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After the gift shop at the Henry Gallery failed and the space went dark, Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher proposed turning it into an artist space. Different teams of artists run it on themes of their devising. Through Dec. 13 is The Gift Exchange by Claire Cowie, Sol Hashemi and Jason Hirata, based on a come-one, come-all version of a potlach. Anyone can bring a gift and take one, or bring several and take several. Cowie, Hashemi and Hirata set a high standard for the exchange by seeding the original stock with their work.

Since it opened Nov. 14, the audience has risen to the occasion. Although some people tear open corners of wrapped gifts and keep going until they find treasure, many, many others bring treasures and take what they’re given in a blind exchange. Not all gifts are blind. Some lack wrapping, in the interests of making sure a gift goes to someone who will value it.

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Regina Hackett
Another Bouncing Ball

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In a narrow swath along Manhattan’s Hudson River, stone walls and beautiful arched bridges set off with trees disguise a buried railroad and entwine a six-lane highway.

This is Riverside Park, and it’s an infrastructure masterpiece.

Congress and President Obama shouldn’t commit themselves to spending billions for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects before examining every inch of the park, which was built during the Depression.

Regrettably, we can’t create its contemporary equivalent today. Great ossified bureaucracies make it all but impossible to unite highways, rails, transit and appealing walkways.

I fear that “shovel ready” means boondoggles like the E- 470 beltway, a six-lane, 46-mile arc through empty high-desert grasslands dotted with new subdivisions east of Denver. Cars cruise the wide-open toll road at 80 miles per hour.

Touted as essential to the metro area’s growth, this land developers’ delight hasn’t lightened loads on more centrally located highways. It’s just rearranged growth patterns, scattering splotches of development over an unimaginably large landscape. New residents depend on long beltway commutes by car.

We can’t do better now, the lobbying legions say, we need to start the bulldozers fast. Translation: No bridge to nowhere will be left behind.

What’s wrong with America’s way of building transportation has long been known. We segregate roads, mass transit, railways and air. Each has its own pot of money. It’s no one’s job to assemble a transportation system that offers the right travel mode for the task at hand.

Aside from the odious earmarks, most transportation funding decisions are made by Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Never heard of MPOs? They’re supposed to set priorities based on real needs, though instead they operate in obscurity and allow the political horse-trading to go on unimpeded by real oversight.

So much is made of the nation’s neglect of infrastructure, yet the U.S. actually is spending record sums on it.

We don’t make progress because the nation fails to lay out new communities so they can be efficiently served by means other than the auto. A start would be to group people-intensive colleges and commercial centers as hubs along corridors served by transit and walkable streets.

While the bureaucracies (state and federal) get overhauled, officials can easily cross off much on the wish lists, like all those beltways that are really land-development schemes posing as congestion relief. (Charlotte, North Carolina, killed an outer- beltway plan some years ago and has done fine, thank you.)

Next, knock out the fourth, fifth and sixth expressway lanes. When roads get that big, there’s enough demand to support high-quality transit. The six rail tracks that tunnel into New York’s Penn Station haul as many people as 45 freeway lanes.

What should Obama support? Lots of innovation has been trickling up from municipalities. Beltway suburbs like Bellevue, Washington, turned their parking-lot acres into high-value suburban downtowns. Focused on transit, they’re appealing as places to walk, shop, work and live.

Some metro areas are aligning roads and rails (both freight and passenger) in corridors to support these emerging urban hubs. The San Francisco Bay Area could use some cash to finally finish a rapid-transit extension linking Oakland and the East Bay to San Jose and Silicon Valley. Without additional aid, underfunded and overburdened big cities will soon have to stop long-planned, often-deferred projects like New York’s Second Avenue Subway.

Express bus lanes and bikeways sharing “green streets” with cars can reduce auto dependency. In the best cases, each mode is physically separated from the others by planted buffers. These little Riverside Parks aren’t just pretty. They make pedestrian crossings safer and sop up storm water — essential in an increasingly flood-prone era.

Dollars spent that get Americans out of cars will ease traffic, save money, reduce pollution, slow global warming and make us less vulnerable to volatile oil oligarchs.

