A Plan to Beautify Upper East Side Construction Sites

A local non-profit founded on the premise of supporting early career artists is on a mission to beautify the City’s neighborhoods with the help of community-centric art and community-based artists.

ArtBridge – formed 12 years ago and headquartered in Chelsea – is in the middle of a pilot program to beautify the city’s construction sites. On January 11, Community Board 8’s Arts Committee met with a representative from the organization to discuss its history, its current installation on the Upper East Side, and its plans for the future.

“In an ideal world, we’re trying not just to beautify but we’re looking to amplify voices that have been historically marginalized,” said Stephen Pierson, ArtBridge’s executive director and former member of Community Board 2 in Brooklyn. With no city involvement other than the Department of Cultural Affairs and Department of Buildings issuing the requisite permits, the effort to do both falls squarely on the shoulders of Pierson and his colleagues. And, as is often the case in real estate, it all comes down to location, location, location.

Installation sites are selected by the amount of space and visibility they offer. It is imperative that an artist’s work is seen and that the location is free from controversy, particularly from construction that locals oppose. Because the community is what drives the ultimate product, the venue and artwork must reflect those who live there.

This is evident at the Upper East Side’s first ArtBridge exhibit on Third Avenue between East 77th and 78th streets. The construction fencing around Lenox Hill Hospital could be an eyesore for some, dull for the rest. But ArtBridge has changed that. The organization issued an open call for artists who live within a 20-block range of the site and a panel of 12 local residents selected the winners.

Artists Ebony Bolt and Naomi Lawrence were the winners. Their art celebrates essential workers and captures a theme based around the City’s grit persevering through the COVID-19 pandemic, with some light at the end of the tunnel, Pierson explained. The exhibit has been up since September 2021 and will remain there for the next three to four months.

 

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With the average installation lasting only six to eight months, the construction could outlast the art. But any installation that stands longer than 12 months is considered a permanent structure and has to go through the Design Commission for approval.

Raw costs range from $10-40k depending on the size and scope of the project. Proposals are pitched by site owners or those interested in seeing something other than green plywood. But with zero funding from the city and no product or logo placement permitted, ArtBridge is often left scrambling for cash.

Fundraising is crucial. For its work at 15 different New York City Housing Authority locations, ArtBridge has secured grants. As Pierson explained, the art at these spots is “especially important because those voices are often unheard.” Here, the organization works with residents to select two to three local artists. Those chosen are then embedded in communities for a few months and collaborate with residents to determine how the community wants to see itself through art.

Pierson confirmed that ArtBridge is exploring New York City Housing Authority construction within the borders of Community Board 8. With approximately 315 miles of construction plywood lining the City’s streets, it seems highly likely that the current Third Avenue exhibit will not be the last in the neighborhood. CB8’s Arts Committee also gave the program rave reviews, and co-chair Alida Camp said she would advocate for future installations on the UES.

ArtBridge’s work has been installed all over the city including in Times Square, DUMBO, the Bronx, and the Upper West Side at  78th and West End Avenue. It has also been featured along the Hudson Valley and in L’Aquila, Italy.

The pilot program started in 2019 and was approved initially for two years. It has been extended through July 2023. Pierson noted recent legislation will permanently codify the program and open it up to other organizations thereafter.




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