Artist as benefactor

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 5, 2005

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the breathtaking artists whose cloth projects have graced many miles of countryside and, in cities, wrapped entire buildings will next week add to their trademark feats with another monumental work, this one in New York City’s Central Park. Some 500,000 people will come to cast off their February blues by taking a walk in a park like no other – Central Park’s 23 miles of pathways will be framed by 7,500 free-hanging, saffron-coloured “Gates,” each 12 feet apart, each seven feet off the ground and 16 feet high.

No one could fault the city of New York for financing this mammoth undertaking, the largest outdoor sculpture in the city’s history, involving more than one million square feet of woven nylon fabric, 60 miles of vinyl tube, and 5,290 tons of steel. Not only is The Gates expected to bring New York US$100-million in economic activity, the entire world will be viewing the installation on television and reading about it in their newspapers and magazines, giving New York City perhaps another US$100-million in free publicity.

Except the city didn’t pay Christo and Jeanne-Claude to erect this art. Just the opposite. Christo and Jeanne-Claude paid New York City US$3-million for the use of Central Park. They also paid for personal and property liability insurance, holding harmless the city and its Department of Parks and Recreation. They also paid for a restoration bond to guarantee that they would take down their installation, and leave no garbage or damage behind. They took pains to ensure that their installation didn’t impede the public’s normal use of Central Park, or the activities of park personnel for maintenance and cleanup. Because the park needed to supervise the work being done on their property, the artists compensated the park for these costs. Their contract with the city, in fact, committed them to leave no vegetation or rock formation disturbed.

The coffers of the city and its merchants will swell through the 16 days this cloth-work flies its colours in Central Park. Hotels and tourist operators are offering “Christo” packages while others sell luxury Christo watches, Christo books, Christo films, Christo souvenirs of all kinds. Christo and Jeanne-Claude want not a penny of this; they have donated all merchandising rights from The Gates to The Central Park Conservancy and Nurture New York’s Nature, organizations they hold dear. Neither will they take a penny of the individually signed posters that Nurture New York’s Nature is selling.

The Gates requires an army of 600 merely to install the work, and hundreds more to manufacture the structures, maintain them, provide them with round the clock protection, and disassemble them. The many Christo and Jeanne-Claude devotees who would volunteer their labour are directed to Central Park administrators to help out elsewhere – Christo and Jeanne Claude accept no unpaid labour. They also accept no donations of cash, no corporate sponsorships, no grants from either public or private arts foundations. They want no diversions of time from their art and no compromises of their art satisfying funders who, by paying the piper, would invariably influence the tune.

As with all Christo and Jeanne-Claude creations, the artists will fund The Gates entirely themselves, through the sale of studies, scale models, preparatory drawings and collages of the exhibit, as well as earlier art. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s obsession with artistic independence has a price – The Gates will cost them US$20-million – but it produces art that is priceless, figuratively and literally. No tickets may be sold to view The Gates – this art for the public from these celebrated artists is free – and there is no aftermarket for The Gates – every last foot of fabric and pound of steel will be recycled, to ensure The Gates live on only in the imagination of the multitudes who have beheld it, and only in the entirety of its conception.

In only one way can governments be said to have played a role in the art of Christo and Jean-Claude – in squelching it. The artists have sought permission to do The Gates since 1979 but only after Michael Bloomberg, a Central Park Conservancy member, became mayor, did they receive a favourable decision. Until then, the city bureaucracy had dug in its heels, preferring to fund the uncontroversial and the mediocre. Similarly, because of the French bureaucracy, it took the artists 10 years to clothe Pont Neuf in Paris. More often, the artists fail altogether. Of the 57 ideas that they have proposed, 18 were accepted and 37 denied, sometimes despite years of trying. Two-thirds of the works of these masters – two of the world’s greatest living artists – have thus been denied us by the power of governments to dictate the public taste.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Toronto-based Energy Probe Research Foundation.

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