Road projects do little more than rearrange the traffic jams. Look for freeway spectaculars among the proposals, like the 23-lane extravaganza touted for Atlanta’s suburbs. Mark them “D” — for delusional.

James Russell
Bloomberg

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After dozens of community meetings, fundraisers, late-night porch talks and a trip to buy a foreclosed property at auction, this first chapter of Arceneaux’s venture — a grand-scale collaboration involving local artists and the city’s major arts and educational institutions, as well as residents — is finally beyond the drawing board phase. Based on artist Rick Lowe’s Houston development, Project Row Houses, the Watts House Project (WHP) — part conceptual art, part activism — is a mission that Arceneaux, its director, describes as “an artwork in the shape of a neighborhood development.”

At the moment, his medium looks like many old streets in L.A., those elder neighborhoods that have eluded the nip-and-tuck of assembly-line gentrification. Here stands a row of bungalows, some stucco, others with their original wood, some fronted by neat lawns, or gardens tangled with succulents or bright splashes of bottle brush. Down the street, on this September afternoon, two neighbors watch under the harsh sun; another, down the block, is trimming a tree as carefully sculpted as a bonsai. Some windows concealed by bars are the only hints of anything untoward.

Much of the project is about just this: the nuances. It’s what gets lost in the overview: the day-in, day-out stories of a section of L.A. that has seldom had a chance to define itself for itself — let alone to the world. To this end, Arceneaux wants to fold together the history of the neighborhood alongside the stories of its residents, pairing artists with architects, creativity with practicality. He hopes to get to all 20 structures on 107th Street — refurbishing four a year for the next five years — and expand to create exhibition spaces, cafes, gardens and artists residences. “Instead of using clay, we’re using time and space to sculpt a neighborhood and relationships.”

While it isn’t lost on Arceneaux that his project sits in the shadow of one of the more famous monuments to the quixotic, his ground-up approach is what has attracted vital support from L.A.’s arts community. LAXART, a Culver City-based nonprofit contemporary art exhibition space, has taken WHP under its wing. The project has received funding from the nonprofit Creative Capital and UCLA’s Hammer Museum, and support from USC’s School of Architecture, the Watts Towers Arts Center and the interdisciplinary producer ForYourArt. “It’s crucial to explore ways for artists to work outside the gallery walls,” says ForYourArt founder Bettina Korek, “and in this case, enhance community resources.” Of the estimated $1 million they need for the work on 107th Street, they’ve brought in $85,000…

The effort was first conceived by Rick Lowe, the mastermind behind Project Row Houses, a still-flourishing, public art project that grew up in Houston’s once-crumbling Third Ward. Lowe’s idea there was to rehab 22 former tenant shacks, and convert them into living — and live-in — works of art for the residents. It transformed the neighborhood from blemish to jewel. “These projects are a way of challenging the notion that low-income neighborhoods have to be poor neighborhoods,” says Lowe.

In 1995, Lowe had attempted to create a similar project in L.A, here on 107th, as part of MOCA’s “Uncommon Sense” show. “I’d visited before,” says Lowe, “but this time it just became obvious to me that the symbol of the towers was significant nationally in terms [of] the black power movement.” Lowe began talking to people in the area, including Greenfield, about an idea to bridge the gap between the Towers, the Art Center and the community.

It was all rooted in his belief that through reflection and dialogue, an artist-in-residency can elevate the quality of life and amplify the meaning of place. “Artists,” says Lowe, “add a different kind of layering to ‘development.’

“What I started to observe was that the residents were potentially the best ambassadors to the neighborhood. But they weren’t always treated well,” says Lowe. And though it is a tourists’ draw, the street lacks sufficient parking [and] it floods when it rains.

“You don’t want to be at the center of things when you’re not at your best.” In other words, “How do you create that? How do you weave the art across the street?”…

In fact, says Arceneaux, it’s becoming like any art process: “It’s moving the tiles around.” This metaphorical canvas just happens to be quite a large, contested one.

“The process is reflexive. You do something and you let the work talk back to you. But,” he adds, “I can’t imagine a more sort of indeterminate background than Watts.”

