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Socrates Sculpture Park Transformed Illegal Dump into Cultural Institution

Socrates Sculpture Park: Beth Galston, Tree/House, 1994
Socrates Sculpture Park: Beth Galston, Tree/House, 1994
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Steven L. Cohen

LONG ISLAND CITY — When Mark di Suvero, a well-known abstract sculptor, moved his studio to the Hallet’s Cove area more than 25 years ago, the waterfront there was being used as an illegal dumping ground.

But for Di Suvero, the industrial wasteland seemed perfect for his large-scale work, involving I-beams and heavy steel.  So he decided to clear out the garbage and turn it into an artistic space while trying to engage the community in beautifying the area.

“People realized it was not only a detriment to their neighborhood, but also something that had potential for another use,” said John Hatfield, executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, which is in the midst of a year-long celebration of its 25th year.

As part of the celebration — which will continue until September and included a party last Friday — park officials took a look back at the humble beginnings of the space and its transformation over the years.

The land was cleared with help from the community and di Suvero erected some of his sculptures in the open air. He asked his artist friends to do the same and called the park Socrates to honor the area's Greek heritage.

“It was a very organic beginning,” Hatfield said.

In his efforts Di Suvero collaborated with another famous sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who worked in the area since 1961, and the two artists joined their visions to galvanize the effort.

The inaugural exhibition was organized in September 1986, featuring one of Di Suvero's sculptures, setting the stage for more than two decades of outdoor exhibits.

Since its opening, the park — which is now full of flowers and trees — has hosted the works of about 900 artists — including Richard Nonas and Vito Acconci.

Today, it serves many purposes and is one of the most important cultural institutions in Long Island City, along with MOMA PS1, the Noguchi Museum and Museum of the Moving Image.

The most unique aspect of the park is the transparency of art creation, according to Hatfield. “Here, everything from the beginning, through the process, through the installation and the resulting work is open,” he said, adding that this model “creates the connection between the public, the artist and the art.”

The process presents a contrast, he said, with a typical “museum exhibition where the art appears in the middle of the night and then the curtains are pulled back as if magic has happened.”

To Cecile Chong, 48, a painter and sculptor, who was awarded an Emerging Artist Fellowship from Socrates Sculpture Park in 2011, working in an open studio was a new and precious experience.

She said that as she had worked on her installation, “Broken Cherries” - in which she “beaded” seven of the park’s cherry trees with natural and machine-made beads, depicting “cultural interaction through trade” — people “were asking her lots of questions.”

After a while, she said, she got used to the interruptions and became more friendly with the park’s visitors.

According to Chong, another unique part of working at Socrates was being surrounded by nature. “Trees are a very important part of my art,” she added.

Since its founding, the park has expanded its mission as a visual art organization, adding social and educational programming, including art making workshops, landscape and horticulture workshops, an outdoor international film festival, yoga and Pilates classes, a green market and kayaking classes.

It has also become a popular spot for people to get away. Asia Galej, 30, an Astoria resident, goes to the park often with her 13-month old son, Stefan. “We can sit on the grass, relax and enjoy the view,” said Galej, who has also attended art classes there.

The park's current exhibition, “Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City," tackles the issues of threats to access to green space and the waterfront area, how to protect the area’s natural resources and make it accessible to the community.

"It continues the discussion about the role of artists in development of the area that was initiated 25 years ago, but in the new context of its current redevelopment," Hatfield said.

“Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City” runs through Aug. 5.