The Christmas tree that usually resides underneath the Washington Square Arch during the holiday season will be displaced by the work of an internationally acclaimed artist, and it’s got some people in a Grinch-like mood.
As part of a far-reaching exhibition by the Public Art Fund in celebration of its 40th anniversary, a large-scale installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will be featured underneath the Washington Square Arch from Oct. 12 to Feb. 11.
The project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” features over 300 works across several boroughs, and will transform metal-wire security fencing into a series of artworks that discuss the international migration crisis. In short, the fences are a metaphor for our newfound culture of divisiveness.
But not everyone’s reaction to the idea is “Yes, Wei!”
The plans moved forward after an unsuccessful appeal by the Washington Square Association to have the project withdrawn, mostly because the metal installation will usurp the 45-foot Christmas tree that has been a holiday tradition in Washington Square Park since it was first presented Dec. 24, 1924. (I’m pretty sure Santa Claus isn’t even that old!)
The matter was voted on by members of Community Board 2 on Tuesday night, with a 26-8 tally in favor of erecting Weiwei’s work under the arch. Nicolas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, said that he was delighted by the resolution.
“I was very heartened to hear such passionate statements of support from so many people… this exhibition as a whole has had more attention in the lead-up than any exhibition we’ve ever done. Ai Weiwei is an artist people are incredibly interested in. He’s truly a global figure.”
The Public Art Fund launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the city-wide project with a goal of $80,000, and blew past that Wednesday night with over $96,000 in donations. Baume said that all money raised in excess of the original benchmark will support the exhibition.
When asked whether his organization had considered waiting until after the holiday season to install the piece, so that the Christmas tree tradition wouldn’t be disturbed, he said that “Good Neighbors” is coordinated to be built simultaneously.
“There was really no way to change the timing,” said Baume, while rattling off the litany of people needed to pull off such an ambitious project. (Hint: It’s A LOT.)
The Public Art Fund first presented its plans to CB 2 on Sept. 6, but Trevor Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association, said they waited too long to reveal them, and there should have been more collaboration with the neighborhood throughout the process. “I think they intentionally held the project [until Sept. 6] so we couldn’t have a meaningful discussion of it,” said Sumner. “All of that [waiting] was to intentionally short-circuit the process so they got what they want.”
Sumner was equally frustrated by how long the installation will be in the park. “To put it in our face for four months – and tell us that we have to bow to [the Public Art Fund’s] desires without any meaningful conversation – it’s just hard to swallow.”
He wanted, for example, to discuss putting the exhibit up for eight weeks after the holidays, so they could accommodate the tree. “It’s the second oldest tree lighting in the city. Ninety-four years running… you’re not going to be able to see it down Fifth Avenue, that iconic view that people enjoy. The tree’s going to be hidden this year.”
The only thing left to do, according to him, is make the best of it. “We’ll do what we can to make our tree lighting magical.”
Doris Diether, a long-time resident of Greenwich Village and a die-hard community advocate, doesn’t like the idea either.
“They’re going to fill the whole [arch] with metal. They want to move the Christmas tree halfway over to the fountain. It’s going to be in the way, we’ve got traffic going back and forth here,” said Diether, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1950s. “They say it’s some famous artist, but I don’t care.”