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A nighttime view of the recently completed David H. Koch plaza at The Met.
(© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art has often been accused of elitism, the landmark institution’s granite front steps numbered among New York City’s most democratic public spaces. On any given day tourists, panhandlers, patrician Upper East Side locals, and New Yorkers of all variety would meet, sit, linger, people-watch, or perhaps read a book on the Met’s front steps or in the tree-lined plaza they overlook. That is, until 2012, when the museum boarded up its front courtyard and plaza for a renovation — a first since the steps and courtyard landscaping were added to the Met’s frontal façade in 1968, as part of an expansion designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkledoo.

The much-beloved public space reopened last week after a thorough, if subtle, overhaul by Philadelphia-based landscape architects OLIN. The redesign leaves much about the plaza and stairs unchanged — the designers’ most successful interventions preserve and accentuate those features that gave the space its reputation in the first place.

One hundred and six trees have been planted and parasols have been added to the alley of trees now lining the 1,021-foot-long street-level plaza, providing 17,600-square-feet of shade. New square fountains, articulated in black granite, flank the grand entry staircase, replacing the original, deteriorating fountains that had been in use since the 1970s. Both permanent and temporary seating has been expanded along the plaza. The effect makes the Met plaza an even more pleasant place to linger, and museum visitors and passersby will surely respond to these changes with great enthusiasm.

One detail of the renovation, however, has already been met with outright hostility. Along the side of the two new fountains, gilded letters spell out “David H. Koch Plaza.” The renovation’s billionaire funder, who gave $65 million for the project, has also donated money to right-wing causes that include the Tea Party and climate-change denial.


Anna Kats
Blouin ArtInfo


Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Theatre Royal (Photo: Mark Pinder/Guardian)

Arts and culture delivers a significant return on relatively small levels of government spending and directly leads to at least £856m of spending by tourists in the UK, according to a new report seeking to analyse the value of the arts to the modern economy.

Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) shows that the arts budget accounts for less than 0.1% of public spending, yet it makes up 0.4% of the nation’s GDP.

The report is published amid fears that the arts will take another big hit when George Osborne announces his spending review in June.

Maria Miller, the culture secretary, recently called for the economic case to be made for the arts, “to hammer home the value of culture to our economy”. She added: “In an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.”

The report, commissioned in November, helps to do that in unprecedented detail, showing that spending on the arts is far from a drain on public resources.


Mark Brown
The Guardian

“Fissuring – landscape, 2012, ” by Qiu Deshu, is a reinvention of traditional drawing with ink on rice paper. (Photo: Michael Goedhuis Gallery)

For the first half of his career, the artist Qiu Deshu largely rode the seismic shifts of Chinese history.

Mr. Qiu, who was born in Shanghai in 1948, studied traditional Chinese arts, including seal carving, scroll mounting and ink painting, along with Western oil painting. As a teenager in the 1960s, he worked as an artist for the Red Guard, creating propaganda for the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, while working in a plastics factory, he gained status as an important “worker-painter.” After the Cultural Revolution, he became the leader of the artists collective Cao Cao Hua She, the Grass Painting Society, to plant new seeds of expression on what he thought was finally terra firma.

But in 1980, when he faced government criticism for defining the group’s goals — independent spirit, independent technique, and independent style — Mr. Qiu grasped where he really stood in society.

“I looked down one day and I saw the cracks in the pavement and I felt an immediate connection to them,” Mr. Qiu said through an interpreter over the telephone from his home in Shanghai. “That’s how my life was — broken. And that’s how I discovered how I should make my work.”

He settled on a technique that he now calls “fissuring,” which involves drawing with ink on rice paper, then tearing it into pieces, and then adding more paper, drawing or painting with acrylics, and tearing that away. Ultimately, it looks like a bas-relief sculptural work with layers of paper and paint. He feels this aesthetic reflects not only his voice as an artist, but his life experiences as well.

