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CB5 Backs Artist's Bid To Dress George Washington Statue as Tourist

By Jill Colvin | August 30, 2011 4:24pm | Updated on August 31, 2011 9:47am
The proposed
The proposed "Tourist in Chief" by artist Leon Reid IV.
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Leon Reid IV

MIDTOWN — A community board's parks committee voted unanimously in favor of an artist’s proposal to make over the statue of George Washington in Union Square — and demanded the city explain why it rejected the plan.

As DNAinfo first reported last month, the New York City Parks Department rejected a bid by Brooklyn-based public artist Leon Reid IV to dress the giant bronze statue of the Founding Father like a stereotypical New York tourist, complete with an "I ♥ New York" hat, over-sized camera and a bundle of shopping bags, for 13 hours on October 1.

Apparently, the city frowns on dressing up public statues in the name of art.

But at a public hearing Monday night in front of Community Board 5’s Parks Committee, Reid argued the city has frequently allowed the adornment of numerous statues, including George Washington himself, who was made to hold a bouquet of flowers and wear a carnation on his lapel back on Arbor Day in 2006, according to a photo on the Parks Department website.

The department also allowed NBC to dress 30 historic statues around the city with black capes this winter, including Washington, Sir Walter Scott and Eleanor Roosevelt, to promote the network's now-cancelled show “The Cape."

“The inspiration for 'Tourist-in-Chief' comes from a long line of statue embellishments,” Reid told the board of the installation, which he said is intended “to make Washington a more relatable figure to the contemporary audience” and inform the public about Washington’s place in New York history — two ideas that received broad endorsement from the board.

To quell concerns that the installation might damage the statue's finish, Reid said he plans to use a lift to attach the dress-up items, which are made of foam-board, so they “weigh no more than the birds that land on Washington’s head."

The proposal garnered praise from board members, who felt the installation's short duration and historical mission made it more than worthwhile.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said committee member David Golab, who noted he thought the project was a great way to engage people about history and added the board has a long history of supporting the arts.

He and others said they were dumbfounded as to why the city would reject the plan, which is supposed to be part of the seventh annual Art in Odd Places festival in October.

“I don’t understand,” Golab said. “This looks like a reasonable proposal."

Committee chair Joseph Hagelmann said the board was notified by the Parks Department just hours before the meeting that it had already decided to reject the bid.

“It’s very interesting that there’s been an historical precedent at this statue and others in the city,” said Hagelmann ahead of the vote, which was unanimous in favor of the installation.

The committee also voted to request an explanation from the Parks Department, in writing, outlining its reasons for rejecting the bid.

The community board only has an advisory role in the decision, with the city having the final say.

The Parks Department has raised concerns abour damaging the 19th century statue as well as safety, but has been vague about the specific risks the installation poses.

"All public art installation requests go through a process, and this one did as well.  While we welcome requests, we cannot accommodate them all," a spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.

Reid, a self-described history buff, said he hadn't yet received official word from the city about the status of his application, but said he can't understand why it wouldn't be allowed.

“This is public property. The Parks Department doesn’t have the luxury to reject a permit just because they think it’s disrespectful,” he said after his presentation, acknowledging that some of his projects have been criticized in the past.

But Reid said the objections have only furthered his mission by drawing more attention to the statue.

“I like causing attention,” he said.

Earlier in the meeting, the Parks Department gave a separate presentation to the board about an art project it has already approved for Union Square: Miquel Barcelo’s "Elephanta," a giant bronze statue of an elephant balancing on his trunk, which is set to open September 13.

The full board will weigh in on both proposals at its next monthly meeting on Thurs., Sept. 8, at 6 p.m., at St. Xavier High School, 30 W. 16th St.