ATLANTIC CITY - Here, the question is not "Is it art?"
In Atlantic City, a place beholden to its vice, seashore, and ancient traditions of commerce and promotion, where everyone's against it before being for it, the question is, Should there even be art?
In this latest saga from everyone's favorite seaside resort, locals and the people who would save them are debating the merits of a new $12 million public art program brought to them by the nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance (DO AC), curated in part by New York-based art master chef Lance Fung, whose installations have graced the Venice Biennale and Turin Olympics.
"Enough with the art," is how one local summed it up in the blunt dialect of the island, in a letter to the Atlantic City Press.
"Atlantic City has one more last chance, and we are blowing it," attorney Philip Perskie of Margate continued. "No one - yes, no one - is coming to Atlantic City to see art."
But, um, might they?
The art world apparently thinks so.
"The locals have no clue as to the international recognition [the project] is receiving," Fung is saying by phone from San Francisco. "I get e-mails from China, South America, Europe, USA, saying this is great, congratulations."
His canvas is a vacant, seven-acre, former eyesore of a lot at Pacific and Indiana Avenues, bought by Pinnacle Entertainment for $270 million. The site was once the Sands, imploded in 2007, and before that, the Traymore, imploded in 1972.
Fung, who had never been to A.C. before, created ARTLANTIC:wonder and ARTLANTIC:becoming, by placing works by world-renowned artists and regional ones in a green landscape meant to suggest a roller coaster.
Artists such as Ilya and Emiliya Kabakov (creators of the emerging-from-the-depths pirate ship they call Devil's Rage), Robert Barry (the 23 LED-lit words - believe, personal, almost - set into the hills) and Her by Kiki Smith (the nude woman holding the doe in a red garden that may or may not symbolize blood). Nearby on the Boardwalk at Belmont is a floor- and-wall optical mural by John Roloff, Etude Atlantis. (With free wifi).
Fung also embraced regional artists such as South Jersey sculptor Jedediah Morfit (sculpted furniture) and North Jersey's Robert Lach, who made brightly colored nests from natural and discarded material found at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge and local beaches.
Says Fung: "They who are so famous thought this was so incredible to do something so significant in the art world in a city the art world doesn't consider an art destination."
He is asking for more patience from locals in this place where a Bert Parks statue counts as art. The park isn't done! The dune grass hasn't grown! Pacific Avenue gates are coming, which will make it look less the fenced-in penitentiary yard and more the art park, green space, and play area he envisioned. You are welcome to climb inside Lach's birds' nests!
"People will come to see their work," Fung insists. "We put the world's most important art made today in Atlantic City. We ask you let the grass grow, let us have an opening."
Liza Cartmell, head of the Atlantic City Alliance and a former Aramark sports/entertainment honcho, is unbowed. "I'm surprised it took so long," she said. "It's fine with me. It's creating a conversation about Atlantic City."
The Alliance is a private group, formed and funded by the casinos, with a board of casino execs. They have not shown cold feet with the art, she said, even with stuff like Italian-style horse racing on the beach. (The city also is on board for a giant Ferris wheel at Steel Pier).
ARTLANTIC is one piece of a plan to kick-start an arts district, a goal of the Tourism District, which is an arm of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Fung, who has a five-year contract, plans another installation with local artists.
The Noyes Museum is creating an Arts Garage of incubator/studio/gallery spaces at the new parking garage in a prime location on Mississippi Avenue.
The master plan touts Ducktown, the old Italian neighborhood and home to the White House Sub Shop, as an arts district.
The alliance is partnering with the Noyes to create a sculpture walk out of an underused path along the water behind Harrah's and Borgata.
Again, the locals are unimpressed. A.C. Press: "Really? More sculpture?"
State Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic) weighed in, saying: "Is anyone asking for art?" Whelan would prefer the dollars go to transforming mostly idle Bader Field, or helping the John Brooks Recovery Center move its methadone clinic off Pacific Avenue. Others urge more basic upgrades, like Boardwalk lighting, or paving Pacific (scheduled for the fall).
Cartmell, the head of the AC Alliance, says the $12 million for public art is split by the Alliance and the CRDA. Much was spent on the lots, not the art, and on projects like Boardwalk Hall's 3-D light show.
The total amount spent on the art itself: $350,000 for ARTLANTIC installations and $250,000 for the sculpture walk. That does not include Fung's fees, which he would not disclose.
At ARTLANTIC, meanwhile, people do show up, some who see it from their hotel rooms at Bally's, others whose heads turn from the Boardwalk. Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia, traveled to see it after a write-up in Travel and Leisure . She was jealous that Fung was in Atlantic City, not Philly. Fung has promoted it in art cities like Miami.
Signage is coming. The tourism district's ambassadors are handing out flyers. A Morfit sculpture will be at an entrance. Vegetation along Hutchinson's rope patterns will fill in. Shakespeare at the Kabakovs' pirate ship is planned. You are free to walk your dog, roll down the hills. Blood or not, the red garden is striking.
Fung says the art he chose connects to the city. The pirate ship, obviously. The roller coaster terrain. Kiki Smith's work is about embracing nature, an unstylized female figure in a place known for the opposite. Robert Barry's words echo the more mercenary casino signage. Rope artist Peter Hutchinson said that as he throws his rope, forming patterns, he imagines throwing a lifeline to his brother, who drowned as a child. Surely the lifeguards on nearby beaches can relate.
While easy to mock, as are most things in this town, others find ARTLANTIC interesting. If art is not the answer now, could it be? Or is this doomed to be yet another misfire by well-meaning out-of-towners who misread the town?
Will aiming for an aesthetic higher than Margaritaville always be a bad bet here?
"Most outsiders," wrote Perskie, the Margate attorney, "don't get this place."
But if art is meant to be interpreted any way the viewer chooses, in this case the installation could be making its detractors' case while also underscoring Fung's art chops.
The two Robert Barry LED-lit words visible from the corner of Pacific and Indiana?
UNKNOWN and PURPOSE.