USA TODAY, September 13, 2006

USA TODAY, September 13, 2006
Public Art Project Documents Urban Change
Charisse Jones

As cities struggle to redefine their landscapes and economies, historians and urban planners usually chart their evolution. Soon, it will be artists' turn. Next week, a subway station in Boston and parks in Hartford, Conn., and New York City will be transformed into temporary galleries where pictures documenting the changing face of the American city will be displayed in public art exhibitions expected to be viewed by tens of thousands.

Commissioned by United Technologies, a Hartford-based company that has long funded the arts, the $1 million project will feature the works of three renowned artists and photographers. It is the second installment of a public art campaign the company began last year.

The current exhibition will take place simultaneously in the three cities, each representing shifts occurring in urban areas across the USA.

The New York portraits show some of the immigrants who continue to stream into the city, contributing to its dynamism and diversity. A photo of Boston's troubled "Big Dig," a $14.6 billion highway project, shows a historic urban center evolving into a hub for suburban commuters.

In Hartford, a onetime manufacturing giant plagued for decades by an exodus of jobs, photos of building facades show an urban landscape without people.

"We were fascinated with a city like Boston," says Krista Pilot, United Technologies' director of community affairs. "From week to week, you don't know what the city will look like and where you'll be able to drive. (We're also struck by) a city like Hartford that's trying to regenerate itself.

"In New York, with the anniversary of 9/11 (this week), you think about how a city can change in an instant in a very tragic way. It made us say, 'There's something here we want to capture' ... not only from a clinical historical view, but from an artist's perspective."

With only the theme of "cities in transition" to guide them, acclaimed artists and photographers Chuck Close, Mitch Epstein and Dayanita Singh were asked to focus on a particular city and to create a collection that reflected their vision.

The portraits and photographs, enlarged to the size of tapestries, will be displayed in Boston's Downtown Crossing subway station through October and in New York's Madison Square Park and Hartford's Bushnell Park through early November.

Close, who photographed New Yorkers from such countries as Chile, Barbados and Iran, said he reflected on how newcomers from other parts of the world have fueled the city even as immigrants face increasing suspicion and hostility.

"We're a city that's transitioning well," says Close, who came to New York from Washington in the 1960s. "So I think for me, (the portraits are) celebrating a city that works, a city that still is a magnet. ... It gets stronger and stronger because of its openness and its willingness to accept people from other places and other cultures. And it just gets richer the more immigration we have."

Singh, who lives in New Delhi, says the stillness of downtown Hartford made her think about what could occur in the urban centers of her homeland if industry fades.

"I thought I would find traces of Hartford's history, but instead I just found downtown Hartford desolate, so that's what I photographed," says Singh, whose photos show a tobacco barn and an abandoned factory, among other images.

"I suppose that's what happens when you deindustrialize," she says. "We haven't gotten to that point in India, but I'm certainly looking at industry differently now that I'm back in India."

Epstein's photographs include the site where a motorist was killed in July, when a concrete panel fell from the ceiling of a Boston tunnel that's part of the Big Dig. Epstein says he pondered what was to be gained from such a large investment in a highway system compared with public transportation.

He also says he's excited to be involved in an art exhibit that won't require viewers to go to a museum.

"You have a much more ethnically and culturally diverse audience that is walking about in public spaces that might not stop and give notice to my pictures in a museum, and that to me is gratifying," Epstein says. "I really want the audience to bring their experience and their own associations to the reading of this work. In this case, certainly I want people to come away from the work provoked and also engaged."

For the past two decades, government-funded arts programs and cultural organizations have put more emphasis on public art to spark contemplation and discussion, says Robert Lynch, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, a national network of groups and individuals who work to increase support for the arts and arts education.

The Gates, a 2005 exhibit in New York's Central Park by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, was one of the most famous public art projects in years. It was viewed by 4 million visitors and initiated a discussion about what art is.

"That's the beauty of public art, that dialogue," says Lynch, noting that the incorporation of a live tree into a San Jose library has encouraged visitors to think about the environment.