Brian Tolle, Irish Hunger Memorial, 2002. Battery Park City, New York. Photo: Peter Mauss/Esto, © 2022 Brian Tolle

Going Public

Public art has undergone epochal shifts over the past half century, as Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz tells (and shows) us in The Private Eye in Public Art. A memoir and informative survey (but not a history, she says), the book demonstrates that she was in the thick of things from the 1970s onward. She discovered the world of public art through her position as Pace Gallery’s Director of Commissions. A self-described “late bloomer,” she learned on the job and stayed the course, her commitment to art and artists unflagging as she searched for “the right artists for the right project,” which, to her credit, included women and artists of color from the beginning.

In New York, Public Art Fund was founded in 1977, percent-for-art initiatives in the late 1970s, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Arts for Transit program in 1985, and, nationally, the General Services Administration and the National Endowment for the Arts also started to engage more actively with public art (not without controversy). Both in the U.S. and internationally, Pomeroy Schwartz worked with multiple organizations to bring proposals to fruition, serving as guide, bureaucracy whisperer, and general advisor; collaboration was part of the process. Brian Tolle, who worked with her on his Irish Hunger Memorial (2002) in Battery Park City, New York, praised her “light touch” and her ability to help artists hone their vision. The Private Eye in Public Art is also a handbook of sorts, as Pomeroy Schwartz cautions artists about the extra hurdles of public art, from the practical to the psychological. One anecdote about an early project concerns Romare Bearden’s City of Glass (1993) for the MTA. It took 15 years to complete as it switched from mosaic tiles to stained glass and waited for the overhaul of the subway station for which it was intended. And the artist died before it was finished, but the work, happily, lives on. The takeaway? Patience and flexibility are required, but they pay off.

Through the luck of the cosmic draw, Pomeroy Schwartz began her career at a moment when public art, in response to radical new thinking about what constituted art, its purposes, and its audiences, finally acknowledged, though haltingly at first, that heroes on horseback and partially clad (female) allegorical figures in marble or bronze had had their day. The book’s cover image pictures the author carefully navigating the misted, rock-strewn, otherworldly terrain of Robert Morris’s Steam Gardens and Framed Vistas (1992). Part of a series of installations that Pomeroy Schwartz oversaw for the Pittsburgh International Airport, which also included commissioned works by Alan Saret, Maren Hassinger, and others, it is a measure of how much public art had changed and would continue to change, based on experimental materials and technologies, as well as social and political issues corresponding to contemporaneous realities and aesthetics.

Copious and enticing illustrations, featuring a trove of superlative work, add to the appeal of this handsome volume. They should persuade you—especially if you are a New Yorker—to seek out the (free) riches offered by the city’s remarkable public art. The subway stations alone are mostly spectacular (and almost free) showcases of art conceived by hundreds of renowned artists, including Vito Acconci (Wall-Slide at 161 St-Yankee Stadium) and Mel Chin (Signal at Broadway-Lafayette). Many other cities offer comparable attractions.

Pomeroy Schwartz calls cultural history the real history of a place and concludes with some dispiriting comments about our contentious, difficult present. Nonetheless, the overall message is one of practical idealism and optimism, fostered by her longstanding, deeply held belief in the power of art. She, too, it seems, was the right person for the right job at the right time.