Tom Finkelpearl, a self described ‘Public and Cooperative Art Guy,’ is the Executive Director of the Queens Museum of Art. Here he discusses the power that artists have to draw a crowd and the Queen’s Museum’s work towards expanding and deepening social networking in the surrounding community.
About a hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and he put it on a pedestal in a museum and called it art. The idea was, if you take something out of the flow of life and put it in a museum, which is out of the flow of life, it becomes art.
An artist who we are working with, Tania Brugara, said it is time to symbolically restore Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the bathroom. To make it useful again. We actually did that. We have Marcel Duchamp’s urinal in our bathroom. It’s a urinal again. It has been repatriated. So she is having a meeting that we are sponsoring about useful art. There are environmental aspects of it.
Mel Chin has done a series of environmental works. He is a legendary guy. His most famous is one called Revival Fields, where he worked with a scientist from the US Department of Agriculture with certain kinds of plants which are hyper accumulators of cadmium and lead and planted them in some toxic waste sites in order to suck the toxics out of the soil and then burn the plants and mine them for cadmium and lead to pay for the process. So it’s a sustainable model of bioremediation.
He’s working on a huge project right now in New Orleans which is called the Fundred Project, that project is based around the idea of getting kids particularly, but also other people, to draw each person one $100 dollar bill. The idea of it is to raise enough money to deal with lead poisoning in New Orleans. This is a sort of post Katrina project. Already over 320 thousand people have participated in the project making individual works of art. And he’s going to go to Washington and try to redeem the money for bioremediation of the toxic wastes and lead poisoning in New Orleans. We were a Fundred site. We collected a lot of fundreds. He came by with an armored car.
Rick Lowe is this absolute visionary down in Houston Texas who has reclaimed a whole neighborhood. He now has a campus in a low-income African American community. He is an African American guy, grew up very poor on a farm in Mississippi. He has reclaimed a whole neighborhood as an art project.
It includes everything. He is building housing. He has revitalized several blocks of old row houses. They have community gardening. They are collaborating with Rice Architecture School on designing and building housing. He is a visionary of useful art.
We’ve been working off-site in Corona, at a particular part of Corona which is a low income mostly Latin American community in Queens, on a series of projects with artists (and some without artists). The major components have been public space and health and immigration. Part of the idea is that it’s all linked in together. You can’t separate the health outcomes from the community network outcomes from the environmental outcomes. So we’ve been doing big community festivals, often times based around big art projects.
Artists can draw a crowd. And when the crowd is there you test people for diabetes and high blood pressure, etc. When John Leonardo did a project as a Lucho Libre thousands of people were there and you say, “Okay, they’re here. Let’s see who has insurance.” Thousands of people signed up for low-cost insurance, which is like the public option if there were one — Metro Health Plus. Thousands of people got screened for various problems and they got immigration information.
This whole idea of cooperative art — that’s what I’m interested in, the idea that in the history of art the idea that the artist was this lonely person sitting in his studio is a very new idea. It’s only in the last thousand years that people have been isolated in their studios, before that, art was part of the collective.
We did a “social network map” of Corona and we had it mapped by this Center for Creative Community Development at Williams (C3D). The idea of social network mapping is to say that it is demonstrable that there are better social outcomes in communities with denser social networks, especially multi-layer social networks. So that if you are on the PTA and you’re also a member of the church and you’re also the member of a business association, and your neighbors are on those things too, and you have multilayered relationships and, for example, you show up at the Community Board meeting, and your friend who you talked to at the PTA doesn’t show up, you might call them and they might be lying on the floor waiting for someone to call and they answer and say “take me to the hospital!” The idea is to get more mutual surveillance.
So what we’ve done is one test of the social network map to understand both how dense the maps are and to understand how central the Queens Museum is to those maps, because the more central we are, the more important our role is.
We’re hoping is that we can demonstrate that the second time we do it, the map is denser, and The Queens Museum is more central. That’s the hope. If we’re actually helping our community, we’ve helped our community have denser social networks, we’ve brought people from the edges of the community more into the flow of interaction.
A good neighbor is someone who is active in the community. There are other communities I’m a part of besides my residential community, the art community, the school community. There are all these ways that actually having a kid ties you to a community — PTA, sports, etc.
I think privacy is overrated. It’s not associated with happiness. It is this protective sheen that Americans try to put around themselves which is unhealthy socially, physically, personally.
Every one of the happiness books says that being a member of a community, being active in your community is associated with happiness. All of these things that are counter intuitive to Americans are based on this idea of the individual, which is unhealthy.
There are very few animals that are as cooperative as human beings. We are aggressive and territorial, but we are also insanely cooperative. There are only four animals that have social units over a hundred thousand, and we’re one of them. So it’s ants, and bees, and I don’t know, bats, and us! And that’s amazing! So we have these social units, cities, and 8 million people are living together, and for the most part we cooperate. Then there is this question: why are we so fixated on the fact that we don’t cooperate?
I’m really rooting for our species to make it through all these problems we have, and the only way I can do it is by being cooperative. Not by being more competitive.
I had one experience with an artist, Merl Euchilles, not long ago and she did this project about this Jewish principle “tikkun olam” and it has to do with repairing the shattered world. She did a performance of it at the Center for Jewish History and the idea was for people to make some sort of pledge on the basis of that principle, it could be anything from being nicer to people, there is a whole wide range of what it could mean, she had this sort of performance and ritual. It was kind of hokey and I didn’t think it was one of her best pieces, but it actually changed my life.
There was this mirror, a two-sided mirror. You looked in the mirror and saw yourself, so it had to do with self-examination. So I made this pledge to repair stuff. These shoes have been resoled three times and I started to not just throw things out automatically. I did a renovation of my loft based on things I found on the street. I stopped using a dryer, cause you don’t have to, just hang things up and they will dry (Americans waste an amazing amount of energy on dryers). I just became much more conscious. I stopped buying stuff. It’s been a year and a half now and I’ve continued all this stuff. It was an amazing performance and it sort of crystallized what I was already thinking in a way, and it gave me motivation to make this commitment.
There is a lot of underlying spiritualism in artists’ work that doesn’t get acknowledged because it’s kind of embarrassing. The only artists who will say it are Buddhist, because they’re not afraid to say it.