An artist designed playground and its unique patron by Susan Solomon

Paige’s Note:  In her latest “After the Deadline” column, play chronicler extraordinaire Susan Solomon talks about one of everyone’s favorite playmakers:  Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and the unique patronage that enabled the creation of her recent piece in Rome.   It provides a model that I hope we will see much more of:  significant corporate sponsorship of ambitious, innovative places and pieces for play!

After the Deadline:  An artist designed playground and its unique patron
Susan G. Solomon

Something magical can happen when artists -and here I include painters, sculptors, architects and landscape architects- design public space.  There is a good chance they know how to organize environments and how to make them both comfortable and stimulating for the people who will be using them: they understand the complexity of materials and know how to exploit those for a range of experiences; they frequently can do more with less money.  For public playgrounds, artists may have the insight and interest to listen to clients, especially children, and translate their unarticulated dreams into reality.

A daunting glitch is how to secure funding for these unusual designs or identify donors who seek extraordinary projects.

Recently, a committed institutional patron and a superb textile artist united forces to create an outstanding play piece in Rome.  It’s an interesting marriage that could have long-term ramifications for who designs play pieces; where these are sited; and who pays for them.  In this particular case, Enel is the forward thinking patron.  Their name is not widely recognized in America.  They are Italy’s largest public utility.  An energy company that is publically traded and whose stock is largely held by the government. Enel is effectively a public private venture.

Enel, which has been a long standing patron of the arts and even a primary sponsor of the art world’s Venice Biennale, began in 2007 to commission unique works for public areas.  Most have been in Rome.  These were site-specific pieces, meant to promote conversation about renewable and sustainable energy.  In 2010, Enel altered the donation program by establishing the Enel Contemporanea Award.   The award sponsors a yearly invited international competition and a distinguished jury selects the winner.  The resulting commissioned work is then displayed for at least a year before Enel retains or donates it.  Carsten Höller won in 2011; his Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO).  This dynamic piece- where visitors could hop on and off carousels that rotated in opposite directions- resided in an entry floor gallery where anyone could come without an admission charge. The 2012 winner was Mike and Doug Starn; their Big Bambu, a 75-foot high construction, invited visitors to climb it at MACRO’s auxiliary site in the former abattoir (now art space) of the city.  While Enel wants their prize theme to be the about the intersection of energy and contemporary art, the successful works have been especially whimsical and playful.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam won the Enel honor in 2013 and continued the spirited interactive tradition. The work of this Japanese Canadian fiber artist is well known to readers of this blog. Her wining piece, Harmonic Motion, was displayed at the main MACRO in December 2013. It should have come down a year later but its huge popularity resulted in its stay being extended.  MacAdam’s piece (created with her husband Charles MacAdam and structural engineer Norihide Imagawa) was suspended from the walls of a partially covered courtyard.  It, too, was at street level and without charge.

MacAdam used brightly colored and hand dyed crocheted nets, which she calls  “air pocket”, in her eye-popping Harmonic Motion. It expands some of the inquiries that are found in the somewhat smaller piece she did at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan: how do we “wear” air that has been fashioned by manipulating linear strings into three dimensional volumes?  In order to let visitors fully explore her concerns, she devised small openings that participants can crawl into; they have choices and have to plan how to navigate their bodies through crocheted tubes; eventually they reach a wide flat crocheted plane where they can run, bounce, and decide whether they want to climb higher along the sides.

The Rome piece is set apart from the Hakone one because anybody can enter, climb, and eventually jump on it. In contrast, the piece in Hakone is for children under 12 years old.  The differing ages at the Rome installation means that older folks have to be careful of younger ones and vice versa.  It also gives teens, who are tough to attract to playgrounds, a venue where they can challenge themselves and each other.  Their delight is evident in the amount of shouting and squealing that ensues.  The courtyard actually amplifies the dim so that all visitors are surrounded by the gleeful howling of excited kids.

MacAdam’s creation is an ideal playground. It enhances its context and fits effortlessly with it.  It is accessible to any age; there is nearby seating for adults who want only to enjoy the piece or the beauty of a courtyard where one end reveals an opening to the sky.  Participants have to take cautious risks and plan carefully how to make their way through this art object.  There is a great deal of camaraderie and joy when they succeed.  Even more importantly, it shows that a legitimate patron, a well-respected museum, and a famous artist could work together for a unique piece that encourages everyone to participate in a challenging, variable (and fun) experience.

We, in America, have generous corporations who often support art projects. We have some fantastic foundations that have been kind and creative in how they approach playgrounds.   We lack, however, a consistent patron who sponsors a yearly event that increasingly defines where art and play can cooperate and then makes sure that the best example materializes.  Let’s hope that some entity- a corporate or private one- will not only pick up the slack but also do it in a way that is deferential to the creative processes of artists and the exploring capabilities of young and older children.



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