Date: June 14, 2019
To: Members of the Public Design Commission
From: Todd Fine (President, Washington Street Advocacy Group), email@example.com
Re: Department of Transportation Plan to Move “Charging Bull”
The Department of Transportation has produced an incomplete and lazy proposal that has no aesthetic justification or logic. Charging Bull has significant aesthetic advantages at Bowling Green, which correspond with its success as one of the most popular sculptures in the world. Since the Public Design Commission is likely to refuse to consider the practical objections of the residents of 15 and 20 Broad Street, and other surrounding buildings, it should also not accept the City’s unsubstantiated claims that there are no practical alternative locations within or near Bowling Green. On pure aesthetic review, the proposal should fail.
After the Public Design Commission requested that Community Board 1 first evaluate the proposal, the board not only rejected it, but voted 43 to 1 that “Charging Bull” should stay at or near Bowling Green, with aesthetic objections strongly vocalized. If the Public Design Commission were to approve this proposal at this time (especially with two of its independent positions vacant), it would signal the collapse of its aesthetic stewardship in favor of the total politicization of public art, as well as its promised incorporation of community input. At a time of economic crisis and pandemic, the action would promote the naked acquisitive power of the financial industry (in this case, the New York Stock Exchange, which is paying for the proposal) and the perversion of the current presentation of the sculpture. Such symbolic issues, albeit political, are within the Design Commission’s allowed criteria because they invoke typical arguments used to evaluate the meaning of artwork.
No matter the specifics finally outlined on Monday (it is unclear if the DOT will incorporate any of the concerns of Community Board 1 as promised), the plan to move Charging Bull is flawed for both legal and aesthetic reasons. The City also consistently refused to make any feature of the proposal public for many months ahead of this meeting, in disregard of Open Government laws (FOIL) and in egregious disrespect to the artist and to community advocates. A vote by the Public Design Commission should be delayed until the Community Board concerns can be addressed and the project can be improved.
Nevertheless, if it were to approve this proposal, the Public Design Commission has an obligation to establish three fundamental determinations:
- That the City owns the Charging Bull sculpture and can move it on a permanent basis without the approval of the artist. Because the City Charter only gives the Public Design Commission authority to deliberate on artwork that the City owns, it must make this determination explicitly and vote on it before proceeding with any vote for approval of the conceptual proposal.
- That Bowling Green is an inferior location for Charging Bull, with aesthetics being the most important factor when it comes to artwork and when contemplating a recommendation for the Public Design Commission.
- That the curb at 20 Broad Street is a superior location for Charging Bull, with aesthetics being the most important factor for Public Design Commission approval.
There are devastating arguments against these determinations, and the City has the burden of proof to advance its proposal. The Public Design Commission must defend the aesthetics of the move, and force the City to outline the alternative locations studied, as the DOT promised Community Board 1.
Determination One: Ownership of Charging Bull
Experts in public art and bureaucratic processes have long observed that Charging Bull is unique among works of art in city parks. The work is not owned by the City and it is temporarily displayed under an informal understanding with Arturo Di Modica. Many books and articles have outlined this anomaly, and there is a basic consensus among experts of New York City public art that the City does not own the work.
Despite months of planning on this project, this consensus has never been denied by city officials, and the Mayor’s Office has not responded to the artist’s objections detailed in a letter in February 2020. Ownership by the artist can be demonstrated in several ways:
- The City has no contract or agreement granting it ownership. Other modern-day public art commissions and gifts for art on city property have such contracted agreements, and there are boilerplate documents routinely used by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Cultural Affairs. References to the work on government websites and the Open Data portal also do not include commission or donor information, which is normal for contemporary works of public sculpture.
- Charging Bull has never received approval at the Public Design Commission, which is a necessary step for permanent works of public art to receive legal acceptance as city property and permanent monuments. This is explicitly defined in the City Charter. Declining this step for thirty years shows the City has never believed that it owns Charging Bull.