Lynell George
Los Angeles Times

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed that in the 1930s, when she was busy remaking the idea of culture, the notion of cultural diversity was to be found only in the ‘vocabulary of a small and technical group of professional anthropologists’. Today, everyone and everything seems to have its own culture. From anorexia to zydeco, the American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, there is little that we don’t talk about as the product of some group’s culture. In this age of globalisation many people fret about Western culture taking over the world. But the greatest Western export is not Disney or McDonalds or Tom Cruise. It is the very idea of culture. Every island in the Pacific, every tribe in the Amazon, has its own culture that it wants to defend against the depredation of Western cultural imperialism. You do not even have to be human to possess a culture. Primatologists tell us that different groups of chimpanzees each has its own culture. No doubt some chimp will soon complain that their traditions are disappearing under the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.

We’re All Multiculturalists Now observed the American academic, and former critic of pluralism, Nathan Glazer in the title of a book. And indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. Ironically, culture has captured the popular imagination just as anthropologists themselves have started worrying about the very concept. After all, what exactly is a culture? What marks its boundaries? In what way is a 16-year old British born boy of Pakistani origin living in Bradford of the same culture as a 50-year old man living in Lahore? Does a 16-year white boy from Bradford have more in common culturally with his 50-year-old father than with that 16-year old ‘Asian’? Such questions have led most anthropologists today to reject the idea of cultures as fixed, bounded entities. Some reject the very idea of culture as meaningless. ‘Religious beliefs, rituals, knowledge, moral values, the arts, rhetorical genres, and so on’, the British anthropologist Adam Kuper suggests, ‘should be separated out from each other rather than bound together into a single bundle labelled culture’. ‘To understand culture’, he concludes, ‘we must first deconstruct it.

Whatever the doubts of anthropologists, politicians and political philosophers press on regardless. The idea of culture, and especially of multiculturalism, has proved politically too seductive. Over the past two decades, nations such as Australia, Canada and South Africa have created legal frameworks to institutionalise their existence as multicultural societies. Other countries such as Britain have no formal recognition of their multicultural status but have nevertheless pursued pluralist policies in a pragmatic fashion. Even France, whose Republican tradition might seem to be the nemesis of multiculturalism, has flirted with pluralist policies. In 1986 the College de France presented the President with a report entitled ‘Proposals for the Education of the Future’. The first of ten principles to which modern schools should subscribe was ‘The unity of science and the plurality of cultures’: ‘A carefully fabricated system of education must be able to integrate the universalism inherent in scientific thought with the relativism of the social sciences, that is with disciplines attentive to the significance of cultural differences among people and to the ways people live, think and feel.’

‘There is a certain way of being human that is my way’, wrote the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his much discussed essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality’. This sense of being ‘true to myself’ Taylor calls ‘the ideal of “authenticity”’. The ideal of the authentic self finds its origins in the Romantic notion of the inner voice that expressed a person’s true nature. The concept was developed in the 1950s by psychologists such as Erik Erikson and sociologists like Alvin Gouldner into the modern notion of identity. Identity, they pointed out, is not just a private matter but emerges in dialogue with others.

Increasingly identity came to be seen not as something the self creates but as something through which the self is created. Identity is, in sociologist Stuart Hall’s words, ‘formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us.’ The inner self, in other words, finds its home in the outer world by participating in a collective. But not just any collective. The world is comprised of countless groups – philosophers, truck drivers, football supporters, drinkers, train spotters, conservatives, communists and so on. According to the modern idea of identity, however, each person’s sense of who they truly are is intimately linked to only a few special categories – collectives defined by people’s gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture. A Unesco-organised ‘World Conference on Cultural Policies’ concluded that ‘cultural identity… was at the core of individual and collective personality, the vital principle that underlay the most authentic decisions, behaviour and actions’.

Kenan Malik
Butterflies and Wheels

A year ago I gushed about the annual Bang on a Can marathon, the crucial new music event in New York that had moved to a new space and attracted a new, excited — and exciting — audience.

This year (the performance was two weekends ago) the space was the same, the Winter Garden, an extravagant, comfortable public space downtown, with ceilings high enough to accommodate full-sized palm trees. It’s right on the Hudson River, in the miles-long stretch that’s been developed as a walkway (and skate- and bikeway) and a park. So you’ll always have people walking there, and maybe popping into the World Financial Center (the building that the Winter Garden is part of), to eat or have a snack or do some shopping.

