Public art is fundamentally different from gallery shows. It is not just art for the wealthy, museum or gallery goers, in its core essence, public art represents a democratic ideal for artistic and freedom of expression to all. Its free to all viewers, its reach and space of placement can powerfully impact communities and neighborhoods, and often provoke a sense of ownership and pride.
In this interview, New York based curator Anthony Huffman shares his experiences with managing public art projects in the city, and brings up interesting perspectives on how we all perceive images around us in a traditional or vanguard form.
You have been working with public art in New York City, how does the process work? Can you give few location examples?
There are many public and private entities commissioning or installing works of contemporary art throughout the five boroughs of New York (e.g. the Department of Cultural Affairs, Public Art Fund, Creative Time, and several neighborhood-specific agencies responsible for incorporating art around a particular area). I worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees not just the art installed in the subway system, but also the site-specific works throughout the stations that make up the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road.
So, all in all, the MTA—which is an entity of the state of New York but also receives funding and oversight from the City of New York—is one the most important public organizations for installing contemporary art. This art is seen by millions of residents and tourists every day, and I was quite humbled by the opportunity to work with the organization and be part of this process. Ultimately, for each artist selection, commission, and installation there is a standardized government procurement process that involves an open call to artists, independent research by the project managers overseeing the given transit art project, and then a collaboration between the chosen artist and a professional fabricator in the chosen medium, which for the subway environment is either laminated glass, metal, or mosaic.
In my role, I helped with varying stages of project development and management for a handful of transit art projects in Manhattan, Queens, and in Westchester county. Perhaps the most exciting projects I was able to work on were two major renovations that will affect Penn Station and Grand Central Station in the coming years. These art installations will involve new artwork for the mezzanine of both historic sites.
For your masters you concentrated on nineteenth century French visual culture, do you plan to continue exploring it?
With moving to New York, finding a job, and getting settled socially/personally, I have had to put aside two academic journal articles that are in the works. For one of these projects, which focuses on a political allegorical oil painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art, I have already conducted a considerable amount of research, I have a decent manuscript in place, and I presented a draft version of this paper to a panel at the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association (NCSA) in 2017. The next steps involve a short research trip to Montpellier in southern France in order to consult curatorial and archival documentation at the Musée Fabre, and examine a few paintings in their exquisite collection of French Realism and Romanticism. I hope to secure funding for this trip soon and make plans accordingly; this will enable me to continue my work on the essay and later find an outlet for publication.
What are the main challenges for young curators when it comes to collaborating with artists and institutions?
I believe you have to demonstrate credibility by developing a track record of successfully executed projects or exhibitions. However, it’s not enough to complete a number of exhibitions because in my mind the best curators assemble works that create new or unexpected meaning, raise connections, provoke viewers by asking interesting and timely questions, and make the show accessible to a broad audience. Of course, this is a tall order when you’re young and trying to forge working relationships with artists, gallery owners, and venue coordinators. Working with artists is about balancing their vision with your own.
As for institutions, I think the first challenge is establishing trust, finding common ground on what kind of art should be exhibited, and respecting each institution’s mission and expectations for what kind of audience they want to serve. As for my curatorial practice, I would rather put in the physical and intellectual labor for one robust exhibition than do ten run-of-the-mill shows.
As art is being distributed and presented more and more online, how different is the role of the curator and what are the different skills or tools required to make that adjustment?
The phenomenon of visual culture migrating and existing in a virtual space for viewing, consumption, inspection, or purchase is something I have very mixed feelings about. On one hand, some of the initiatives being launched by museums and other cultural institutions in collaboration with tech companies and others in the field of augmented reality are presenting truly exciting new platforms for expanding the accessibility of art to classrooms around the world. Conversely, I think there is the risk of what several 20th-century intellectuals have opined about, namely people not directly engaging with objects and not in the presence or aura of the work of art.
At no other point in history have humans been more surrounded by images, which has the effect of inuring individuals to the power of images. Images are constructs and have been used throughout history to mediate, negotiate, manipulate human relations and behaviors. As we all consume more and more images and media in a variety of formats, I think it’s important that we remind people of this fact and encourage them to always be critical or skeptical of images, both in traditional and vanguard forms.
Are you currently working on any project or have something coming up soon?
My most exciting upcoming project involves a collaboration with De-Construkt Design Studios in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I plan to mount a community-oriented, socially engaged meal via a historic dish based on research, interviews, and collaboration with a local chef. After conducting archival research on the culinary traditions of immigrant communities in Red Hook in the early 20th century and completing ethnographic interviews with key community stakeholders, I’ll work with a local chef to re-present a dish that celebrates the neighborhood's rich maritime history and culture.
At the final event—which is slated for spring 2019—I, alongside the participating chef, will serve the dish while explaining its history, etymological origins, how geography and natural resources gave rise to the dish, how it came to be modified in Red Hook, how the style of preparation is different today from the first iterations, and perhaps most significantly how the dish can yield larger understandings about cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, and ideas. Aside from this oral presentation, the information will be condensed into an essay for the educational pamphlet/brochure for the program.
This introduction and interview was curated by Shally Zucker for Artqol