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Hurricane Spares Seaside Art

Written by TED LOOS
New York Times

ATLANTIC CITY — As devastating a hit as New Jersey took from Hurricane Sandy, the blow was softer than had been feared for this seaside gambling mecca directly in the storm’s path. None of the waterfront casinos, for instance, reported major damage.

The hurricane even spared the first phase of a planned five-year, $13 million public art project here called “Artlantic,” scheduled to make its debut on Friday, that is attempting to transform a city that has never offered much in the way of public space beyond the famous Boardwalk.

“Artlantic: wonder,” as the first phase is called, cost $3 million and encompasses two sites, including what was, until a month ago a barren, seven-acre expanse of grass and gravel right off the Boardwalk in the center of town.

This prime real estate, where a casino once stood, was a highly visible eyesore. Before he was grappling with the hurricane’s destruction — and before he got into a war of words with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey about evacuation plans — Atlantic City’s mayor, Lorenzo T. Langford, said in an interview that he had taken to calling this site “the hole in the middle of the doughnut.”

The lot is now dominated by two large outdoor spaces for art, both surrounded by gently terraced, amphitheaterlike hillsides covered in sod. About 22,000 sod staples, inserted just a day before the storm struck, helped the lawn survive the onslaught of wind and water.

“The inspiration for the form came from Atlantic City, just as the inspiration for all of the other works will always be coming from the city,” said Lance Fung, the freelance curator who designed “Artlantic.” Specifically, he added, “it came from the history of the roller coasters on Steel Pier, which is emblazed in everyone’s memory that knows the area.”

Mr. Fung, the principal of Fung Collaboratives, an arts organization, is best known for organizing the 2006 version of “Snow Show” — an exhibition in which works were made of snow, ice and water — at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He said he was well aware not just of the different context here, in such an urban setting, but also of the sensitivity of opening an art project when some people have lost their homes. “Art has this incredible power of sending out a positive message,” he said. “This was true before the storm, and now even more so.”

On one end of the site a large sculpture by Kiki Smith, “Her” (2003), will stand surrounded by a seasonally changing “red garden,” designed by Ms. Smith.

The sculpture depicts a woman embracing a fawn, which Ms. Smith said she chose partly because it dovetailed with Mr. Fung’s overall theme of man interacting with nature. In addition, she said, “it has some austerity to it, and I liked the idea of it in that context.”

She added that she had always wanted to create a red garden that would remain that color all year. Mr. Fung set her up with the landscape designer Balmori Associates, which led all of “Artlantic: wonder,” to turn the idea into reality.

Opposite Ms. Smith’s work, in the other amphitheaterlike space, will be an installation of a pirate ship by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. (Luckily it was still boxed in a truck on Long Island when the storm struck.) Around the outside of both mounds is an illuminated, text-based work by Robert Barry.

For the other site to be unveiled on Friday an 8,500-square-foot portion of a parking lot a few blocks away by the Boardwalk, Mr. Fung asked the artist John Roloff to make a large impact in a much smaller space.

Mr. Roloff’s “Étude Atlantis” features a wooden-walled stage painted with bold, illusionistic stripes, in front of which is a sunken cistern meant to suggest a passage to the other side of the planet, a reference to the lost city of Atlantis.

When not being used for performances this stage will be an abstract artwork on its own. Durable asphalt paint that had cured properly, and a sturdy base built with strong winds in mind helped the work survive the storm.

The cost of “Artlantic” is being split by a new marketing agency, the Atlantic City Alliance, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, formed in 1984 — both of which receive funds from local businesses.

The project’s organizers are using private land that is on loan for “Artlantic: wonder,” a risky approach for a large-scale public art project. There’s no set agreement for how long the works can stay put, and the land could be developed by the owners, and the works removed, at any time.

“It’s a unique, crazy thing,” Mr. Fung said.

But the organizers said they hope that the installations, however long they last, will enhance the image of Atlantic City.

“One of the glaring gaps here is really the arts and culture scene,” said Elizabeth Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, and “one of the other gaps is the lack of economic development in some of these empty, huge, blighted lots.” She added, “art is a leading-edge perception driver.”

Because of the temporary nature of the property loans, cooperation from the owners of the two sites was relatively easy.

“They’ve said, ‘O.K., but when we have an opportunity, we want them back,’ ” Ms. Cartmell said. “Which is fine for us.”

But because there are installations that are still years away — works are expected to be introduced gradually over the five years of the project — Mr. Fung said that he and the alliance hoped the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority would buy the land, creating permanent public art.

Atlantic City’s history of focusing on the tourism district for development and civic projects like this one has made some residents adopt a wait-and-see attitude about “Artlantic.”

“I do think it has healing potential poststorm,” said Joseph Rubenstein, an anthropology professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey near here who is active in community groups and has worked to dot Atlantic City with gardens and murals. But the history of the city “has been that all the development is on the boards or two of three blocks in,” Mr. Rubenstein said, referring to the Boardwalk area. “Public art we can only applaud, but it has to be in combination with work on the rest of the city.”

Mr. Fung said that he had made serious efforts to get year-round residents emotionally invested in “Artlantic.” Local performers will appear at the opening, and interest in the project has been so great that area painting, plumbing and carpentry unions have donated their time to help build “Artlantic: wonder.”

“That means they believe in us,” Mr. Fung said. “One of the most heartening things” about the days since Hurricane Sandy struck, he added, “is all the e-mails I have been getting from locals asking, ‘How is the art project?’ ”

Original Article

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