Jonathan Kuhn of the Arts and Antiquities Division of DPR explicitly affirmed at a public event, a presentation on November 20, 2019 to the Fine Arts Federation, that Charging Bull is one of just a couple of artworks not owned by the City on indefinite display in parkland. He said the same to Erin Wooters Yip, who interviewed him in 2014 for a master’s thesis that addressed the matter:
The Director of Art and Antiquities for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, Jonathan Kuhn... indicated that although these three works [the Haring murals and Charging Bull sculpture] are included within the Parks and Recreation Catalog of Permanent Art and Public Monuments, they are not genuinely classified as such, as their creation did not abide by standard procedural planning channels and never received the necessary approvals from the Design Commission. The distinction as permanent art or public monuments can only be conferred by the Design Commission, the sole authority on the matter, and the Haring murals and the Charging Bull sculpture have never been sanctioned as permanent art or public monuments by this proper entity…. Of the eight hundred works currently listed as permanent art and public monuments by the Parks Department, the two Haring murals and the Charging Bull sculpture comprise the only special ‘exceptions to the rule’ that are not officially sanctioned public monuments and yet are indicated as such.
- The City does not implement and fund repairs to the sculpture, which would be its responsibility if it owned the work. For example, in September 2019, Charging Bull was damaged in an attack with a banjo. A Parks Department spokesperson directly told The Wall Street Journal that the agency would not initiate repairs. The artist was required to organize repairs himself. This matches the exceptional processes for Keith Haring’s “Crack Is Wack” mural in East Harlem and “Carmine Street Pool Mural,” which the City accepts it does not own. Rather, it cooperates with the Keith Haring Foundation in relation to them. Repair of “Crack Is Wack” was recently implemented and financed outside of normal processes.
- The lack of involvement of the Department of Parks and Recreation in this presentation and proposal serves as validation of the lack of ownership. Normally, property transferred between agencies would require legal agreements. The City Charter would also require the Parks Department to justify the removal of artwork it owns at the Public Design Commission. It would be the sponsoring entity for this proposal rather than the Department of Transportation.
- The New York Stock Exchange’s payment for the proposed move is an implicit concession that this is an extralegal maneuver that cannot be implemented under normal processes.
Determination Two: Aesthetics at Bowling Green
Charging Bull is one of the most popular pieces of public sculpture in the world, and it has become -- whether people like it or not -- a symbol of New York City. The aspects that go into a successful public artwork’s reception are a complex and fragile mix. Location is by far one of the most important factors, and the opinion of the artist needs to be very highly considered and respected. Bowling Green is an extraordinary location for Charging Bull in aesthetic terms, and is now fundamentally linked to its aesthetic identity:
- From Broadway’s mouth, the Bull charges up the most important street in the city, which is intimately linked to the progression of Manhattan’s districts and history. The location reinforces the perception that Charging Bull is an expression of New York City’s fundamental force and character. The bull has deft freedom of movement on this “broad way,” and, with defiance and determination, it challenges the massive flows of people and vehicles moving in its direction (overcoming the “slings and arrows” of life with its fierce New York will to survive and thrive). Its location near the Bowling Green subway station orients visitors at the heart of New Amsterdam and sets a tone for their exploration of Battery Park, Trinity Church, the Wall Street area, and the World Trade Center. The site also resonates with the traditional, and aesthetically ideal, use of this location at the start of ticker-tape parades, an association that connects with the “running” and “parade” of bulls.
- The surrounding symmetrical angles (triangles in both the plaza and the flanking buildings) bring focus of composition and give powerful momentum to Charging Bull (which also has triangles in its body, head, horns, and spine). The composition from several angles is dramatic and intuitively-appealing, and has depth. These effects come naturally from Bowling Green’s shape.
- Permanence is part of the appeal of public art. Permanence is associated with people’s memories, their physical orientation, their feelings of connection to an older past, and sense of community. Changing the location cavalierly would have immediate negative and disorienting aesthetic effects for Bowling Green and the artwork. While the advantages of permanence perhaps should not be made absolute in a conservative sense, an enhanced impulse toward preservation is especially important for a city in a disorienting crisis and especially in a part of the city where demolitions of historic buildings have increased rapidly.