Which gives Bang on a Can a readymade audience, especially since their marathon was part of an established downtown arts series. But that didn’t mean that the audience would be as large as it was, or would stay as long as it did. Because this marathon was long. Last year’s was longer — 26 hours — but this year’s, at 12 hours, was long enough to run all night…the audience was larger than it was the year before. I’m not good with estimating numbers, but the figure thrown around last year was 1000 people, when things were at their height. This year there were more than that, quite a few more, I’d say.

And who were these people? Last year, the organizers didn’t know, which is to say that this wasn’t a new-music insider audience, but instead what I’ll call (in whatever tone of view you choose) a real one, an audience of people who either came or wandered in and stayed becuase they liked the music, not because they had a professional connection to what was going on. They were mostly young. So here again — as I mentioned in my post about the Wordless Music orchestra concert — was the new, young audience the classical music world says it’s looking for, alive, in the flesh, larger than life, but maybe striking out in directions of its own, toward new music and away from standard classical repertoire and concerts…

When I left at 3 AM, So Percussion had just finished David Lang’s the so called laws of nature. By this time, there might have been 600 people there, still this new and avid audience. David, of course, is another of the Bang on a Can composers, and this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner. The piece, again by mainstream standards, wouldn’t exactly be a crowd-pleaser, since it’s long (at least 20 minutes), rigorous, and, within each of its large sections, pretty much unchanging, with nothing in it that you’d expect to wow an audience (except maybe the pulsing rhythm, though that would start and stop). But, again, the rules have changed. This audience whooped, and as I headed toward the exit, David was greeting people who’d line up to have him sign CDs.

I wonder how many other Pulitzer Prize composers have faced a line of happy fans at 3 AM? This marathon remains a miracle, and, if you ask me, it’s the most important classical music event in New York, both for the quality of its music and the excitement of its audience. Recently, in a private blog about orchestras that I was asked to take part in, some eager orchestra professionals got rhapsodic about performances their orchestras had done (which I’m willing to believe were wonderful), and offered them as wistful proof that classical music will never die. To me that’s essentially a statement of faith, and while I respect the faith, I don’t see how it answers questions about what might well be diminishing interest in standard orchestra performances in the future. I feel more confident in what Bang on a Can evokes, because the hope for the future I think they offer is tangibly, visibly, andn audibly supported by an excited new and growing audience.

Greg Sandow
Sandow

During the recent Association of Arts Administration Educators conference here in Madison, the increasing proficiency and professionalism around our collective conversation was both a source of pride, and a cause for pause. As a field of educators, researching and teaching cultural management and leadership, we’re clearly growing in reflection, connections, and success. But what if we’re doing so at a time when the profession, as we’ve defined it, is changing rapidly? What if we’re all getting increasingly proficient at a decreasingly relevant part of the ecosystem?

Consider, for example, the three-word phrase that often crops up at such conferences: ”professional arts organization.” This phrase captures, in shorthand, the specific category of cultural endeavor we tend to be discussing. Professional arts organizations require professional management, aesthetic integrity, curatorial control, and stable but responsive structures to hold them together while moving their mission forward. These are the standards that drive our teaching and learning about the field.
But each of those three words — ”professional,” ”arts,” and ”organization” — is in radical flux at the moment. That suggests that a phrase (and an assumption) combining all three could mean less and less in shorthand form.

This concern may come from my current reading matter, Clay Shirky’s new book Here Comes Everybody, about the increasing opportunities for collective action without traditional organizational structures — think Flickr or Wikipedia or iStockPhoto. But there’s something rumbling in the world that questions our basic assumptions about arts and cultural management. Let’s take a look at each word in the phrase, in reverse order:

· Organization
The formal organization (social, commercial, political, etc.) evolved in response to a set of structural barriers to collective action. Work that required more than one or a few people to complete — highway systems, national defense, mass-produced goods, save-the-spotted-owl initiatives, performing arts touring networks, museums — created large problems of coordination, alignment of resources (enough money in one place under one decision system), and high transaction costs (everyone having to agree every time…exhausting). The organization resolved these challenges through formalized decision structures, consolidated resources, and persistent identity (for example, a corporation lives separately from its founders, and is endowed with many/most of the rights of an individual). There was a cost to this structure, to be sure. A significant portion of any organization’s energy is consumed by self-maintenance rather than delivering on its purpose. Since the option was to not do the thing at all, we figured the costs were acceptable and necessary.

