Gotham Gazette

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9/11 And ''Inappropriate Art''


George Negroponte once met an ironworker who had helped dismantle the last remnants of the Twin Towers after the terrorist attack of September 11th, an experience that changed the man’s life in two main ways -– he suffered a disability, and he enrolled in art school. “He is now working full-time as an artist,” Negroponte said. “I’ve heard so many stories about so many people finding the need to have an artistic response.”

This was one reason why Negroponte wanted to be involved in what he calls “the intersection between culture and rebuilding” –- a reason why the Drawing Center, a small museum founded in 1977 of which Negroponte is the president, was one of more than 100 cultural institutions to apply to be part of the new World Trade Center site. The Drawing Center was one of four that was chosen some 18 months ago.

It is one of the two -- the other is the International Freedom Center -- that will probably be kicked out. They are being accused of wanting to exhibit work that is unpatriotic, unAmerican or...inappropriate.


Judging from the many harsh words lately, September 11th has spawned a new art movement - Inappropriate Art:

  • The Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center are "inappropriate institutions for a site where so many have died."
  • "The International Freedom Center plans to host controversial debates and sponsor inappropriate programming involving the Tribeca Film Festival."
  • "So long as there is but one square inch housing dialogue, debates, artistic impressions, or exhibits about extraneous historical events, the International Freedom Center is inappropriate and a slap in the face to the victims, their families, and everyone affected by the Sept. 11th attacks"

All three comments are from the Web site for Take Back The Memorial , an organization created after a former lawyer and Court TV producer named Debra Burlingame, the sister of the pilot whose plane was crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal in June attacking the International Freedom Center, or IFC.

Their campaign -- aided by a drumbeat of blunt attacks from the tabloids (one Post editorial: "...anti-American activism of the sort implicitly embedded in the IFC and the Drawing Center is inappropriate at any memorial site") -- got results. The Drawing Center has announced it is looking at other options, and the International Freedom Center has been given a deadline of September 23rd in effect to satisfy its critics; since its critics only want exhibitions directly related to 9/11, it is difficult to see how the International Freedom Center can satisfy them.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who objected to the latest turn of events, nevertheless said: "The challenge for the curators is going to be: given the context of where these cultural institutions are, what's appropriate here?''

Whatever else this particular controversy has illustrated, it is just the latest trouble to visit the four cultural structures of the new World Trade Center site. One way or another, the future of all four of them -- the memorial, the memorial museum, the performing arts center, and the cultural building -- is unclear.

"It remains to be seen how it will play out,” says Petra Todorovich, senior planner and coordinator of Civic Alliance, the sponsors of the “Listening To The City” workshops that attracted nearly 5,000 people three years ago to participate in the initial planning for Ground Zero. They will soon hold two similar workshops for the public to react to the preliminary designs for the Memorial Museum.


The arts have been part of September 11th from the beginning, when makeshift shrines and spontaneous walls of "Missing" posters sprouted all over the city.

There was some talk of "appropriate" art even then - Clear Channel Communications reportedly circulated a list of 150 songs deemed inappropriate for broadcast on their radio stations - but the urgency to create took precedence, and impressed many people, especially those professionally involved in the arts.

It taught art critic Arthur Danto, he says, that "even the most ordinary people respond to tragedy with art." Danto is the curator of "The Art of 9/11," an exhibition of a dozen well-known artists, at apexart, in Tribeca.

It helped Radhika Subramaniam see that "art is used as healing, and for memory, and for telling stories.” Subramaniam is the curator of "What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery", which through panel discussions, art exhibitions and performance pieces, looks at the role of art in cities affected by catastrophe around the world. There are times, she learned, when art can literally save somebody. During Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, a painter named Vann Nath was put in a prison where nearly 20,000 inmates were killed; only seven survived. Vann Nath was one of the seven, because his guards, discovering his talent, kept him alive to paint portraits of the dictator. Art saved him again, in a different way, when the new government asked him to paint scenes from his prison experiences.

