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City Sidewalks: Dressing Our Cities in Artistic Style

By Maria T. Cannon

Maria T. Cannon is a junior associate at Amineddoleh & Associates, LLC, in Manhattan, an art and cultural heritage law firm, practicing entertainment, media, art, data protection and privacy law. in Manhattan. Maria earned her J.D. from the University of North Carolina Law School and completed her undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University in English Literature. She is admitted to the New York State Bar.

Dreams of Hyperion by Bruce Williams. Image courtesy of Maria T. Cannon, used with permission.

In a public radio interview recorded in 2008, the poet-philosopher John O’Donohue spoke about the impact of beauty in the natural world. Growing up in rural Ireland, O’Donohue said, enabled him to embrace the world with a sort of wonder and openness to mystery – something that is not available to people who grow up in highly industrialized, gray cities. Sidewalks and subway stops, it seems, do not evoke the same calling to deeper human becoming that the rolling hills and enclaves of Ireland do.

The word “beauty” to John O’Donohue was intricately intwined with its Greek root – “kalon” or “kalein,” which means “calling.” Beauty, in the natural world, is an external calling pulls the viewer inward on what O’Donohue referred to as the interior life (or, in his exact words, which sounded even more charming in his rich Irish cadence, “a real safari!”).

It’s easy to agree with O’Donohue that living in a lush land of natural beauty is good for the soul. The problem is that most of us live in concrete jungles or suburban areas. Even America’s small towns are becoming modernized – and fast.  When we have no choice but to industrialize, the solution is to build beauty into the modern world around us. Preserving parks and natural wonders is certainly a part of this. Another part is encouraging and cultivating the creation of street art in urban areas.

Installing murals, sculptures, and architectural wonders onto the sides of unsuspecting city buildings requires more than simply an artist picking up a can of paint. The process from start to finish is unbelievably layered – art lawyers are called in to check zoning ordinances, obtain municipal permits, negotiate contracts between businesses and artists, provide timelines and revenue for building supplies, and allocate (and register) IP rights for the art being created.

This is often too lengthy a process for an artist to take on their own. The downside of this is that a lot of would-be murals and beautifying art installations never get further than the artist’s drawing pad. The good news is that, for artists who do have the drive to effectuate their vision, getting good representation from the start makes the entire process much smoother.

One New York artist who deserves a shout-out for pursuing his vision in the face of municipal roadblocks is Bruce Williams, who is responsible for the golden dancers snaking down and across the façade of 24 Bond Street.

This street is often in the news for its celeb-spotting at the trendy nearby nightclub, but deserves more recognition for Williams’s smash-hit of a masterpiece. Williams created the gold dancers (as a group, they are officially titled “Dreams of Hyperion”) between 2003 and 2010. The artist lives in the building with his wife, Meg Williams, so he was presumably especially keen to do a good job to impress his neighbors. He absolutely succeeded.

To look up and see the dancers on a sweltering, sunny New York City summer day is a balm to the soul. Hyperion (of the official title) is also the name of the Greek god who fathered Helios, the god of the sun. The artist may have been tapping into the active and vibrant mind of the powerful Greek mythological figure in crafting the glittering figures and forming them around the bleak fire escape. What do gods dream about? They dream of the ethereal eruption of golden bodies on 24 Bond Street.

In 2008, the building itself was added to the Noho Historic District extension, which officially recognizes the building’s (built in 1893) historical architectural significance.  This happened after Williams had begun the figures, but before he completed the fuller installation we see today (it is unclear whether he is in fact finished, or whether Hyperion may keep on dreaming). After the building received the landmark status, Williams was required to attend an official hearing to receive approval to continue to expand the installation. Although this may have been an inconvenience for the artist, the payoff is exponentially great - who knows what unsuspecting passerby will be changed by a moment of experiencing such artistic expression.

Williams seems to have done much of the gritty work by himself and with his own team of advisors. Again, not all artists have the bandwidth for this kind of work. Fortunately, there are certain nonprofits and other city-funded initiatives for street art expansion that simplify and expedite this process.

One is Building 180, which is a full-service global art production and consulting agency. It encourages conversation between emerging and established artists and prominent city businesses to create public and private art installations in urban areas. Murals, sculptures, and interiors of buildings are all made more attainable with Building 180’s team of designers, curators, accountants, lawyers, and administrative staff. They streamline communication between intermediaries, ensuring that all installations meet city codes and zoning ordinances, and even  that shipping materials arrive safely and quickly onsite. The results of their work are verifiable Edens in the most unsuspecting places.

One of my personal favorites was “Constellation,” a 26’ LED canopy created as part of Xintiandi’s Light Art festival in Shanghai’s Hongkou district. The purpose was to bring additional light and shoppers to the complex during the busy holiday season. The result was a true experience out of Wonderland – a rainbow of lights to rest under and to experience the joy and fun of the holiday season among family and friends.

The artist Christopher Schardt brought his vision. Building 180 brought the actual lights. Bringing the sculpture overseas to its first international destination was not easy (i.e., customs documents, coordinating local crews, arranging visa and travel, figuring out power requirements – and, of course, the language difference). As Schardt partnered with Building 180, he was able to being his vision to life, and the shoppers were able to experience it.

City dwelling is no bad thing. Yet the human heart yearns for beauty, and we do need to experience it in a visceral way to keep hope fresh. Funneling resources to artists who have the vision to create works of art in urban spaces is a perfect way to give color and life to areas of our communities that are going gray. The role of the lawyer, in this case, is to help the artist clear the necessary legal hurdles along the way. It is to provide the tools to dream as freely as Williams’s Hyperion.


Building 180: Constellation

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