Volume 74, Number 14 | August 04 - 10 , 2004

Cooper Union’s plan to replace artwork with billboard raises ire

By Erica Stein

Admirers of a Sept. 11 mural on the wall of 35 Cooper Sq. are disappointed that the artwork is slated to be sold as advertising space. The mural, called “Forever Tall,” displays a cityscape that includes the World Trade Center and was commissioned by CityArts. The building, which houses Dolphins restaurant, is owned by Cooper Union. The New York Times reported that both sides originally agreed to display the mural for one year, although CityArts hoped it would remain visible for longer.

But Jack Stewart, president emeritus of the National Society of Mural Painters and president of the Federation of Fine Arts of New York, said that removing or covering murals after this length of time is “very much out of the ordinary.” Stewart said that most murals are visible for much longer and that he personally knew of one on Houston St., far larger than “Forever Tall,” that was painted in the late ’70s and remained until 1997 or 1998. “It was beautiful. An abstract of a man on a bike. Eventually, the building’s landlord sold the wall to advertisers the way Cooper Union is trying to now. We made a big stink. But now landlord’s are getting so much for the walls, more than they can get for renting the apartments in the building itself.”

Stewart said that many other murals in the city had suffered the same fate and that their destruction was largely due to the creation of “vinyl signs,” which is what most of the large wall advertisements are. “Since digital printing became available, you can take these images from photos, blow them up incredibly and get a good picture.” Stewart said that his groups successfully lobbied the City Council to pass a law that would prohibit vinyl signs over a certain size. Since the law was passed “about five years ago,” however, he knows of only one success. “There was one more than four stories high on Fifth Ave. and 57th St. I called [the Department of] Environmental Protection and within a week it was down,” said Stewart.

Claire McCarthy, Cooper Union’s director of public affairs, said that the school had received 12 or 15 e-mails protesting covering the “Forever Tall” mural and that the school met with CityArts last Thursday to discuss the situation, but that no decision had been made.

Anna Sawaryn, chairperson of the Coalition to save the East Village, said she has received about five phone calls from community members unhappy with the decision. “For them to sell this space as advertising is out of tune with the community,” said Sawaryn. “Cooper Union’s cafeteria is in the Hewitt Building and when you look through the window you used to be able to see the Trade Center. The mural was put up in the direction the towers used to be, so when you looked out the window it was very comforting. Taking it down is not only disrespectful of the community but of everyone who uses that cafeteria.”

Keith Crandell, an East Village resident, agreed. “I’m going to call Board 3 and [Councilmember] Margarita Lopez’s office,” he said. “I think people should object loudly. This is really disgraceful.”

Stewart says he has no current plans to organize a formal protest against the removal of the mural, since he is currently engaged in completing a series of anti-Bush paintings in time for the Republican National Convention. “But after Sept. 2? Then we’ll look into it,” he said. Stewart also plans to write a letter on behalf of both his organizations to the president of Cooper Union. “I taught there for 14 years,” Stewart said. “I was chairman of the arts department. I want to ask the president of an arts school how he could do such a thing and set such an example. That’s all I have in mind right now.”

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