Mr. Qiu represents a generation of Chinese contemporary artists who since the 1980s have reclaimed ancient ink-painting techniques to create what is now known as ink arts. He is the subject of a retrospective at the Michael Goedhuis Gallery beginning on Thursday and running through Nov. 15 to coincide with Asian Art in London, which runs through Nov. 10.

It is a category of painting that is receiving increasing attention from Asian and Western curators and collectors, said Clarissa von Spee, curator for the Chinese and Central Asian Collections at the British Museum.


Nina Siegal
New York Times

The Cai Guo-Qiang exhibition at the Arab Museum of Modern Art opened in December with ‘‘Black Ceremony,’’ a controlled explosion of fireworks that produced various scenes, above.

Qatar’s royal family is making Doha, the country’s capital, into an international art hub for renowned artists from all over the world as it sets the stage for the World Cup in 2022, but local artists are being weeded out in the process.

“Investing millions in art venues and art work isn’t enough,” said Ninar Esber, a Lebanese artist represented by the Anne de Villepoix Gallery of Paris. What is missing, she said, are the basics, like freedom of speech. The art scene “is an empty golden shell,” she said, adding, “It glitters from the outside, but from the inside, it is empty.”

“Maybe with time things will change,” she said. “I hope so, but I don’t believe that art changes societies. Laws and secular governments do.”


Rooksana Hossenally
New York Times

As the economic crisis deepens across Europe, the European Commission plans to launch the world’s largest ever cultural funding programme, with €1.8bn allocated for visual and performing arts, film, music, literature and architecture. The commission’s Creative Europe project plans to release the money between 2014 and 2020. If the scheme is approved late 2012, an estimated 300,000 artists are due to receive funding.
The proposal has received a mixed response from key cultural commentators, with some saying that banking on culture and the arts to help prop up EU member states and stimulate the economy is unlikely to work.

Dexter Dalwood, the UK artist nominated for the Turner Prize in 2010, is sceptical. “If the goal is to create social cohesion isn’t it going to favour obvious visible targets like classical music, the performing arts and public art?” he says. “On paper this looks fine. [But] in reality who gets the money ? Is there a hefty application process where the outcome of the work has to be clearly stated? Is there any chance it could trickle down to the most needy creative people?” Dalwood suggests the most effective form of subsidy for artists would be to make affordable studios.


Gareth Harris
The Art Newspaper

Twelve months ago, Ai Weiwei was a celebrated artist, whose Sunflower Seeds had just opened at Tate Modern to widespread acclaim.

Today he is as famous for the 81 days he spent in detention this spring as for his work. In attempting to silence him, the Chinese authorities appear to have amplified his voice.

His sudden disappearance, as he passed through immigration at Beijing airport on 3 April, shocked even the friends who had feared such a moment. His high profile, and his revered late father – the poet Ai Qing – had offered him some protection until then. Human rights groups say his detention showed that no one was immune.

It prompted a global outpouring of outrage that he admits startled even him. “I never imagined it could happen. I think it shows we are in a very different time – through the internet, the media. I had communicated so often with the outside world and made it very clear what was in my mind,” he says.

Though he says that he has learned from his experiences, he has also been clear about how damaging the period was. “You know from the first they are not going to be lawful… I felt very sorry for my family, my child, the people associated with me,” he says.

He has always insisted that China is his home – he is rare in having lived in America for years as a young man without opting for a US passport – but in his lowest moments he questioned even that decision.

“I asked myself: ‘You were so many years in the US and never got citizenship – how stupid could I be?’ You think: ‘This is dangerous.’

“You just want to get out. They ask you to sign everything… At the beginning, I thought it ridiculous. In the end I said that if I did anything wrong, I would take responsibility.”

This year has left him less innocent and more suspicious. But he suggests he emerged with fewer scars than most of the dozens taken in the wider crackdown on activists, lawyers and dissidents this year. Though none are supposed to discuss their experiences, he appears to have been treated considerably better; he thinks his age helped too.

