Third Annual Art & Activism
Takin' It to the Streets with SVA Continuing Education
September 6, 2019
by Michael Bilsborough
Of New York City’s public art monuments, how many are devoted to women? With this pop quiz, Kendal Henry opened his presentation for Art & Activism at the SVA Theatre. The audience responded with whispers, knowing nods, and shocked gasps. (The answer is 5.)
Kendal Henry, Director of Percent for Art, was the first to speak, following opening remarks from host and moderator Valerie Smaldone. Attending guests had filled the SVA Theatre for the third annual Art & Activism event, coming together to celebrate the power of collectives, performance as political activism, and artistic activations of public space. Lightbox photos by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar were on view as crowds lined up to enter the theatre, as was the unique piano hand-painted through a collaboration between Sing for Hope, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and artist Joan Di Lieto. Later in the evening, guests would assemble custom megaphones and protest gear, courtesy of MOVE’s modular workshop, and pick up the latest issue of SVA ContinuEd. Too much to carry home? For those with their hands full, we gave out custom tote bags.
Mr. Henry presented the work of She Built NYC, which is "a public-arts campaign that honors pioneering women by installing monuments that celebrate their extraordinary contributions to the city and beyond.“ He also outlined solutions to New York City’s occasional missteps in public art. How does the city bureaucracy correct these problematic monuments? Options include recontextualizing them, removing them, and adding new monuments. He gave examples. Canyon of Heroes? Theodore Roosevelt? Recontextualize. Dr. Marion Sims? Remove. Indigenous People? Add.
Based on this premise, Mr. Henry discussed the incipient Shirley Chisholm monument, designed by artists Amanda Williams Olalekan Jeyifous, and the process behind its production. This process included public comments, artist proposals, and more. “Building public art is like building a building,” he noted.
Grant Shaffer, SVACE faculty member, introduced Juan Williams of the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI). Now in its 40th year, HMI focuses on providing LGBTQIA youth with resources for mental health, housing, job readiness, academic enrichment, and arts and culture. Mr. Williams shared real-world examples of how HMI has improved the lives of young people in need.
Sing for Hope’s Camille Zamora recounted how the program originated amidst the recovery from the events of September 11, 2001. At that time a Juilliard student, Ms. Zamora joined classmates in singing at fire houses. This ritual initiated a conversation among friends and peers, which developed over time. Now, years later, Sing for Hope works with 25 health care facilities and schools.
After the presentations, Valerie Smaldone invited the speakers back to stage for a roundtable discussion. She initiated a conversation about the vetting process behind public art projects, citing the recent controversy over a proposed monument to Mother Frances Cabrini. Mr. Henry responded, explaining that after the open call for public comments and suggestions, a panel of 18 women convened to vet submitted ideas and produce a short list, which then went to the Mayor and First Lady for final evaluation.
Lester Vrtiak of Sing for Hope reflected on bringing pianos to community centers and welcoming everyone to take part in performing and singing. “The stage can be anywhere you want it to be,” he chimed. “Anybody is welcome to participate.”
Joan Di Lieto was at the core of a collaboration between SVA, Sing for Hope, and HMI. She guided HMI youth in designing and painting a Sing for Hope piano. “The first thing that brought us together was the bridge, community.” She encouraged the young artists to express whatever their dream means to them. “Each session took on its own magical, organic way,” she recalled. Painting sessions were like “rivers of color and glitter.”
Valerie Smaldone wrapped up the conversation by inviting panelists to describe in one word their outlook on working as important activists and change makers. The responses? Community. Hope. Diversity. Resilience. Magic. Reinvention.
In our book, those are words to live by.