The tug of war over a piece of public art in Chinatown is the latest flashpoint in the fight against bringing a new jail to the neighborhood.
Last April, the city’s Departments of Design and Construction and Cultural Affairs asked sculptor Kit-Yin Snyder for as many details as possible regarding her piece, “Judgment,” (also called “Justice”) just outside the Manhattan Detention Complex, including instructions on how to disassemble the multi-faceted structure so it could be reinstalled elsewhere.
Neighborhood advocates and civic leaders had already been skeptical about the city’s designs for the art and their fears were realized when the Department of Cultural Affairs confirmed to THE CITY and a Manhattan community board that there are no concrete plans to reinstall the Snyder piece anywhere.
The work, which was completed in 1992, includes towering square columns, a large chair called the “Throne of Solomon,” and a pavement design that used to read “fair” and “justice” in Chinese but has become unreadable for lack of upkeep.
Snyder told THE CITY that she was proud to have built the artwork in New York, her hometown since arriving from China in her teens, but is dismayed by what she characterizes as misrepresentation from the city and a failure to properly maintain the artwork.
“Seven and a half years it took me to create that sculpture,” Snyder said in a phone interview. “You can imagine how unhappy I felt. I heard nothing, they really notified me very little along the way. It comes as a surprise, so I don’t know what they have in mind.”
Snyder’s work and a set of murals by artist Richard Haas need to be taken down so construction can begin on a new downtown jail. It’s slated to be one of four new jail facilities set to replace Rikers Island lockups under plans launched by former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
But not all works of art associated with shutting down Rikers are receiving similar treatment. The Public Design Commission recently approved the relocation of “For the Women’s House,” a Faith Ringgold painting in a women’s jail on Rikers Island, to the Brooklyn Museum.
“Judgment” will be going before the Public Design Commission at its February hearing — but so far Snyder has seen no sign of consideration.
“They didn’t say they were looking for another site. They didn’t give me the impression that they were going to do that,” said Snyder.
Local supporters and activists with the group Neighbors United Below Canal plan to hold a rally Saturday against tearing down the MDC, known as The Tombs. One of the group’s co-founders, Jan Lee, said he’s especially frustrated because as a candidate in April 2021 Mayor Eric Adams came out against building a new jail at the Tombs location.
An Adams spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.
Sent to Storage
The anticipated shelving of Snyder’s and another artist’s artwork –– several panels depicting scenes of immigration and immigrant life in the Lower East Side by muralist Richard Haas –– is expected to take place sometime between February and April, according to Department of Cultural Affairs spokesperson Ryan Max.
“The artworks are attached to the physical structure of the Manhattan Detention Complex, which is slated to be dismantled as part of the Borough Based Jails Program,” said Max in a statement. “The majority of the artwork will be removed and put into secure storage; Haas’s mural is painted directly on the facility’s external wall and so cannot be salvaged.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Design and Construction referred questions to the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Snyder and her daughter, Kim Snyder, who has been helping her mother navigate city bureaucracy and advocate on behalf of the project, received an update from the agency after THE CITY asked questions about the future of the site.
A DDC representative emailed Kim to set up a meeting “to provide an opportunity for the potential design team for the new facility to see the artworks in situ before being removed, in order to help them in thinking about potential opportunities for reinstallation if they are awarded the new facility project next year.”
But the DDC staffer on Monday canceled a planned Wednesday meeting and asked to reschedule for some time in February instead, Kim Snyder said.
The city announced that it would close The Tombs in 2020 to make way for the new borough-based jail, which local activists and residents have been fighting against since de Blasio announced plans in 2019.
In September 2020, activists with Neighbors United Below Canal successfully stalled the new Manhattan jail after a judge ruled in favor of their petition calling previous land-use reviews invalid. In their initial complaint, the group said it had little faith that the city would properly restore the artwork.
After losing in state court this November, Neighbors United is looking to raise funds and challenge the city again, this time in federal court. They’re also hoping their co-founder, new City Councilmember Christopher Marte, will push Adams to preserve the art work and stop the new jails’ construction.
Marte said it’s frustrating to see the city getting rid of public art and open space, which were both givebacks to the community in exchange for new additions The Tombs being built there.
“This is just another example of the city not really committing to their points of agreement,” said Marte. “It’s really unfortunate, but we’ve seen this pattern time and time again throughout this process where they commit to things through discussion or in writing when they’re asking for something to happen, but when it’s time to do it, they don’t.”
Michele Bogart, a professor emeritus of art history at Stony Brook University, told THE CITY that reassembling Snyder’s artwork in a new context would be extremely difficult given how intertwined the artwork is with The Tombs itself.
“It’s a very different style of building and it’s a very different style of art, so you can’t just apply the same approach to any public artwork. Removing a bronze is different from removing a steel set of grids.”
Bogart added that these contentious back and forths are innate to the process of installing public art in the city.
“Carrying out that process successfully will take even more time and will involve ever more resources of different agencies, will involve ever more divided constituencies and will be far more difficult to bring to a successful conclusion,” said Bogart. And by successful I mean not just aesthetically attractive and meaningful. But one in which communities, viewers, and the public are happy with it.”