Community Opposition to Ai Weiwei’s Planned “Fences” Installation Under Washington Square Arch

ai weiwei good fences washington square park
Proposed Installation Under Arch

Issues Cited: No Community Input on Project; Four Months Blocking off Arch/Public Space; Will Cancel Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony Under Arch

“Chinese contemporary artist and activist” Ai Weiwei announced in March in the New York Times that he would be constructing “one of his most large-scale public art projects to date” called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” beginning in October with installations throughout New York City. Initially announced as 100 fence installations, the number was recently increased to 300, and now includes… Washington Square Park, with a “large-scale, site-specific, freestanding work(s)” scheduled to be installed directly under the Arch for four months, blocking off all access to the monument.

When the project was first announced, locations announced included a Southeast section outside of Central Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Cooper Union. No mention of Washington Square Park until last week. Nothing of this scope and for this long a period has, to my knowledge, ever occurred at the Arch; the siting will be directly under and within the scope of the 125 year old monument.

Does a change in the composition at the park, a new park administrator, a private conservancy run by four affluent women, who are not running the park (the Parks Department continues to) but who are given easy access to the behind-the-scenes conversations, have anything to do with the approval of this project?*

The Washington Square Association, a neighborhood organization around since 1906, issued a letter asking the Public Art Fund, the organization sponsoring the project, to “withdraw its plans” and spoke out against the Weiwei installation under the Arch.

For one, they state, it interferes with the annual Christmas tree lighting under the Arch, which their group has presented since 1924, something surely the Parks Department was aware of. They also mention that there was no community involvement in the decision as to whether this project should go forward.

In the letter to the Public Art Fund, they wrote of the Arch:

The monumental Arch is a work of art in itself. It does not need to be politicized with the proposed installation. The shape is grand and sculptural, as are the statues of George Washington. We feel that the integrity of its design would be compromised by Mr. Weiwei’s art work. This installation sets a dangerous precedent that one of New York City’s most recognized monuments and pieces of art can be decorated and co-opted for 4 months at a time.

The Community Board 2 Parks Committee will be addressing this at its next meeting in early September, but, according to the Washington Square Association, that is just days before they “break ground” for the installation.

The letter continues: “The project was not built with the collaboration of the neighborhood. We were presented with final designs without input and the community board meeting is being held just days before you break ground. The feedback of the community in such a long-standing and disruptive project should have been more intrinsic to the process, which an organization such as the Public Arts Fund should know given its history.

More from the Huffington Post, Ai Weiwei Is Building Fences All Over NYC In A Powerful Public Art Project:

“The fence has always been a tool in the vocabulary of political landscaping and evokes associations with words like ‘border,’ ‘security,’ and ‘neighbor,’” Ai said in a statement on Tuesday. “But what’s important to remember is that while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same. Some are more privileged than others, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to do more.”

The name “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” comes from a Robert Frost poem called “Mending Wall,” which [director and Chief Curator of Public Art Fund Nicholas] Baume sent to Ai early in the project’s development. The poem includes the ambiguous phrase Ai used as his title, as well as the line, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was like to give offence.”

“He loved the clarity and directness of Frost’s writing, and the subtle irony of this famous refrain,” Baume added.

“Good Fences” will open citywide on October 12th and is scheduled to run until February 11th.

The Public Art Fund also notably produced the controversial, arborcidal Waterfalls project in 2008.

On top of it, Ai Weiwei is doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project; this seems curious to me.

Should they move the installation elsewhere in the park? Or move on altogether? 

* * *

Statement from the Washington Square Association:

To Public Art Fund:

The Board of Directors of the Washington Square Association, Inc, a civic organization since 1906, strongly requests that the Public Art Find withdraw its plans to erect the Weiwei installation, part of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” under the Washington Square Arch in the park. Our reasons are:

1) The installation will make impossible the erection, under the arch, of our holiday tree that traditionally goes up the weekend after Thanksgiving, and stays until mid-January. It illuminates the darkness with sparkling white lights, and serves as a welcome to people walking or bussing down Fifth Avenue. Over a thousand people in our community gather for the tree lighting and singing early in December and for caroling on Christmas Eve. It is festive and beloved by our neighbors and a shining symbol for all who live or walk along Fifth avenue since 1924.

2) The monumental Arch is a work of art in itself. It does not need to be politicized with the proposed installation. The shape is grand and sculptural, as are the statues of George Washington. We feel that the integrity of its design would be compromised by Mr. Weiwei’s art work. This installation sets a dangerous precedent that one of New York City’s most recognized monuments and pieces of art can be decorated and co-opted for 4 months at a time.