With the evolution of digital communications networks and software, however, many of the original challenges that required an organization are gone or significantly reduced. Collective action is increasingly available to distributed groups who don’t even know each other by name, and may convene around a cause only to disburse thereafter. The cost of production and distribution has dropped to almost zero for many goods and services. Organizations are still necessary and essential parts of the mix, but they’re not the only (or even the optimal) solution to every question, as they once were.

· Arts
There’s little need to go on about this particular word, which we all would agree is a fast-moving, increasingly amorphous creature. When we talk about ”arts” in the context of ”arts management” or ”arts organizations,” we still generally mean predominantly Western forms of expression, with an assumed emphasis on technical or aesthetic excellence. We don’t always mean this, of course. But if you nudge most conversations by professionals, you’ll find this assumption just beneath the surface. Evidence comes from the fact that we still add qualifiers to the word when we mean something other than the above: ”community arts,” ”amateur arts.”

· Professional
Specialized organizations in specialized industries require specialized professionals — trained in the task by formal process or apprenticeship. Professionals earn the term when they are paid for their specialized work and when the nature and frame of their efforts are defined and evaluated by their peers rather than by their customers. Professional writers define what professional writers do. Professional doctors and realtors define the parameters and certifications for their peers.
But, again, what happens to the word ”professional” when works of comparable quality and skill can be conceived, produced, and distributed without expensive or centralized means of production? Flickr has millions of exceptional images, many shot by individuals with no formal training, expecting no pay, and unfiltered by a traditional gatekeeper (curator, publisher, agent).

Says Shirky:

When reproduction, distribution, and categorization were all difficult, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed professionals to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated those people for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have in many cases become optional, and are sometimes obstacles to direct access, often putting the providers of the older service at odds with their erstwhile patrons.

So, am I suggesting that we abandon our foundational phrase ”professional arts organization”? Of course not. As long as there are complex processes, specialized physical requirements of expression (theaters, museums, even on-line forums), and a recognition of the value of extraordinary skill, vision, and voice, we will need organizations, professionals, and filtering systems to find, foster, and connect expressive works to the world.

But we may want to recalibrate our underlying assumptions as an industry (and as educators who hope to advance that industry and its goals) about the specific role of what we now call ”professional arts organizations.” These are a subset of a massive ecology available to us to achieve our larger purpose. If we stick too rigidly to our terms, we may become obstacles to the missions we claim to have.

Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager

The following comment by Dary appeared on Taylor’s posting and is a worthwhile continuation of the argument:

I actually just saw this guy speak at a… ahem… super-dorky “Web 2.0” Conference in San Francisco. He was really, really engaging and had some pretty cool viewpoints. One of his hypotheses is that our society as a whole is coming out of an age of collective intellectual inebriation much like society did prior to the Industrial Revolution. He told a story about how rampant gin was in 19th-century England – to the point where there were gin pushcarts like our current-day ice cream carts – and how society as a whole was just drunk and lazy for decades. And then it went out of fashion, people starting doing stuff, and we got the Industrial Revolution.

He makes the analogy of that gin-soaked drunkeness to the TV-soaked stupor of the past 50 years or so. He says now people are watching less television (which I haven’t checked the numbers on) and are spending more time applying actual brain power to such things as updating Wikipedia articles, tagging sites on del.icio.us and ma.gnolia, writing blogs, and twittering (brain power optional on that one).

His views are, of course, open to debate and there’s some intriguing counter-arguments to the seemingly pristine virtues of collective intelligence.

Anyway, in terms of how Shirky’s theories and the new communal web apply to Professional Arts Organizations, I’m not exactly sure what exactly you’re getting at. With “Organizations” the web makes it easier to schedule things and get in touch with people. Of course. You don’t really redefine anything with “Arts” in terms of this new landscape except to touch on the fact that Professionals think Amateurs are lame. And with “Professional”, you argue Web 2.0 makes it easier for non-professional artists to have their material discovered? Yes, of course, again. I dunno.

