'Tourist' Makeover of Union Square Statue Gets Parks Department OK

By Mary Johnson | September 30, 2011 4:13pm
Artist Leon Reid IV won last-minute approval by the Parks Department to dress the statue of George Washington in Union Square Park in tourist garb.
Artist Leon Reid IV won last-minute approval by the Parks Department to dress the statue of George Washington in Union Square Park in tourist garb.
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Art in Odd Places/Leon Reid IV

UNION SQUARE — After much debate and controversy, the George Washington statue in Union Square Park will be getting an artistic makeover.

Leon Reid IV got word on Thursday that his project — to dress the statue up as a New York City tourist — was approved after a lengthy battle that pit the public artist against the New York City Parks Department.

The permission came less than 48 hours before Reid hoped to install his project, called “Tourist-in-Chief,” and after lengthy negotiations between the Parks Department, Reid and his attorney.

“Right down to the wire,” Reid laughed in a phone interview on Friday.

Now that he has the official go-ahead, he will head to Union Square Park tomorrow at 7 a.m. to set up the installation. The hulking bronze, decked out in an oversized “I ♥ New York” hat and a subway map, will be part of the Art in Odd Places festival, which is taking place along 14th Street over the next week.

“This would not have happened without the permission of the Parks Department,” Reid said. “And I just can’t thank them enough for allowing me the opportunity to express myself in this public forum.”

Although welcome, that Parks Department approval was hard won.

Reid initially announced his project this summer and launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. He had no problem raising the $3,000 he requested. But as DNAinfo first reported, Reid ran up against a roadblock when the Parks Department denied his proposal, claiming they frown on projects that could potentially damage public sculptures.

Reid then presented his case to the Community Board 5 parks committee, which voted unanimously in favor of the project and pledged to weigh the proposal at a full board meeting in early September. The committee also voted to request a statement from the Parks Department explaining why it turned Reid down.

“My mind was set that this would be permitted, whether it was going to be sooner or later,” Reid said.

But the matter never made it to the full community board meeting on Sept. 8.

Asked why, the board’s district manager, Wally Rubin, said simply that the Park's Department had already made its decision.

Reid attended the meeting that night. After he learned that his project would not be discussed, he criticized the board for failing to take a stand against the city.

"What's the point of having a board if they're not going to decide what they want independently? Their voice should be heard," Reid told DNAinfo.

But Reid kept pushing, enlisting attorney Philip Z. Kimball to help in the negotiations.

Reid said the Parks Department’s hesitation centered largely on the potential for damage to the statue. Reid was able to quell those concerns by assuring the department that the materials he intends to use, mostly made of light foam board, “weigh no more than the birds that land on Washington’s head.” Also, he agreed to limit the installation to last just 12 or 13 hours.

“I would’ve liked it to be left up longer,” Reid said. “[But] the temporary nature of it will make it more important because of the very fact that [on Sunday] it will look the way it has for the last 150 years.”

Reid said he made all the props he would need in advance of official approval because he wanted to be prepared when he got the final OK. He will install everything on Saturday and remain on site throughout the day to answer any questions from passersby and gauge people’s reactions to the piece.

He expects the responses will be mixed, with some positive and some negative.

“And that’s fine,” he said. “I’m excited that I’m given the opportunity to get that reaction.”

Additional reporting by Jill Colvin.