Jonathan Kuhn Keeps Art Alive

Written by City Arts on . Posted in Arts & Film, Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit.


By Elena Oumano

The day after the Twin Towers fell, Jonathan Kuhn and his two young sons headed for the woodland solace of Central Park’s North End Ravine, where a lone man was catching crayfish in the stream. Nearly 12 years later, the director of arts & antiquities for NYC’s Parks Department walks several times a day past a 1937 Carl Van Vechten photograph of two boys climbing boulders in that same secluded setting, one of many evocative New York parks images from 1890-1940 in the Parkcentric show currently lining the third-floor walls of the Arsenal Gallery at the department’s headquarters on East 64th Street.

When he’s not in his office there, Kuhn is touring all five boroughs and their parks on his bike, expanding and refining a mental map that details not only every hill and dale but also all of the permanent monuments and transient artworks that have graced our public outdoor “galleries,” including relevant dates, names and back stories.

With only private initiative funding to work with, he oversees seven to eight Arsenal exhibitions per year, will arrange for at least 29 temporary artworks matched to just the right parks this summer alone, keeps tabs on over 1000 permanent monuments and liaises with other museums, art and education institutions and community groups on new projects. You may not know his name, but a healthy share of whatever al fresco beauty this city can claim is due to Kuhn and his small staff’s dedicated efforts.

About “one in six” artist proposals find fruition, he estimates, in addition to works created by cooperative Parks programs, including “Leap,” in which middle school students are mentored by artists like Chuck Close to create socially relevant art on cafeteria tables, and “Model to Monument,” works created by Arts Students League students mentored by sculptor Greg Wyatt.

“We try to find proposals that integrate with sites, are thoughtful, add to the discussion, won’t fall apart—but beyond that, it’s a chance to give opportunity to many different creative visions,” Kuhn explains. “We had a project last summer with the Guggenheim Museum and BMW, their sponsor, called The Lab, a temporary pavilion traveling between New York, Berlin and Mumbai that’s had long-term benefits.

“The theme was comfort in urban life, with discussions, and programming relating to that for 12 weeks,” he says. “We found a narrow, vacant lot owned by the Parks Department for 70 years [that was] connected to Houston Street between First and Second avenues. It was fenced off, rat-infested and rubble-strewn. They rebuilt the park and retained Tokyo’s Atelier Bow Wow architecture firm to create a lightweight carbon building. Five thousand people passed through The Lab last summer, and then we turned it over to a local community group who programs it as First Street Green.”

The positive impact of public art on local communities and an overarching mission to ensure nature and art bring meaning and joy to our lives clearly drive Kuhn’s passion.

“We come at this from that perspective that art is on a continuum, so the connections over time between the Egyptian Obelisk in Central Park and the Columbus Monument built in the 1890s is representative of civilization at a given moment,” he says. “And contemporary art talks about the issues, concerns and visual content of interest to today’s public and artist communities. They’re not unrelated. I’m interested in those kinds of connections as well as those across geography, culture, class and time.”

Go to www.nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities to learn about current, past and future permanent and temporary artworks and for information on submitting proposals and making donations.

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