What’s more interesting to me is how a larger pool of available pieces of media changes society’s collective agreement on what is worthwhile and valuable in the arts and in general. Colbert jokes about “truthiness”, but it’s actual a valid point of philosophical debate within this new worldwide, social move to open up human knowledge. It’s especially pertinent to music I think, not just in terms of what a society consumes, but how they consume it. And I go back-and-forth between whether these new aspects are wonderful and free or troubling and insulting.

Ask someone how many concerts they’ve been to vs. how many YouTube videos of concerts/pieces they’ve watched in the past year- my ratio is deplorable! And the idea that it’s now easy to create music – for $500 you can build a moderately decent home studio and create recordings of moderately decent quality – so professionals aren’t as necessary anymore is worrisome.

It’s all happened so fast I don’t think people in general have really stopped to think about what this means for our society’s appreciation of the arts and value system for judging works.

So I’m thinking out loud, but clearly this is a contentious point for me. Thoughts?

olafur.jpg
Courtesy of Amy C. Elliott/Public Art fund

For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.

Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.

There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.

“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.

Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”

For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.

In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.

“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.

Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.

“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.

“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.

The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”

But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.

“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”

Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.

Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”

One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”

Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor

image0013.jpg

Though little of the power of Daniel Libeskind’s original vision for the World Trade Center site has survived, he has skillfully leveraged his moment in the global media spotlight.

His Studio Libeskind is remaking skylines worldwide — from Korea to Las Vegas to Milan — using many ideas deemed too radical or too expensive for Ground Zero.

Architectural genius or canny marketer? Libeskind showed some of both in a recent interview in his Lower Manhattan office.
His passion electrified New Yorkers and television viewers worldwide when he presented an ambitious master plan for Ground Zero in December 2002.

Timid bureaucrats have shriveled the memorial’s emotional power in favor of a vast, bland, tree-dotted plaza that’s crept over most of the site. All of the buildings now planned for the complex are designed by other architects, yet Libeskind continues to advise the project. He staunchly defends what the design has become. He still wears his distinctive black-framed eyeglasses and architect’s basic black sweater and slacks.

“The plan had to evolve,” he said. “Who would be mad enough to think a project done in three months in a city as complex as New York would not change?”

I feared in 2002 that Libeskind’s plan would lead to a memorial that was too grandiose. Yet I admired the dynamic way he meshed the isolated 16-acre site back into the city: The crystalline shapes that tumbled over each other locked themselves into the jumble of surrounding streets. He extended the city’s energy rather than fending it off, as the World Trade Center’s bleak plaza did.

That dialogue with the surroundings has largely been lost. Libeskind’s engaging, sculpted shapes have been stripped down to characterless boxes.

He doesn’t see it that way, explaining that the symbolic elements remain key.

“It’s still a spiral of buildings that descend from the Freedom Tower with its symbolic height of 1,776 feet,” he explained. “It puts the memorial at the center of the composition.”

In a memorable image, he juxtaposed the spire of the Freedom Tower with the torch of the Statue of Liberty (a view available only from across the Hudson River in New Jersey). Yet does that make up for a straitjacketed streetscape?

“It is right that the composition of buildings emerge at the scale of the skyline,” he said. “Symbols are real.”

Symbols lose their meaning if what people encounter is a plaza to nowhere and extremely large and mediocre towers. I was distressed that he would endorse today’s bowdlerized plan precisely because his original design had insightfully shaped the real ebb and flow of the city.

“I did not win every battle,” he said. When the site is completed, “I think people will see something very interesting and important.”

In his early projects, especially the moving Jewish Museum in Berlin, his sharp-edged, menacing imagery was intrinsically tied to the building’s difficult subject matter. It was a risky venture because emotionally charged architecture usually fails. In the Jewish Museum, it succeeds unforgettably.

Now the same visual gestures are applied to shopping centers and college buildings. If they don’t usefully transform what goes on inside, aren’t they just jazzy visual gestures?

