?

There’s an extravagant and sentimental monument to the German poet Heinrich Heine in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx, depicting the Lorelei, a mythical figure.  The neighborhood isn’t German anymore, as things change.  But that’s no reason not to appreciate it; different communities come to different neighborhoods at different times, but those groups are all part of our history.

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Image of Heinrich Heine Fountain Courtesy of New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Another really great monument is a newer piece, Alison Saar’s Harriet Tubman MemorialIt has a stridency to it, it is larger than life.  And there’s a symbolism, which might or might not be accidental; she’s standing over a subway route, and you can hear trains passing beneath her, a literal underground railroad.

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Image of the Harriet Tubman Memorial Courtesy of New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

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Is there still a collection of excess antiquities stored on Randall’s Island?

We’ve actually been very successful in restoring many sculptures and putting them back on display (they’d often been removed from parks when damaged in the past) and also in repurposing decorative objects when we couldn’t use them in their original setting.  We’ve put back about 20 plaques and markers that had been in storage, as well.  That being said, we do have some pieces still in storage that we don’t yet have a plan for: some beautiful decorative fireplaces from a historic house that was destroyed years ago, and some medallions from the old Yankee Stadium, for example.  It’s actually really hard for the City to de-accession property; what would be ideal would be to give some of these things away to appropriate cultural institutions but there isn’t a good legal framework to do that.

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What monument is in the most dire shape and needs restoration?

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park was last restored in 1961 (image below) and definitely needs work.  Commissioned by the State of New York, this massive structure is one of the few with individual city landmark status.

And the Jacob H. Schiff Fountain in Seward Park, the nation’s first playground, has had some pieces stolen.  Interestingly, Mayor de Blasio held a press conference there to announce the appointment of Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver.

We know the needs for specific pieces.  But a broader problem is funding for ongoing maintenance.

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Image of The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Riverside Park, Courtesy of rorem/Shutterstock.com

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What are causes for concern for damage to public art generally?

Some of the public art gets a little bit too much affection, because children (and adults) keep touching it.

The weather can be a problem, the acid rain and the corrosive effects of pollution.  Air quality has improved in my lifetime, but beginning with the Industrial Revolution, poor air quality has hastened damage to limestone, marbles, and metals.  It’s a worldwide problem.  The famous David in Florence had to be moved inside!

There’s some vandalism.  And skateboarding is a huge problem, creating repetitive injuries to stone, and getting oils and wax on the monuments.

And we’ve had accidents: car accidents, buses have run over monuments.  One monument was set on fire by a news truck.  For that one, we eventually got an insurance payout.

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What’s the most popular art in NYC Parks?

Definitely Balto in Central Park (image below).

And Charging Bull.  Tourists line up to take pictures with that one.

The Gay Liberation sculpture in Christopher Park is also very popular.  Its meaning has really changed over time.  It’s by George Segal and it was commissioned as a celebration of freedom, close to the Stonewall Inn, in the 1980s.  By the time it was installed in 1992, it was at the height of the AIDS crisis and it became much more of a memorial for all those lost.  Now with the new marriage equality movement, it is really popular on the NYC tourism route and it has a new resonance.

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Image of Balto Courtesy of Elias H Debbas II/Shutterstock.com

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Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Yes!  Please support the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program: http://www.nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities/permanent-art-and-monuments/conservation\

New York City residents and visitors generally have no idea of the efforts we’re making and the expense required to do this work.

We’d also like to enlist more support for rotational public art in disadvantaged communities, where the publicity value might not be as great as in major civic centers, but the human value would be.

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PHOTO CREDIT
Lead-In Image Courtesy of S. Brown; Jonathan Kuhn and Victory, General Sherman Monument During Toning, 9.18.13, Grand Army Plaza, Central Park

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.