The interior of the "Discovering Columbus" public art piece by Tatzu Nishi, 60 feet in the air in N.Y.C.

PUBLIC ART DISCUSSION: Nicholas Baume, the director and chief curator of New York’s Public Art Fund, stopped in Santa Barbara on Sunday, December 16, to deliver a fascinating slide lecture at the S.B. Museum of Art. Baume, who was on his way back to his native Australia for the holidays, just concluded one of the most successful contemporary public art projects in years — Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus,” a site-specific installation involving the nearly 70-foot column and statue of Christopher Columbus that stands at the southwest entrance to Central Park in New York’s Columbus Circle. Nishi’s proposal to build a living room around the sculpture that would allow people to hang out with it, suspended 60 feet in the air over the street, was not only accepted; it was implemented and ran for eight weeks, accommodating more than 100,000 visitors and setting off a media sensation. After obtaining a free ticket online for timed entrance to the facility, the audience for the piece climbed a flight of stairs built within scaffolding until arriving at the living room, which was decorated with comfortable sofas, curtains, and copies of New York’s daily newspapers. The massive sculpture of Columbus was made to appear as if it were standing on a coffee table at the center of this airborne room.

Columbus atop his monument before the installation.

Critics celebrated the work, but a small group of Italian Americans voiced the opinion that “Discovering Columbus” was disrespectful to the original sculpture. The subsequent controversy landed the project and Baume’s organization on both the front page of the New York Post and Fox News. By the time the scaffolding and the living room finally came down on December 2, the show had become the city’s most talked-about art exhibition of the season.

Noting what he referred to as an “explosion” of activity in the field of contemporary art at the level of the museum, Baume used this opportunity to make the case for the cityscape as the next great context for the display and appreciation of exciting contemporary art. He cited such benefits as direct engagement, audience responsiveness, and unexpected accumulations of meaning that result from locating artworks outside the antiseptic atmosphere of the gallery’s “white cube.” Baume was originally invited to speak at the SBMA back when the library plaza project was still moving forward, but for a variety of reasons, the issues he raised on Sunday about the potential for public art to experience a renaissance in the near future remain highly relevant to upcoming developments in Santa Barbara.

URBAN ART MOVEMENT: Earlier in the week, I attended Chelsea Willett’s nighttime art show at Savoy on Wednesday, December 12. It was like a young, 21st-century version of a Parisian painters’ salon, with a deejay spinning dance music, a body artist applying nontoxic paint to willing models, and lots of art makers having a great time hanging out and showing their work. I spoke with Nise Baker, a hair stylist who was showing a substantial number of recent paintings, all of them brightly colored and loosely representational. Her subject matter ranges from colorful birds on a branch to iridescent jellyfish, and, in her bright red dress and platinum-blonde ’do, she bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. For information about the next Urban Art Movement event, like “Urban Art Movement Santa Barbara” on Facebook.


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