“It’s my language,” he responded. “It’s people identifying with my language and seeing it as meaningful…”

Libeskind was once that rare architect who wasn’t afraid to reach for peoples’ emotions and let architecture exude passion. As his output has become more prodigious, what was once risk- taking too often looks merely attention-getting. I hope he’ll still dig deeply as he savors his well-earned success.

James S. Russell
Bloomberg.com

In many ways, Ms. Pearl’s [author of Book Lust] rise in the book world parallels Seattle’s rise in the publishing world. Though the big publishing houses are still ensconced in New York, the Seattle area is the home of Amazon, Starbucks and Costco, three companies that increasingly influence what America reads.

Books by relatively unknown or foreign authors become best sellers by dint of their anointment at the hands of Amazon editors. A forgotten older paperback, recommended and featured by the book buyer at Costco, can sell more copies in six weeks than it did in the last few years combined. Almost every book Starbucks stocks in its coffee shops sells more than 100,000 copies in its outlets alone. That pushes most Starbucks selections into the top 1 percent of all books sold that year, without counting sales in other types of stores.

The three companies settled in Seattle for different reasons, and each had its own motivation for choosing to sell books. Together, though, their combined power in the book industry has put the city in the position of tastemaker.

Each company, in its own way, “guides their customers, by selecting the books they will see,” Ms. Pearl said. “New York may publish the books, but Seattle significantly defines America’s reading list.”

Industry trends suggest Seattle’s influence will keep growing. More people are bypassing bookstores and buying at mass-market merchants, online retailers and specialty stores, says Albert N. Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration.

In the last two years alone, sales of consumer books sold through such nontraditional outlets grew by more than $260 million, Professor Greco said. The presence of Costco, Amazon and Starbucks ensures that “Seattle will keep making an impact on what we read,” he said.

When Kim Ricketts, founder of a book promotion company in Seattle, visited the big publishing houses in New York last month, she said she was repeatedly asked for advice on how to do business with the three Seattle heavyweights: “Publishers want to find the golden ticket — how to get their title beloved by one of these companies.”

Seattle’s literary seeds have been here for decades, with local authors, abundant writing courses and robust independent bookstores, according to J. A. Jance, the Seattle mystery author whose books have sold 15 million copies over the last 20 years. “Maybe it’s the rain, but Seattle has always been a reading town,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, the city has spent nearly $200 million to improve its libraries, including the new downtown showpiece designed by Rem Koolhaas and completed in 2004.

This love of books even seeps into the town’s corporate cultures, says Ms. Ricketts, who 10 years ago started organizing author visits for employees at Microsoft, Starbucks and other companies in the area. “The authors were always shocked at how big the crowds were and how many books they sold,“ Ms. Ricketts remembers.

The town’s enthusiasm for books may have made it easy to find well-qualified employees, but Amazon, Starbucks and Costco each occupy a different niche in the book world.

Starbucks started offering books to enhance the coffee-house experience, thinking that customers would enjoy spending more time in the shop if they had a provocative read and conversation starter to go along with their coffees and scones. They also hoped it would increase spending by each customer.

Starbucks sells just one title at a time, usually for a period of two to three months. The selections bear little resemblance to one another. Some have been almost unknown; others were already best sellers. The latest title, “Beautiful Boy,” focuses on a father trying to help his drug-addicted son.

“We wanted to find extraordinary books that would encourage people to discuss compelling issues” like war, hope, faith and family, said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment…

Costco has become so successful at selling books that it has become a hot spot on the author book promotion circuit. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, and Bill Clinton have signed books in Costco warehouses.

The flip side of the success of the big Seattle booksellers is the gradual decrease in the number of small independent stores, which have struggled as a result of a variety of factors…

Book lovers as well as writers miss the corner bookstore. But Americans are busy, and if they can pick up the latest book while they’re stocking their pantry, sitting at their computer or going out for coffee, it saves them valuable time, said Brian Jud, author of “Beyond the Bookstore: How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets.”

They just may not realize that someone in Seattle helped them choose it.

Julie Bick
New York Times

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Photograph of Inga Saffron by Ryan Donnell

Inga Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril…

Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition”…Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy…”

That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper…

In a perfect newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach…Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia…”

“Architecture is unavoidable,” [Saffron] says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share…The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”

Richard Rys
Philadelphia Magazine