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Sunday, May 1, 2005

Hurrah for Voluntary Art!

Art Can Succeed Without Taxpayer Funding

My heart sank when I first heard about the New York City art project known as “The Gates.” One thousand workers were to put up 7,500 gates along the paths in Central Park and drape saffron-colored fabric from each one. I wasn’t reacting to the art. In fact, I hadn’t even decided if the project should be considered art. What depressed me was thinking about how it was funded.

I assumed that tax money was involved, and that casts a shadow. The problem is that taxes are funds taken by force and the threat of force; it’s always dis­appointing to see any project, even the noblest, founded on coercion.

But this was not the case. To my surprise, I learned that the $21 million cost of “The Gates” was being entirely paid by the artists, who go by the names of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This isn’t their first large-scale “environmental” art project. They’ve done 18 such works, including the “Valley Curtain” in Rifle, Colorado; “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay, Florida; and “The Pont Neuf Wrapped” in Paris. And none of them were tax funded! In each case, they earned the money by selling preparatory drawings of the proposed environmental art—at prices ranging from $30,000 to $600,000—and selling other of their artwork.

It’s not just government money that Christo and Jeanne-Claude reject. They refuse any funds that might compromise their artistic independence. They don’t take grants from foundations or businesses. And they don’t take money from books, posters, films, or videos of the projects after they are completed. They feel that if they had post-production sales in mind when they were creating a piece, that could influence their art. With “The Gates,” they have turned over post-production rights and royalties to two nonprofits, Nurture New York’s Nature and the Central Park Conservancy.

In economic terms, the project was a remarkable success. In addition to the funds raised for the envi­ronmental nonprofits, city businesses gained economically to the tune of an estimated $254 million from the spending of several hundred thousand tourists who came to see the event. And the 1,000 temporary workers who put up the exhibit and took it down earned some extra cash. Significantly, these benefits were an incidental byproduct. It was not the artists’ intention to serve society. “We create for us,” Jeanne-Claude told a reporter. “We don’t create for the public. But, of course, those who like it, that’s a bonus for us.”

By all reports, the public enjoyed “The Gates.” Of course, there were a few critics. One New York Times columnist bemoaned the fact that creating the project used up energy and therefore contributed to global warming. A letter writer put him down as a “selfish naysayer” who had been “oblivious to the thousands of people who were bursting with joy and enthusiasm upon viewing this unique phenomenon.”

Many people got a lot out of “The Gates,” but to my mind, the most moving aspect of it was how it wasn’t funded. In a day and age where practically everyone thoughtlessly accepts government’s coercively gath­ered funds, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have given the world a shining example of voluntary art.