As the Mayor promised millions for new monuments, old ones crumbled

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As the Mayor promised millions for new monuments, old ones crumbled
”Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho,” by Richmond Barthe in New York, July 27, 2020. Without dedicated funding for conservation, many of New York City’s public memorials and artworks are decaying from neglect. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- Early into his second term, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $10 million initiative, led by his wife, Chirlane McCray, that would break the bronze ceiling by introducing seven new statues of historical women to New York City’s commemorative landscape of mostly men. It was to be one of de Blasio’s signature marks on the landscape.

Days from the end of his administration, with only $1 million dedicated, none of those sculptures has yet materialized. Instead, de Blasio’s bigger legacy, set within marble and metal, is likely to be one of disrepair, as many of the city’s aging public monuments crumble from longtime neglect, just as they did under many of his predecessors.

Dozens of monuments and artworks await repairs and conservation that may never be forthcoming because of rising maintenance costs and shifting priorities to newer memorials.

Outside a Brooklyn housing project, an important Harlem Renaissance stone frieze from 1938 honoring African Americans is deteriorating. The work, called “Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho,” by Black sculptor Richmond Barthé, will require nearly $1.8 million in repairs that the city has delayed for 26 years.

A similar fate could await one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park in Manhattan. Closed for nearly five years because of its decrepit state, the monument needs repairs to its Corinthian columns and triumphal eagle sculptures that would cost $36.5 million, according to the park’s conservancy group, with the cost of preserving it increasing by $1 million a year.

Some 650 of New York’s 850 public monuments and sculptures, or more than 75%, lack dedicated funding for maintenance and conservation, according to Megan Moriarty, a spokeswoman for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Across the city, officials are still looking for the money needed to repair them at a time when plans for the mayor’s seven new monuments, including dedications to Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman, and singer Billie Holiday remain in limbo.

Ryan Max, a spokesman for the Department of Cultural Affairs, said Tuesday that the city “acted boldly to remove symbols of racism and oppression, and to start rebalancing the story that’s been told in our public monuments over generations.”

As for the promised new works, he added, “The pandemic delayed progress, but thanks to the groundwork this administration laid, New York City is better prepared than ever to forge fairer and more inclusive public spaces.”

Mayor-elect Eric Adams will likely need to intervene to preserve She Built NYC, the de Blasio campaign to build statues celebrating women who have shaped New York. But art historians, former administrators and preservationists say that in the rush to build new monuments, politicians are forgetting about the older ones, and they urge city officials to create a path forward for future conservation.

Michele H. Bogart, an art historian specializing in the city’s public works, said the lack of dedicated resources goes beyond economics.

“The problem is that maintenance and conservation are not sexy,” she said in an interview. “Politicians are more likely to contribute to the cost of putting something new up than they are to keeping it from falling apart.”

As governor, Andrew Cuomo was no slouch when it came to building monuments. In less than a year, he unveiled three major memorials in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, including one commemorating Catholic saint Mother Cabrini, one for victims of Hurricane Maria, and a design on the waterfront honoring essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But monuments built on the flood plain of the Hudson River often require maintenance soon after, competing with older statues for taxpayer dollars. Just a few blocks from the newer memorials, cracks are appearing in the grouting of a 1995 art installation by sculptor Martin Puryear.

The city bureaucracy itself has presented a formidable barrier to long-term solutions, restricting options for administrations. Rules governing how the capital budget is spent prohibit the allocation of money for an endowment fund that could be used in perpetuity to cover maintenance on public works.

To circumvent this rule, in 1991 the parks department required sponsors of privately funded commissions to cover baseline care costs over the lifespan of a memorial or artwork. But it wasn’t until 2018 that the Public Design Commission, which reviews all art proposed for city-owned property, implemented a similar measure. By then it was too late to help hundreds of older statues, monuments and art that came into the city’s collection before that date — or art in the city’s housing developments, which still have no conservation endowments at all.

It is left to a patchwork of municipal agencies to oversee New York’s public art and monument collection, including the Department of Transportation and the New York City Housing Authority (responsible for more than 90 artworks across its locations).

Almost all agencies rely on the caretaking expertise of the parks department, which since 1997 has repaired sculptures, trained conservators, and worked to offset the impact of acid rain and pigeon droppings.

But the number of conservation workers has plummeted from a high in the late 1930s, when a Works Progress Administration program funded about 100 members of the parks’ monuments crew, including artists like Jackson Pollock. Since the 1970s fiscal crisis, the full-time parks department staff has decreased by nearly one-third.

