Robert Moses, dubbed the “master builder,” was a visionary yet polarizing figure who pushed boundaries with his thought-provoking and often criticized ideology.
Firm in his ways to say the least, he went on to create a legacy for urban builders for generations to come, shaping how Americans to this day view a city’s infrastructure.
Along with full-size highways and bridges, Moses built the miniature “Panorama of the City of New York” with a team of 100 model makers, to much acclaim for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
It was regarded as one of the most successful components of the fair with a high daily viewing audience. Attendees took in the accurate model, which was required to have less than a 1 percent margin of error between its depiction and the reality of the urban landscape, with the allure of experiencing it on a simulated helicopter ride.
The Panorama is now the famed nucleus and permanent exhibit of the Queens Museum of Art, located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Its sprawling 9,335-square-foot model includes every single building within all five boroughs as of 20 years ago, when it was updated. In 2009 it was tweaked again with the addition of Citi Field, the New York Mets’ home stadium and neighbor of the museum.
The executive director of the QMA, Tom Finkelpearl, along with a senior curator, Larissa Harris, asked Gregory Sholette, an artist, organizer and professor, if he’d be interested in creating works to accompany the Panorama, which was not the first time the museum has asked an artist to engage it in such a way. In 2009, urban planner and artist Damon Rich used the Panorama to map out foreclosures of two-to-four family homes with spray-painted pizza box supports, to let patrons easily see what neighborhoods were hardest hit.
“I did not hesitate to say yes,” Sholette said.
“And there is an added dimension to my interest in the Panorama, which stems from the fact that before I was a professor in the Queens College Art Department I once made a living as a model maker myself,” he said.
This time the idea was to add imaginary islands to the waterways around the city, already a natural archipelago. With Sholette’s natural skill set and background, it was as if this project was asking to come to life under his direction.
“... It was almost as if I was just waiting for this opportunity to apply myself to what I consider a stunning work of artistry in its own right,” Sholette said.
He made a point to make it a site-specific “art infiltration” with a collaboration of artists.
“... My concern was to make it something of a socially participatory work,” Sholette noted, “in other words, to engineer reimagining New York with a group of people, rather than just my own quirks and fantasies.”
Sholette posed the loaded question: “If you could add an island to New York City, what would it be?” to 15 invited collaborators.
Each replied with a written response to Sholette of his or her idea, to be brought to life by him in a variety of mediums by hand and added to the Panorama as silent observers of the city’s past, present and future, post-9/11. The collaborators’ letters were also incorporated into a corresponding installation for display, designed by the head of the Digital Imaging Laboratory at Queens College, artist Matthew F. Greco.
Harris, who has been working at the QMA for close to three years, is proud of how well the exhibition has turned out.
“I do think Greg’s project is up there as one of the very best artistic uses of the Panorama,” Harris said. “Greg is well-known for his artistic interventions. It’s much less well-known that he worked as a model maker. This may be the first time he was able to combine the two!”
German tourist Hasan Quitsch, on holiday with his two sons Martin and Simon, viewed the art infiltration called “Greg Sholette: Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses” — last Friday by making it a priority to visit Queens and the QMA in particular, during their stay.
“We combined the tour in Queens with the Unisphere exhibition, 1964 New York World’s Fair, with this museum,” Quitsch said. “But we planned our tour to the United States [for] four or five months in Germany, and this was one of the first places we had to look at, this museum.”
Another attendant of the exhibition on the same day, Sarah Mulhern, visiting from Brooklyn, was excited to experience The Panorama of the City of New York in a new way.
“I’ve seen the Panorama a few years ago, but I didn’t know about this addition though; that was pretty exciting,” said Mulhern, who was visiting the museum with a friend.
“We really liked the tower that looks like it’s from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ — but it would actually house everyone in New York,” Mulhern notes, describing how she interpreted “11 Million Person Tower Island” as imagined by Brett Bloom [qboro cover image].
Bloom’s idea would allow all 11 million New Yorkers — the Census says there are a little more than 8 million — to reside in the tower, thus freeing up habitation in the five boroughs to give the land back to the Native Americans who used to live there.
Among a personal favorite of Sholette’s is “Island of Healing and Restfulness,” by the late Dara Greenwald, 40, who contributed to experimental forms of writing, social art activism and media.
Greenwald’s island depicts a serene place of healing for people and workers who are without the ability to truly be at rest because of an accident or major illness.
Her island reflects an apt point of view, given her untimely passing from cancer in January 2012.
Her imagined island “became a miniature memorial to this amazing and talented artist who proposed the concept to me not too long after she fell ill with cancer,” Sholette reflects.
“She did not live to see me finish it or place it on the Panorama in her name.”
When: Through May 20
Where: Queens Museum of Art, Flushing
Tickets: (718) 592-9700