3) The project was not built with the collaboration of the neighborhood.  We were presented with final designs without input and the community board meeting is being held just days before you break ground. The feedback of the community in such a long-standing and disruptive project should have been more intrinsic to the process, which an organization such as the Public Arts Fund should know given its history.

We would like to also state that we have no objection to Mr. Weiwei’s piece in itself, but only to its placement on the arch that will also block and diminish the annual seasonal celebrations, including the Children’s Halloween Parade and the Sukkot house that take place in that vicinity.

Respectfully yours,

Trevor Sumner, President

The Washington Square Association

(*And, if this is the case, I predicted it. See “hot dog vendors.”)

Public Art Fund

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26 thoughts on “Community Opposition to Ai Weiwei’s Planned “Fences” Installation Under Washington Square Arch”

  1. This is a terrible idea leave the Park alone. I hear there is another installation called “Shake Shack” that would love to come on next

    • This is being paid for by a non-profit, I don’t believe the public has to cover anything (though perhaps the involvement of the parks department does involve some public funds?) To your point about building fences, however: Ai Wei Wei’s point is an extension of your own–as it is quoted in this piece: “But what’s important to remember is that while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same. Some are more privileged than others, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to do more.” Otherwise, yes, hear hear to the tearing down of fences!

  2. This is so funny, the Onion took over the WSP Blog, channeling Mr. Trump – “If they’re for it, I’m against it. Keep your damn foreigner Chinaman art about freedom out of my great American park, give me Christmas trees or give me death.”

    Back in New York City, art in parks is a wonderful thing, thanks for telling me about the kickstarter. Full disclosure – my mother helped put Henry Moore (another evil foreigner) sculptures in NYC Parks in all five boroughs in 1984. I thought it was great then too.

    • How unfortunate that you find it necessary to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of racism. Perhaps if you had a more measured response as to why you support this project, you might even change a few minds.

      Personally I find it rather ironic that Mr Weiwei would create various works of art incorporating the concept of “Good Neighbors” and try to bypass community input in the process. “Good Neighbors” should be about cooperation and perhaps compromise on Mr Weiwei’s part, and not about name calling on your part.

    • I love the Henry Moore sculptures but this is a tiny park and so threatened by commercialization already that I am fearful this will open the door. The Astor Place “Cube” plaza was promised to be kept clear yet was just taken over by a corporate trade fair.
      I also agree with Ms. Rosenstock that your racism accusation is highly insulting.

    • Aren’t you missing the point Mr. Lerner? Why is the public, who uses this free outdoor space not have a say in something that will DISRUPT its annual public programming ? This is arrogant, with a disregard for the community. This fence is not making good neighbors regardless of who is making it. Bring back the hot dog venders, too. I don’t ever recall Henry Moore being painted as an evil foreigner, by the way….

  3. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Please know that as an organization, the Washington Square Association does listen to these opinions. Stacy, your point on irony is one we will present at the Community Board Meeting.

    • Actually in my experience “irony” is the excuse for a lot of crummy art as the artist doesn’t have the depth of talent to generate real emotion.
      I am not going to let anyone take away the Tree.

  4. I am sorry if my comments were taken the wrong way. I must admit that I do love art. Christmas trees are fine, but rarely make me think the way art does. I have enjoyed and been challenged by much of Ai Weiwei’s work in the past and I like his themes and how his work relates to people and society and the current world situation. I am curious enough that I will travel to NYC parks that show the work, and I made a donation to show my community support.

    Wanting to know more about the Washington Square Association and who it represents, I found their web site which says it’s a 501c3 charity. I went to the NYS Charity web site, but the last report filed was from 2013. Charity Navigator says its a 501c4 and contributions are not deductible. Lacking public filings, how would I find out more about how the group raises and spends money? I will start following the group’s blog. Thanks.

  5. Note the info that the Public Art Fund has been in discussion with the community board, Washington Square Park Conservancy, and the Washington Square Park Association for several months. Apparently NOT “with the public at large” from the start.

    The WSPC in particular is a totally sealed off private organization, created by the Parks department by design to also have the Washington Square Park director as its own director. It is set up to give this self selected rich group, rich donors and business people with an interest in using the park, and the Parks department an off the record place to make decisions which otherwise would have to be visible through meetings of the parks committee of the community board.

    The WSPC does not allow public attendance at its meetings, nor does it publish minutes of meetings contemporaneously (or essentially ever, check their website), or offer agendas of its meeting topics in advance to the public.

