Jennifer Lantzas is one of those very important people you never hear enough about, someone who helps to fulfill our cultural and aesthetic needs at a time when urban living can be a bit challenging and at times overwhelming. As the Deputy Director of Public Art for NYC Parks. Ms. Lantzas is responsible for managing temporary public art exhibitions in city parks throughout the five boroughs, which includes such events as artist workshops, lectures and film screenings. Parks are our most important city refuge. They bring us back to a place of calm, when we can experience a slice of nature amidst the calamity of city life. By adding art carefully and selectively in our many beautiful parks, we can achieve a further enhancement of the spirit at a time when we need it most.
I got to know Ms. Lantzas when I began the process of curating a show for the Arsenal Gallery. Located in a city owned building in Central Park at the corner of 64th Street and Fifth Avenue, you have in the Arsenal an incredibly historic site that predates the park by six years. The Arsenal was once the home of the Museum of Natural History before its current location was completed in 1877. The 11th Police Precinct made its home there in 1857, while in 1869 the Municipal Weather Bureau placed its instruments for nearly 50 years, presumably atop one of the castellated towers that distinguish the Arsenal from many of New York City’s other landmark buildings. A little over 100 years later a central section of the third floor of the Arsenal building was designated as gallery space, which brings us to today.
Right:Interior gallery space with art. (NYC Parks) Located on the third floor of the Arsenal, the Arsenal Gallery is dedicated to examining themes of nature, urban space, wildlife, New York City parks, and park history (image: NYC Parks)
Recently, I learned quite a bit more about the Arsenal Gallery and the work of Jennifer Lantzas after asking the following questions.
DDL: Can you tell me a bit about the approach you take to your job and some of the reasons you got involved with the city’s parks department?
JL: As a public art programmer, I have found that I subscribe to the same, simple belief as Doris C. Freedman, one of our program’s founders: We should bring art to the public, instead of bringing the public to art. Through NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks program, we provide between 40 to 55 exhibitions a year that are free, open to the public. Without permanently encumbering any one place, these installations provide artists with a platform to present diverse visions and interpretations, encourage social engagement, contemplation, and participation.
Left: Fitzhugh Karol, “Eyes,” Tappen Park, Staten Island (Fitzhugh Karol) Fitzhugh Karol’s piece is one of ten exhibitions that were installed in parks throughout the five boroughs as part of the UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant. (image: NYC Parks)
I originally studied collections management, and assumed I would end up working in a museum setting. I applied for a six-month position at NYC Parks during the recession. The tasks of tracking works and working outdoors drew me to the position, but after 8 years, I’m still driven by the opportunities to work with community members, artists, and colleagues to bring art to the public.
DDL: It is wonderful to hear of a position in the arts that is rewarding in so many ways. Public art can and will bring many more people into the world of contemporary art than might naturally visit a gallery or a museum because it is so much less intimidating and far more accessible. Especially for families who cannot afford the ever increasing admission fees to museums. It is also a great opportunity for artists as the challenge and the exposure far exceeds the traditional ‘white box’.
What are some of your more memorable public exhibitions and experiences?
JL: Since our department does not receive city funding, we typically are not able to provide financial assistance to artists. However, in 2017-2018 NYC Parks partnered with UNIQLO to provide $200,000 to artists through the UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant and it was incredibly gratifying to help emerging artists create new works for city parks.
Many people think public art as monumental sculptures, and it is fun to challenge that definition with works like Juanli Carrion’s geopolitical gardens. It is also rewarding to bring public artworks to communities for the first time, like Daniele Frazier’s The Giant Flowers in Highland Park in Cyprus Hills.
On a personal level, I felt Nina Katchadourian’s Monument to the Unelected at Lefferts House in Prospect Park was a particularly impactful piece due to its timeliness, and a reminder that public art can confront complicated subjects and stir strong emotions.
DDL: These all look wonderful, in particular Monument to the Unelected. We are so used to seeing signs of political races locally and with national implications every fall, so to see such a great span of time of the unelected, especially the ones that I had seen first hand, stirs up lots of emotions and memories as you stated. It is also true that political art is a slippery slope, especially when placed in public spaces and this work manages to be edgy and enlightening without awkwardly insulting anyone’s sensibilities beyond the point of the piece.I have the show I curated coming up at the Arsenal Gallery titled Natural Impact, which I look forward to with great anticipation. At this point, I was hoping to get your thoughts on what you look for most in an exhibition for the Arsenal space, perhaps using one or two examples from the upcoming Natural Impact exhibition, thinking there will be other potential quest curators out there who might be interested in submitting a proposal.
JL: NYC Parks’ Arsenal Gallery supports the agency’s mission by examining themes of nature, urban space, wildlife, New York City parks, and park history. With Central Park right outside our window, we look for work that that goes beyond replicating nature. Exhibiting artists explore complex relationships between humans and the environment—in our upcoming exhibition Natural Impact Tim Daly’s work highlights the tension created when nature refuses to stay within manmade borders. Other artists, like Lina Puerta, use found, constructed, and organic materials to fuse the manufactured and natural worlds.
The gallery is a multi-purpose space in NYC Parks’ headquarters that hosts meetings and public programs in addition to six exhibitions a year. Its unique floor plan and use restricts the ability to show three-dimensional work. However, as a municipal space we are not driven by commercial sales, and that gives artists greater latitude to exhibit experimental works or test ideas in early development.
The tension between mankind and Mother Nature has for many ages and empires have been a most disturbing battleground. Especially here in the West, where there is this overwhelming tendency to literally level the ground first, whereas in ancient times, from here in the U.S. with the Native Americans all the way to the Far East, there was a general philosophy to respect, revere and reflect nature.
Sure, there are many exceptions, but for the most part we, as overpowering humans with constantly growing ‘needs’ are bulldozing our way in, across and right over just about anything that stands in our way. We engineer our space largely to our specs and expectations and we often realize after the fact that what we built is too big, too bold, too concrete and alas, all too quickly obsolete.
On the other hand, the visual artist can offer options, realistic or not, that highlight the ingenuity as well as the absurdity. Artists can look at how over time, nature can sneak back into our precisely constructed world and either soften the edges, or abruptly overtake as seen in the art of Tim Daly.
Lina Puerta puts an extra-added spin on the struggle for space with her ‘genetically modified’ tables that blend distantly related worlds creating a need for a ‘greener’ aesthetic, while Brant Moorefield moves us into uncharted territory where nature and habitat meld and mutate and natural disasters haunt our dreams.
Cecilia Whittaker Doe streams nature’s visual impact through her subconscious, resulting in a field of mixed, magical, and sometimes menacing metaphors. Dominick Rapone pushes the edge of design, pairing mankind’s ages old iconic symbols with nature’s natural magnetic beauty.
Jodie Mim Goodnough shows the beauty, and sometimes the awkwardness of trying to precipitate our harmony with nature at a time when one only needs to be in the moment.
What we leave behind is our legacy. It can be environmental, it can be our children and grandchildren, it can be about career achievements or the results of one’s true passion – whatever we create in our lifetime can never rival the powers of nature. It has its own heartbeat, its own life cycle and its own elements or forces of nature that we often change for the worse and always hope for the best.
By D. Dominic Lombardi, Contributing Writer
Natural Impact, at the Arsenal Gallery in New York City from March 8 – April 26
Featuring the works of Tim Daly, Cecilia Whittaker Doe, Jodie Mim Goodnough, Brant Moorefield, Lina Puerta and Dominick Rapone.
Opening Wednesday, March 7th, from 6–8pm.
Artists’ Talk, Thursday, April 12th, from 6-8pm