“I’m old enough. I think younger people can be more damaged, more crushed. I have my own beliefs,” he adds. “I told them: ‘You can change the frame but you can’t change the content. You can’t make a chestnut into a pear.'”


Tania Branigan

BANG BUA CANAL: A renovated public walkway, top, along the canal in Bangkok, where residents are helping to design cleaner places to live. (Photo: ACHR)

I joined the line to get into the United Nations the other day, fiddling with my iPhone before shuffling through security. The couple in back (he was toting an iPad) mused about what a design guru Steve Jobs had been. They headed toward the information desk and I toward “Design With the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” an infelicitously titled but inspired show organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and now installed (since the museum is closed for renovations) in the United Nations visitors’ lobby.

Design shows may conjure up fizzy displays of Van Cleef & Arpels or stylish tributes to Helvetica and classic automobiles. Design implies for most people the beautiful things an affluent society makes for itself.

This show is not about that kind of design. The objects here tend to look rugged and sometimes embarrassingly simple, as in “Why hadn’t anyone come up with that idea before?” Their beauty lies elsewhere: in providing economical, smart solutions to address the problems of millions of the world’s poorest people.


Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

Detained artist Ai Weiwei seems to be in good physical health but mentally conflicted and tense, his wife has said after seeing him for the first time in six weeks.

Lu Qing said she was taken to see her husband for about 20 minutes on Sunday afternoon, the first contact friends and relatives have had with the 53-year-old Chinese artist and activist since officials stopped him at Beijing airport on 3 April.

It is not clear where he is being held and the people who arranged the visit did not show her identification, she added.

“I could see redness in his eyes. It was obvious that without freedom to express himself he was not behaving naturally even with me, someone from his family,” Lu told Associated Press. “He seemed conflicted, contained, his face was tense.”


Tania Branigan

A visitor looks at Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at Somerset House in London. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters

Twelve 363kg (800lb) bronze animal heads have gone on display in the historic courtyard of Somerset House in London , the first contemporary sculpture to be featured there. The artist responsible, Ai Weiwei, was the missing element, his wellbeing and whereabouts still unknown after he was detained by Chinese authorities on 3 April.

A solemn opening ceremony included readings of his sayings. Gwyn Miles, director of the Somerset House Trust, called it “a bittersweet occasion”. “Along with many people around the world, we are hoping for his quick and safe release and that he should be allowed to continue his powerful work as an artist, able to speak freely without constraint,” she said.

“We believe the best support we can give Ai Weiwei is to show his stunning new work and to demonstrate the power of his vision.”


Mark Brown

Talking liberties … Ai Weiwei’s face on a poster outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

The story of Ai Weiwei is turning into a dark fable that seems to belong in another age of modern history. In Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo, a dissident intellectual recants his beliefs under pressure from an intolerant regime. It was a hit in the US, but Brecht, a communist, decided in spite of its success to return to live in east Berlin. Later, as he observed the absurdities of the Soviet regime, he was moved to joke that the state should elect another people.

Those absurdities are brilliantly recreated in the historically set Berlin film The Lives of Others, and anyone who has watched it must surely feel a shiver of familiarity at official news from China that Ai Weiwei is co-operating with enquiries into alleged economic crimes and bigamy. Observers who side with the Chinese government on this should be ashamed, and those who dislike Ai Weiwei’s art and so welcome any prospect of his undoing are seriously confused about basic human rights. The fact is that regimes such as the Soviet and the Chinese are brilliant at exploiting weaknesses and flaws in the people they need to crush. Dissidents can be shamed and subdued in many ways. What do you think a police state is? It is a place where truth can be manipulated.

Ai Weiwei has spoken out eloquently for the universality of human rights and the worldwide hunger for freedom. Even if all the charges China are apparently raising were true, it would not alter anything – and given his brutal detention it is reasonable to assume they are false.


Jonathan Jones