    It claims it is public because a member of the community board sits on the WSPC board and “reports back” to the public. Occasionally.

    This decision is evidence that Mr. Vellonakis, the new director of the park and the conservancy, and other Parks officials on the board or advisory group for the WSPC has bought into the elitist idea that a self-selecting private club should be the “public” with whom the Parks department consults in making decisions about parks use.

    As for the role of the Washington Square Park association, they do not have the Park director on their staff, so they are not in the center the way the WSPC has been put in the center.

    The only way the WSPC will ever have any legitimate claim to be a proxy for the public is if it opens its meetings to the public, publishes its agendas in advance, publishes its minutes contemporaneously with its meetings, and allows members of the public to stand as candidates for its Board through a donating-member vote, without having to be nominated by the WSPC board itself or elected only by other board members.

    Otherwise the WSPC should sever its connection with the NYC Parks Department, and become comparable to the WSPA in operations.

    Otherwise, art installation decided secretly this year, renting out the park next, taking a section permanently for commercial concessions after that.

  6. Thanks for all your comments. It is good to have a back and forth and often that is where further clarity comes from.

    It is unclear what role Wash Sq conservancy played here; they have been mentioned (along with Wash Sq Association and CB2) by Public Art Fund as having been met with, and not Parks Dept which is the entity that should have been included (with the whole sketchy, conflicted * dual role * scenario in place where park administrator working for the city also is Exec Director of private conservancy, which, in this situation at Washington Square, does not run or manage park). It is unclear if George Vellonakis, park administrator, was clear about which entity he was representing when he met with them.

    And of course, is this actually how public process should work? Should not the public actually be included before, and not after, the fact?

    Public Art Fund is basically saying everyone supported and now orgs are saying they did not. Will write more on that aspect… but in the meantime, new post about the CB2 meeting Sept. 6 is here:

    Thanks again.

    WSP Blog

  7. The Public Arts Fund has published a response to the WSPA criticism:

    In it, they both explicitly identify who they consulted with, including the WSPC, WSPA, and CB2, and they state the period of consultation as “throughout the spring and summer”.

    They claim the WSPA expressed no objections. They are silent on the WSPC.

    The WSPC published a statement that they were “disappointed that the installation was approved by the City without broad community involvement”.

    So here is a dilemma: how can the WSPC or WSPA effectively *create* broad community involvement in issues related to the Park, if they *accept* the role of privileged groups who are given insider access to important discussions on such a large scale over many months, on condition of nondisclosure?

    – seems they should be saying to anyone coming to them that they do not sign nondisclosure agreements.

    – seems they should be publishing their meeting minutes and opening their meetings, where they do not do this already.

    – seems they should extract themselves from any legal structure in their organizations relationship with the city that makes it possible for them to be targeted as a venue for secret discussions.

    If they as organizations *actually* are disappointed that the City chose to conduct the review without broader public participation, they should have refused to legitimize the process with their involvement. Be transparent in realtime.

  8. I appreciate all sides of the discussion. What strikes me is this is part of Mr Ai’s intention. I read his artwork as stirring the reality of what happens to us when we are not consulted about a fence, when we are limited access because of a fence, when a leadership or gov’t group wants to “help” a community by building a fence it doesn’t want…and on and on it goes, especially considering these political times. This is his message about what millions of people world-wide experience daily. We are meant to squirm a little. What will it be like to have no Christmas tree one year? These are ideas to think about. This is an experience that only lasts 4 months for us. For many, it lasts a lifetime. Thank you, Weiwei.

    • I think a lot of the reaction to this is not about the subject of the works, but the duration of the installation and the precedent this strategy expands for rolling out other ‘multiuse’ park takings the future.

      Are there any constraints at all on how long or how much of the parks system can be converted to themed art installations (hundreds of locations for a third of a year, what next)? Who gets the privilege of vying for these opportunities (only those selected by the Public Arts Fund)? Do park users simply have to step out of the way if already have activities planned in a location an installation desires, or should there be discussion and perhaps modification of installation plans arrived at with early public consultation?

      To what extent should the parks be multiple use serving not just recreation and public spontaneous expression and community activity, but semi-permanent large scale art installations, private fenced corporate activity, conservancy-planned park fundraising like “barbecue week” partly helping to pay large salaries for conservancy officials, or fortune-making franchise locations for park private overseers (Shake Shack)? What about public-private activities like ice skating rinks and shopping plazas, why shouldn’t they be a large part of every park for months at a time if they are commercially viable?