By the first anniversary of September 11th there were dozens of songs and theater pieces, hundreds of museum exhibitions , and countless memorials, many of them identified as temporary, but some of them permanent.

The urge of those affected by September 11th to create showed Kay Turner, a folklorist on the staff of the Brooklyn Arts Council, that “some people have a need to forget, but a lot of people have a need to process. Art casts things in light of metaphor, and becomes a source of understanding.”

At the third anniversary last year, Turner said, “I was very moved to see lots of new spontaneous memorials. It doesn’t happen when the tourists are there during the rest of the year. But it still happens on anniversaries."

Turner, moderator for "Art of Memory/Art of Memorial,” a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society on September 10th, wonders whether there will be a place for this kind of "spontaneous expression" in the rebuilt World Trade Center site.

But art as a palliative and outlet for tragedy is not its only intended use at Ground Zero. If, as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s “Report on the Memorial Center and Cultural Complex” pointed out, “culture has the potential to infuse the redevelopment with hope and energy drawn from the human spirit,” it also offers the possibility of drawing visitors, and new residents, to Lower Manhattan. “A lot of people see the arts as an asset that is underutilized in Lower Manhattan,” said Petra Todovich, “that could be enhanced to revitalize the neighborhoods. If it becomes a cutting-edge place to experience arts and culture, it could bring people down to discover other assets."


If few New Yorkers know that there are four separate cultural structures planned for the World Trade Center site, even those who have been following carefully couldn’t say where they are and where they are going.

1. The Memorial

"Reflecting Absence" was selected in January, 2004 as the memorial to commemorate September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993 (the earlier terrorist attack at the World Trade Center), after the largest design competition in history, with proposals by 5,201 individuals from 63 nations and 49 states. The winner, a young architect named Michael Arad, who was working for the New York City Housing Authority, designed two sunken pools where the Twin Towers had stood, with an austere plaza in-between.

There were immediate objections. Some said that the design violated Daniel Libeskind's original conception, in which the memorial would be sunken rather than at ground level. Others said the site was too barren. Victims' families argued over whether the names of firefighters and other emergency workers should be placed separately from the others who died.

Within weeks, the plan had been revised , Arad paired with landscape architect Peter Walker to surround the pools with a lush garden of trees and plantings – “oak, sweetgum, grass, moss and groundcover,” Walker has explained.

Of all the projects on the site, the six-acre memorial probably attracts the least controversy now, though there remain some quibbles. Still, while the aim is for a groundbreaking at the end of 2006, there are many design issues to work out - " It's not a simple matter to design an underground facility that will have millions of visitors a year and have waterfalls that flow during the winter," one observer points out.

And there is the question of the cost. Initial estimate of planning, building and operating the memorial was put at over $350 million.

2. Memorial Museum

The World Trade Center Memorial Museum will be separate from the Reflecting Absence memorial in tone and, also (at least according to the latest plan) in physical space.

A recent article in the New York Times said that the museum “is beginning to take form.” But then the author explained what he meant: “There is no director, though a national search is under way. No artifacts have been chosen, though a three-volume catalog suggests how many there are to choose. Boundary skirmishes among the users of underground space on the trade center site are settled enough that officials can say the museum will have at least 110,000 square feet of floor area.”

As Petra Todorovich explains, “the museum consultants have put together preliminary ideas of what the story line of this museum might be -– for example, it will take you through the events of the day; there’ll be a contemplation room. The public will have the opportunity to review these ideas, discuss them in small groups, give their feedback.” That is the purpose for a presentation September 15th at the Center for Architecture and the workshops on September 19 and October 11th at the Woolworth Building.

Though Listening to the City attracted some 5,000 participants, the Civic Alliance is expecting only about 200 this time. “This is an opportunity to shape something that’s really still in formation,” Todorovich says.