- The structural opening at Bowling Green brings significant natural light to Charging Bull. Photographs are able to incorporate views of the sky.
- The ground under Charging Bull contains real, older cobblestones, rather than the imitation stones that have been placed in other locations, such as the square stones in place at Exchange Place and Broad Street. The stones are nearly always part of the photographs of Charging Bull and have become a core part of its presentation.
- The historic business buildings (Cunard Building and Standard Oil Building) immediately surrounding Charging Bull are some of the grandest in New York. They generously flank the Bull on its singular track.
- Charging Bull’s placement gives authentic identity to the northern section of the Bowling Green triangle.
- The involvement of Charging Bull in famous protests, like Occupy Wall Street and the recent Climate March, should not be seen as a reason to fear Charging Bull’s “danger” and move it to a “safe location.” Rather, they reveal the aesthetic and symbolic potency of the sculpture, which we should not imperil just because we fear disorder. Political protest is always possible (recall the toppling of the statue of George III from Bowling Green in 1776). Containing or preventing protest in such an artificial way rarely works. Indeed, if Charging Bull is more overtly associated with Wall Street (and this linkage is affirmed by a government act), the risk associated with protest (or attack) might only increase.
- The dedicated public servant Henry Stern, Parks Commissioner from 1983 to 1990 and from 1994 to 2000, approved this location, and we should consider and respect his aesthetic instincts.
Determination Three: Aesthetics at the curb of 20 Broad Street
- Broad Street and Exchange Place has no particular symbolic identity in the street grid. The intersection stands at an arbitrary midpoint between places, with southern Broad Street not even headed toward a major destination. The location is unremarkable and does not give any dramatic angular effect to the “charging” of the bull, which could now choose to go in any unremarkable directions.
- This area is already overloaded with symbolism -- unfortunately much of it is negative due to the reputation of the financial industry at this moment in time. Charging Bull does not need to be there and adds nothing. The core symbolic message of its new presence would be that the “rich get richer” and can take what they want, reinforced by the symbolic cruelty of ejecting an animal, who does not understand the greedy ways of humans, from its familiar home and habitat. It also degrades the extraordinary, yet neglected, history of Broad Street itself which, with Fearless Girl as well as Charging Bull, now becomes a dumping ground for marketable tourist attractions.
- Several of the immediately surrounding buildings are not especially remarkable (20, 30, and 40 Broad). Yet, some surrounding buildings have in common the trait of being recently acquired by developers who have implemented residential conversions (20 and 25 Broad). Their new functions indict the claims of the proposal’s proponents that Charging Bull should become a more pronounced symbol of Wall Street (at a time when stock trading rarely ever occurs at a physical location). Instead, the sculpture would most directly become a taxpayer-funded bragging right for some of the new luxury rentals. In subtle ways, the function of these buildings would impact the aesthetic symbolism of Charging Bull negatively.
- Authoritarian imagery in propaganda and advertising is known for attempting to eliminate ambiguity in the relationship between the signifier and the signified, or between the symbol and the underlying concept (although these attempts usually fail in perverse and comical ways). While Charging Bull has been accused of being a booster representation of capitalism or the stock market, the artist has always refused the suggestion that the work’s meaning is so simplistic, and he says it speaks to something more profound about the “spirit” of New York City and the United States. At this stage in the life of the artwork, moving Charging Bull to the proposed location would seek, through the power of the state, to reduce it to an overt and banal advertisement for the New York Stock Exchange (in its rebirth as a trophy for Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange) and for the surrounding leveraged real estate properties desperate for “identity.” The act would be an aesthetically violent and thoughtless attempt to reduce the work’s symbolic meaning to the commodifiable, tangible, and banal.