      And crucially, do *all* such potential multi-use candidates for access to park square footage now get to think in terms of taking many simultaneous locations extending for a period of months, if they can describe an activity that might have some putative public benefit to offset the loss of normal park use?

      The barn door through which multi-use activities can occupy parks has been pushed open much wider by this installation.

      The installation is provoking discomfort not only about the art works’ theme and placement (in the artistic way you described), but about the way multi-use is managed for parks.

      • Way to go Park User for so clearly expressing what are my concerns about this project. It is not the subject matter but the methodology so to speak.

  9. Though I do not live in NYC, Washington Square is one of my favorite places in NYC. Of course residents should determine issues for their own neighborhood. But I suspect that the actual preferences of residents or the “methodology” of the decision process are not really the issues here.

    This “fence” as shown in the photos is less a fence and more a gate, something to pass through, much like the arch itself. It does not really prevent anyone from using the park and all those who object know this fact to be true. Has anybody asked the artist whether he would object to temporary holiday decorations on the arch and his artwork? More importantly, why should decorations for a religious holiday have priority in a secular, public space? As discussions around other kinds of displays and monuments now demonstrate, “tradition” per se is insufficient.

    I suspect that some critics care less about holiday traditions and more about their own egos and ability to trample on the work of someone much more creative than themselves. Given current events, I believe that prominent public display of this artwork is essential. Or do the NIMBYS expect people in Red States to display support similar public art instead?

    • Even though it could be tempting to see concern here as NIMBY or critical of the artist, and dismiss process as not the “real” concern, it isn’t accurate to do so.

      This entire blog has dealt very extensively with “process” – the ways that the public gets to be involved (or not) in important decisions made about NYC parks use. The topic itself is very significant, and the growing power of private donor groups allowed to operate without any visibility or accountability to the general public is having real impacts on the parks that you may not welcome.

      The core question is perhaps how many uses other than “just a park” should be imposed on the open hours and space of a park, and how commercial should these be. Other examples might include permanent selling off of park space, and imposition of use policies initiated by the private organizations and serving the interests of real estate property value in the park neighborhood. The list goes on, read about it in this blog.

      An art exhibit like this one isn’t trying to impose a retail brand impression. It is trying to advance a noble cause. This is all great. But the process overlaps with ones used in some city parks to impose regrettable commercialization and exclusion of the public from park policies and plans. In this case, even a noble cause, deployed through this privatized process, approached concerns like the tree with diktat rather than discussion.

      One could say, so what, what’s wrong with public art being shown even if its done in a way that aggressively defeats the established methods for public review? Its just art, and why not?

      Well, how much “public art” do you want in your park? Do you want it constantly, one show after the next, exhibits that don’t blend at all into any sort of background like old familar monuments, to the point that you can’t just enjoy a park as such?

      Because that is what you have at Madison Square Park, courtesy of a Conservancy that believes public art is a mission for them, the park is their palette, and who hired a public art curator and runs frequent shows.

      This is at its base a political decision. Different people have different opinions of how much of any given special use should happen in a park. So, should a private Conservancy or Fund be granted unilateral, secret authority to do as much of what their donors and leaders want in a park, without any limits or balancing against matters like how to preserve a space for unscripted use? Or should there be a back and forth?

      Even for art, there is certainly cause to have open discussion in a way that is not defeated by withholding all information from the public until the project (especially a months long project) is committed.

      This doesn’t even touch on possible commercial uses of a park which are being encouraged in some locations. Permanent takings of scarce park space to build restaurants when restaurants are literally within a 1 minute walk. Roping off large portions of a small park for private corporate days for a corporation’s employees. Taking all of a park for weeks to do a commercial tie in to a Super Bowl.

      How to balance multi use park activities, fundraising part of which may go to the park, events for local institutions (World Science Festival Days/NYU) or public organization activities (Krishna Consciousness weekend around the fountain), seasonal ice skating rinks that bring phenomenally aggressive brand projection upon anyone coming close to a park.. how should these be planned?

      Should they be planned, as this art exhibit was, by a private very wealthy donor organization in secret arrangement with the Parks department? What about a Conservancy with restaurateurs on its Board, should they be allowed to plan a permanent restaurant without the public knowing until everything is pretty much set in stone? Where does it end?

      It is a legit issue and the reaction to the Fund using these mechanisms to get its way without any public input is a legitimate reaction tied to the larger situation.

      These public-private partnerships that are involved with Parks should have all of their activities published as they progress, and meetings made public. Their interaction with the Parks department should be a matter of public record.


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