3.Performing Arts Center

In June, 2004, four cultural institutions, out of 113 that applied, were selected to take up residence in the site of the World Trade Center. Two of them, the Joyce International Dance Center and the Signature Theater Company, were slated to occupy the Performing Arts Center, which would also present the Tribeca Film Festival. The Joyce (which has two other theaters in Manhattan, one in Chelsea, the other in Soho) would present 30 different dance companies from around the world. The Signature, which pioneered the presentation of the work of a single living playwright per season, would operate "three intimate theaters, a café, bookstore, studios for rehearsals and performances, and classrooms."

Once the two institutions were selected, the corporation hired Frank Gehry to design the building.

But in April, the corporation announced that the center would be excluded from the initial $500 million fundraising drive for the World Trade Center site. Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared this "the final betrayal" in what had been a continuing "downgrading and evisceration of the cultural components" of Daniel Libeskind's original plan -- thanks to those who lack "the courage, or conviction, to demand that the arts be restored to their proper place as one of the city's greatest strengths and a source of its spiritual continuity."

Just recently, LMDC chair John Whitehead announced that the organization would earmark $50 million specifically for the performing arts center. Nevertheless, the unofficial word is that the center is on hold.

Part of the problem is the realization that, because of the small "footprint" in which they have to build, the structure will have to be a tower -- not a typical home for a theater, and expensive to adapt.

But that is not the only reason, some say, there has been little visible progress. It would make sense to wait to see how the current controversies and challenges play out. After all, the Joyce and the Signature not only have nothing to do with September 11th, the Signature is a theater known for the high quality of its productions and its selections. If the Signature Theater produces, say, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," which uses the Salem witch trials to attack modern-day groupthink and hysteria, will that be seen as unpatriotic or besmirching the memory of September 11th?

4. The Cultural Building

The Drawing Center, which has been in existence since 1977, and the International Freedom Center, which was conceived for the site, were also selected in June of 2004, to occupy the other building, which since has been designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta.

The troubles began a year after their selection, with the article by Debra Burlingame. They were compounded by articles and editorials in the Daily News that pointed to Drawing Center exhibitions from several years back that it depicted as "silly, self-important, half-baked pieces of 'political art'...You've made a mistake, Governor. Fix it, please. Show these people the door."

Shortly afterward, though he had said that these institutions would "reaffirm life in the wake of tragedy," Governor George Pataki did just that, demanding an "absolute guarantee" that the two institutions would proceed "with total respect for the sanctity of the site." What did this mean exactly? "We're not going to let it turn into something anti-American, anti-freedom or questioning the values of New York..."


Apparently flush from their success in protecting the World Trade Center from the possibility of inappropriate art -- and surely not because they felt egged on by the identical tough-guy approach of their competitor -- both the Daily News and the New York Post decided earlier this month to expand their protection and attack "A Knock At The Door," a group exhibition that promised to "explore the relationships between artists and authority in the post 9/11 world" and "raise public awareness of the current retreat of our most basic rights." It is one out of the two dozen or so art exhibitions that are part of "What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery" organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

"Appropriate - adj., suitable or proper. Inappropriate - adj. unsuitable or improper," a Daily News editorial began. "We repeat these words and definitions here today because the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council appears to be unaware of them." The exhibition was "puerile," "in questionable taste" and "simply inappropriate." Why inappropriate? Because it will be open during September 11th (It's running from September 8 to October 1), and, as an earlier Daily News article explained, is "8 blocks from Ground Zero" -- at the South Street Seaport Museum, to be precise, on the other side of town. A New York Post editorial had expressed much the same sentiments the day before, though stretching in their own way -- attempting (but failing) to demonstrate that the people in charge of the "Knock At The Door" exhibition "are some of the same people shaping" the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center.

Commenting on the likely expulsion of the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center from the World Trade Center site, architecture critic Paul Goldberger told WNYC: "We like to think of New York as the nation's most cosmopolitan city, a place in which the independence and freedom and values of art and culture are not questioned by anybody, [as if] that debate is over. But that debate is never really over, and Ground Zero is the perfect way to bring that debate back to the fore, even in New York."

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