New York Is Inviting Nonprofits to Install Contemporary Art on the City’s Construction Sites

The city is changing its codes to encourage arts orgs to install public work, though it is providing no new funding.

Monika Bravo, Breathing Wall on a New York City construction site. Photo courtesy of the artist via NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

The City That Never Sleeps is also constantly growing. Never-ending development, construction, and renovation projects leave New York littered with scaffolding and protective construction structures that, for all their functionality, are utterly boring to look at. But what if all those blank green walls could be repurposed as canvasses for public art, a showcase for NYC’s world class artists?

That’s the vision of City Canvas, the latest program from the New York City of Cultural Affairs, in collaboration with the Department of Buildings and the Office of the Mayor. There are over 300 miles of construction fences and sidewalk sheds across the city, but New York City construction codes currently prohibit anyone from posting on them. City Canvas would allow cultural organizations to install public art on these sites.

“Sidewalk sheds are unattractive, but they keep us safe,” said buildings commissioner Rick D. Chandler, PE, in a statement. “We’re proud to work with our partner agencies on this innovative program. If anyone can bring some love to the sidewalk sheds New Yorkers love to hate, it’s our city’s artists.”

The program is “designed to improve the city’s visual landscape, while giving artists and organizations opportunities to bring their work to public space,” according to the announcement. Selected applicants will be able to commission artists to create designs to be installed at city-owned buildings, sidewalks, and streets throughout the five boroughs.

Artist Todd Gray's Pop Art–inspired mural at the World Trade Center site. Photo courtesy of Silverstein Properties.

Artist Todd Gray’s Pop Art–inspired mural at the World Trade Center site. Photo courtesy of Silverstein Properties.

The 24-month pilot stage for City Canvas was announced last month, kicking off with an open call for proposals from interested cultural nonprofits that runs through this Friday. The program isn’t limited to street artists, but proposals must be site-specific and preferably feature artists or artworks with some sort of connection to the neighborhood in which the work would be seen.

The city is not providing funding to the participating organizations, who will be responsible for producing the artwork and affixing it to the site themselves.

“I’m thrilled that our city has identified the miles of construction fencing as a canvas for artists to present works of public art in every neighborhood,” said council member Jimmy Van Bramer. “Members of the community can now enjoy art and find the meaning it brings on the way to and from work, on an evening stroll, or from the window of a car.”

The Urban Umbrella sidewalk shed. Photo courtesy of Urban Umbrella.

The Urban Umbrella sidewalk shed. Photo courtesy of Urban Umbrella.

The City Canvas initiative follows the installation of attractive sidewalk sheds from Urban Umbrella at construction sites in the Flatiron and near City Hall last fall. The recycled steel and translucent plastic panel design won a 2010 competition sponsored by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg aimed at solving the problem of the construction eyesores.

In June, temporary metal sheds at the World Trade Center site also got an upgrade with murals by street artists selected by Doug Smith of World Trade Gallery for Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Department of Buildings also brought art to the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards construction site back in 2010.

“New York City is one of the most vibrant built environments in the world, and City Canvas is a great opportunity to let some of the artists working in our neighborhoods help to enliven and enhance our public spaces,” said Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl. “We’re excited to launch this pilot initiative exploring ways we can transform our sidewalk sheds and construction fences into canvases for local artists.”

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