“Sometimes it makes sense not to restore certain artworks until you can take care of them,” said Jonathan Kuhn, the parks department’s director of arts and antiquities, who has inspected hundreds of sites by bicycle. “It’s like visiting a doctor for preventive care; we are fairly strategic in what we conserve with the budget that’s available to us.”

The agency’s funding was cut by 14% in fiscal 2021; the latest budget, in June, restored and boosted the parks department’s funding to $620 million. But only $400,000 of that will go toward monument conservation, a figure consistent with the last three budgets.

In public testimony in 2019 at City Hall, Charlotte Cohen, a veteran arts administrator and the executive director of the Brooklyn Arts Council, warned, “It’s irresponsible to put artworks into the public realm without a method and funding dedicated to maintaining them.”

While city officials have mended some of the crumbling park infrastructure, monuments are often overlooked. None of the $348 million dedicated to repairing Riverside Park will benefit the decrepit Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument looming above the tiered gardens and grasses.

The veterans memorial has received no significant maintenance since 1962. It was closed in 2017 when inspectors noticed the 100-foot-tall structure’s mortar joints buckling and its retaining wall failing.

“It’s disrespectful and wrong,” said Dan Garodnick, president and chief executive officer of the Riverside Park Conservancy, which for years has asked City Hall to repair the site. “The memorial is supposed to reflect on the sacrifices of our veterans; instead, it’s a reminder of our failure to honor them.” According to Garodnick, the cost of conservation increases by more than $1 million each year.

In trying to close its budget gap for restoration, the city has turned to business leaders and nonprofits to endow public artworks. Near the Brooklyn Bridge, a 2019 sculpture, Unity, by artist Hank Willis Thomas, is maintained by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a development corporation that manages three of the borough’s Business Improvement Districts.

The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in Central Park by artist Meredith Bergmann got a $100,000 maintenance endowment from Monumental Women, the group that proposed the sculpture.

The private money saves taxpayer dollars for essential services like housing and health care. But historians say that this system favors monuments in affluent areas, while those in poorer neighborhoods suffer.

“Works in those communities don’t necessarily have ready constituencies who will raise money for the upkeep of older monuments,” Bogart said.

For example, the Barthé frieze in Brooklyn, “The Walls of Jericho,” has been deteriorating for 50 years, according to Margaret Vendryes, an art historian and chair of the department of performing and fine arts at York College, in the City University of New York.

Vendryes said she was so shocked by the condition of this Harlem Renaissance-era work in 1996 that she alerted the Kingsborough Houses administrator, warning that “it would fall on somebody. On top of it being destroyed through neglect, the work was becoming unsafe.”

The New York City Housing Authority planned to start repairs in 2019 with $1.8 million earmarked by the City Council. A spokesperson for the agency, Rochel Leah Goldblatt, who previously said the project would be underway in 2020, now says it is in the design phase.

As to what finally gets conserved, Vendryes said she worries about “racism and classism” behind those decisions.

The lack of communication around public monument initiatives has caused friction in the relationship between state officials and residents of Battery Park City, where maintenance costs are expected to rise on memorials and artworks built on the Esplanade by the state, a public sculpture collection that is now valued at more than $63 million. But artworks have suffered from the Hudson River’s brackish waters and superstorms like Hurricane Sandy.

A 2019 appraisal by the Art Dealers Association of America, commissioned by the Battery Park City Authority, found construction, maintenance and repair costs estimated in the millions of dollars. A spokesman for the agency, Nicholas Sbordone, said it has a three-year, $400,000 contract with the company that cleans the public art. But expensive repairs are needed regularly.

Recently, the agency repaired lighting components in Puryear’s two Pylons sculptures from 1995 and nearby benches, at a cost of nearly $1 million; the noticeable cracking has not yet been addressed.

Residents point out that this comes on the heels of the authority’s rehabilitation of the Irish Hunger Memorial to the famine of 1845-52. It opened in 2002 and by 2016 needed a $5.3 million renovation for leaks and waterproofing — more than the original cost of the project.

The creeping costs of repairs have also hit Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. It will cost $6 million to restore the circa 1892 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, the gateway to Prospect Park, which has a leaking roof. Construction is expected to be completed next year.

“Over the years, we have tried our best in an imperfect world,” Kuhn, the parks department director of art and antiquities, said. “We’ve been addressing these issues with the understanding that resources may always be scarce.”

Given the bleak prospects, preservationists say the fate of New York’s defining symbols — its cultural legacy — hangs in the balance until there is a better plan to care for them.

Referring to the seven statues planned by the outgoing mayor, Harriet Senie, an art historian specializing in public memorials, said, “I think the promises that were made by the previous administration should be revisited and reevaluated.

“We cannot just have these monuments deteriorating in a pile of rubble,” she added, “because nobody is paying attention.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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