- Authentic “identity” cannot be created artificially or purchased. It is created organically, under contingency and with the help of the aesthetic muses. Moving a popular sculpture will not guarantee the deep identity that proponents crave, even if it might generate the flimsy marketability of a “brand.” Instead, new and unintended meaning could be created. The story of this administration “stealing” Charging Bull in the middle of a terrible pandemic and during an insider trading scandal at NYSE could cause permanent alteration of its symbolic meaning, even as it might connect in historical memory with the farcical maneuvers of captured government in a Gilded Age. This symbolic conclusion might be sadistically rewarding for some (especially art experts who already felt the work was a clichéd representation, and can laugh at the theft of a work originally placed ‘illegally’), but I argue that the Design Commission, with its aesthetic charge, has a responsibility to preserve a popular symbol of hope, strength, and resilience at an important city location. An anchored and familiar Charging Bull might even be a symbolic support as New York City seeks to recover from a possible economic depression (the same function some said it served after September 11, 2001).
- The City, in its Powerpoint (the only aspect of the submission made public), still has not decided the direction “Charging Bull” will face. However, given the financial sponsorship of the proposed move, it seems likely that the sculpture would face south on Broad Street, so that social media photographers could incorporate the frontside of Charging Bull (rather than its hindside) into photographs and selfies with the stock exchange. Even though this has the odd connotation of bullish spirits running away from the symbolic heart of American finance, it brings negative aesthetic issues. The immediate backdrop for “Charging Bull” would become a security tent and security fence rather than greenery or an open street. It would be placed near the curb, rather than in the center of the street, removing its compositional advantages. Its overall placement makes it look “lost,” as several Community Board members stated when the proposal was unveiled. The security backdrop and placement would symbolize confinement and restriction, negatively impacting the bull’s charge.
This location would achieve the opposite effect of its current freedom to maneuver, albeit against obstacles, on Broadway. Its composition angles would transform from the triangular focus ahead to an arbitrary, unbalanced location in the maze of the old Dutch street map. Charging Bull would lose the infinite freedom and purpose that Broadway and Bowling Green grant it. The move would tear it away from both natural light and greenery. Charging Bull would transform from a free symbol of hope in “the” New York into a Minotaur trapped in the Labyrinth. Like the Minotaur, it would crystallize as the unwilling symbol of the violence of our time and as a continual victim of the fear, lusts, greed, and cruelty of humanity. Was this an inevitability, or will the Public Design Commission have the courage to avoid the arrogant downfall brought on by our own King Minos, and his Daedaluses and Icaruses?
§ 856. Maintenance, repair, removal, relocation or alteration of works of art. a. The commission shall periodically examine all works of art belonging to the city, shall make, request or approve detailed recommendations for their cleaning, maintenance and repair, and shall have general and curatorial supervision over such works of art belonging to the city and their cleaning, maintenance and repair. Except as provided in subdivision d, no cleaning, restoration, repair, alteration, removal or relocation of any work of art shall be contracted for, commenced, or prosecuted, unless approved in writing by the commission.
§ 857. Advisory oversight of works of art. a. The art commission shall have general advisory oversight over all works of art belonging to the city.
New York City Charter, Chapter 37: Art Commission, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/designcommission/about/chapter-37.page.
If City Owned “Charging Bull,” It Would Be Required to Present Maintenance Plans and Repairs to Design Commission
City Doesn’t Repair Charging Bull
(Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2019)
Examples of Freedom, Composition Lines, and Flanking Effect (with Cobblestones)
Example of Charging Bull Linked to 26 Broadway with Natural Background
Overhead Map Showing Momentum
Triangles in Body
Example of Colorscape with Momentum (Magnified by Depth and Bowling Green as Background)
Evidence of Location’s Powerful Composition of Symmetry, Depth, and Triangles:
“Fearless Girl” Exploited These Features!
Iconic #OCCUPYWALLSTREET Poster in Open Space (with Triangle Shape and Cobblestones)
Tacky, Commercial Backdrop; Directly in Front of Entrance to Unremarkable Building (Also Blocking Uninterested Pedestrians)
Confinement near Curb, Lack of Centering and Balance, and Security Backdrop (Images also do not fully correspond; see rear left hoof)