Public art is a tricky medium, not only in executing the works legally but in trying to keep them up on the streets. Murals get white-washed or tagged over and objects (like a door painted by Banksy or Invader mosaic pieces) get physically removed from where they were installed, often so that thieves can sell them for a quick profit.
In New York recently, the artist Ryan McGinness was commissioned by the New York City Department of Transportation to erect 50 signs around New York. Known for fusing his signature, minimal graphics with an art practice spanning painting, sculpture, and installation, McGinness obliged and was given total creative freedom to beautify the city with abstract signage.
Things went bad when the signs started getting systematically removed, as if the thief (or thieves) knew exactly where and when each one would go up next. While the objects are valuable to a certain extent, their removal is alarming and disheartening. In many ways, it's destroyed a project meant for public enjoyment, not private gain.
We spoke with Ryan to get his take on what's happened so far. He let us know that a detective is on the case and that surveillance footage is being studied.
What has happened with the signs is still not quite resolved. In fact, there’s a detective working on the case on behalf of the Department of Transportation. They’re doing a full-on investigation, which also involves getting surveillance footage from the businesses that have cameras in some of these locations and also some of the government buildings downtown. Someone stole a sign from Centre Street.
It is a bit curious to us, because it seems as if they were systematically removed. You would have had to know where they were being installed. It's only really speculation as to what that really means, but they were taken really quickly, and nobody really knew where they were. They weren’t even up long enough for anyone to know precisely where they were.
Furthermore, there’s a real expense involved in the production of these signs. It’s the same material they use to make street signs—waterjet cut aluminum with a few layers of vinyl applied to it. Then there’s a huge labor cost that’s involved for the city to install them.
In the meantime, I think the Department of Transportation has remade and put up some of the signs, but I don’t think all 50 are back up. It has taken everyone involved aback. If we thought they were going to be stolen, we would’ve used tamper proof bolts or something. We used regular hexagonal bolts that anyone could’ve removed with a wrench or socket wrench. We had no idea.
In terms of how he was commissioned to do the project, he says,
I’ve always been interested in amazing signs and researching new materials. A lot of my research led me to find the one place that makes all the signs for the Department of Transportation. It’s a signs shop out in Maspeth, Queens. I just called them last summer out of the blue, and I said, “I understand you guys make the signs for the city, would you make some signs for me?” And they did.
I was paying them to make my work, and I was doing different tests with different vinyls and different materials. They were into it, and I think they were excited to make anything that's not a regulation sign—something a little more interesting. The person who I was in touch with said, "You know, we have a public art department. I should put you in touch with that person.” So I got in touch with person in charge of the public art project, and we continued a dialogue into the fall and through the winter. Every year they do something in the summer on the streets, so it happened this summer.
While we're disappointed in the selfish destruction of McGinness' project, it's a reminder about the temporality of public art and how no art is safe when on the street. We hope there's a resolution in this particular scenario, and that society's attitude toward public art changes for the better.
View images of the signs (taken right after they were installed) below.