The Politics of Urban Beauty
New York and Its Art Commission
Since its founding in 1898, the Art Commission of the City of New York (ACNY) has served as the city’s aesthetic gatekeeper, evaluating all works of art intended for display on city property. And over the years, the commission’s domain has expanded dramatically to include everything from parks and courthouses to trash cans and sidewalks. In The Politics of Urban Beauty, Michele H. Bogart argues that this unprecedented authority has made the commission host to some complex negotiations—involving artists, architects, business leaders, activists, and politicians—about not only the role of art in urban design, but also the shape and meaning of the city and its public spaces.
A former vice president of the ACNY, Bogart tells its story here from an insider’s perspective, tracing the commission’s history from its origins as an outgrowth of progressive reform to its role in New York’s reconstruction after 9/11. Drawing on archival correspondence, drawings, and photographs from commission collections, Bogart presents bracing examples of works—ranging from New Deal murals to Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs—that illuminate the ACNY’s subtle yet powerful role in shaping New York’s identity.
The Politics of Urban Beauty is thus a fascinating history of a New York art world that paralleled—and sometimes unpredictably intersected with—the more familiar realm of prominent architects, painters, galleries, and museums. Bogart’s fresh view adds a critical dimension to our understanding of “the city beautiful” and makes an important and lively contribution to the study of art history, urban design, and New York City itself.
“The Art Commission of the City of New York ‘reviews all works of art designed for City property’ from benches and streetlamps called street furniture to works of art placed on city buildings’ walls as well as in the parks. The history is fascinating and some of the descriptions of the participants fighting with the art commission are hilarious. I recommend The Politics of Urban Beauty. It’s easy and delightful reading and you will learn a lot.”<Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City>
“Outstanding. The Politics of Urban Beauty will be the definitive history of the Art Commission of the City of New York. The depth of the research is remarkable, as is Bogart’s ability to narrate a highly complex story of New York politics and culture.”<Max Page, author of The Creative Destruction of Manhattan>
“Who decides how a city ‘looks’? In Paris, it’s been the government. In New York, it’s been more a free-for-all, with contending classes and cultures battling to leave their stylistic mark on the metropolitan landscape. Still, for a century now, as Michele Bogart argues in this intriguing study, a major player in the aesthetic wars has been a municipal agency called the art commission, whose decisions on everything from mailboxes to monuments have had an outsized (and largely beneficial) impact on Gotham’s public appearance.”
“Eminently readable, Michele H. Bogart’s political analysis of design excellence relates tales, familiar and obscure, of the transformation of our city’s character and aesthetic quality through the efforts of the Art Commission of the City of New York. From controversies about newsstands, signage, and memorials, to debates over parks, public art, and major public buildings, The Politics of Urban Beauty candidly speaks of the dramatic circumstances under which projects get built or blocked. Along with the passion of an engaged participant, former art commission member Bogart brings an historical perspective that edifies, clarifies, and excites any reader of the urban scene.”
1. From Chaos to Structure in New York's Public Aesthetic Realm
2. In Search of Visual Culture
3. Monuments, Place, and Municipal Identity
4. Culture Wars
Appendix A: The ACNY and Monument Conservation
Appendix B: The Approval and Selection Processes