Standing in the middle of a massive vacant lot once home to the towering 21-story Sands Casino Hotel, curator Lance Fung sees potential.
Not the potential of another casino in a resort already home to 12 gambling spots, but, instead, the potential for something that Atlantic City isn’t known for: art.
Fung’s vision has motivated the Atlantic City Alliance and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to commit about $8 million over five years toward transforming vacant — and highly visible — lots into works of art that will address blight and aesthetics in the city, and could eventually spawn economic development as the sites garner attention.
More than 366,000 square feet of empty space in the lot owned by Pinnacle Entertainment will be the first canvas for Fung, whose work has been displayed at multiple Olympic games. It will be transformed — as soon as this fall — into a colossal work of art, inviting visitors to sit throughout the installation and take in the landscape.
“Nothing like this has ever been attempted before in the world of art. For a six-month installation, artists usually get three years. I have three months,” Fung said. “This lot will be resurrected into a big piece of land that has value — maybe not commercial value … but a different kind of value to the people here.”
The lot has been vacant since the casino was razed in 2007. Despite the obvious failings of the casino, the mood during its implosion was jubilant as the demolition was set to a fireworks spectacle for 100,000 people. The city was promised a glistening megacasino in its place by 2012.
But the attitude toward the site and what it represents changed when Pinnacle abandoned the plans for the new casino in the economic downturn and the lot was left to sit.
“It’s so symbolic of the feeling of defeat. There’s a feeling (that Sands) got torn down and there was nothing to replace it, and is anything going to come?” said Liza Cartmell, CEO of the Atlantic City Alliance, the new nonprofit organization charged with marketing the city. “You know what? It may not for years, given the tax structure and the overbuilding in the casino industry nationally. But … we don’t have to wait. We can start to create something that will be beautiful.”
Attempting to transform six sites in five years, ACA’s vision of bringing a new type of consumer to Atlantic City also renews discussion of how the alliance sees the city’s tourism market drifting away from the gambler and toward vacationers and even families. Gov. Chris Christie has pushed for more family-based amenities in the resort, but opponents of that view have cautioned that mixing family-based attractions with nightlife and gambling may not be appropriate.
Cartmell said the focus is not on activities specifically for children, but rather on year-round attractions that will capture the interest of adults and children alike. Art tourism can accomplish that, Cartmell said, pointing to The Gates, a temporary art installation at New York City’s Central Park in 2005 that drew millions in two weeks.
“They are family friendly, but they’re not family-specific,” Cartmell said of the planned installations. “We are going after an adult population because, quite honestly, they have the money that we need in terms of really bolstering the resort. But the fact of the matter is families are here. The more we can add that extends people’s experience, the longer they will stay.”
The project is driven by the concept that the sites’ development doesn’t have to be permanent. The installations may last six months or several years. CRDA and ACA are negotiating temporary lease agreements with the landowners. The lease for the Pinnacle site is under final review, and the others are in various stages of negotiation. Officials would not comment on any potential financial arrangements.
After the Pinnacle site, ACA will move onto a small site owned by Max Gurwicz & Son on the Boardwalk between Iowa and California avenues; both should open this year.
Next will be the former Playboy Hotel and Casino site, now a vacant lot next to Boardwalk Hall at Florida Avenue. That site could open as soon as May 2013.
CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri said the lease agreements in general will dictate that the land owners are not responsible for liabilities and the art installations will not damage the integrity of the sites. Should the owner want to develop or sell the land, a specified amount of notice must be given, and the art installation will be removed.
The project falls in line with the city’s master plan unveiled in February, which points to the need to create a more walkable city. In particular, it calls for activating the streets leading up to the Boardwalk that are plagued with dilapidation and emptiness.
“This is absolutely in keeping with what the master plan calls for. Over time, these are important development parcels. In the short term, we should use them to create other amenities for visitation,” Palmieri said.
Fung’s previous works are numerous and well-known in the arts world. The artist, who splits his time between New York City and San Francisco, has been featured at the 2006 Olympics in Torino and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. His familiarity with Atlantic City when he was approached about the project? None.
Fung said he was drawn to the challenge to expand arts presence in Atlantic City. All of the installations will include Boardwalk planking, water and sand in an effort to tie them into the natural aesthetic.
He’s developed the visions for the early projects, but input from the local arts community will be sought for the later projects because, as Fung points out, the installations are just as much for the residents as they are a draw for new tourists. ACA is also considering the potential for programming around the parks, ensuring they’ll be used as community gathering spaces.
“As a curator who has worked internationally … this is my most exciting project. I’ve done presentations for the president of China, and I’m more nervous about this one,” Fung said prior to a meeting with the local arts community earlier this month. “You want the arts community to embrace what you’re doing.”
The vision for the Pinnacle site is the most developed because it will come first. A sweeping “art playground” as Fung calls it, the installation will feature the figure-8 design of a roller coaster inspired by the famed Steel Pier. The circular design with two tall mounds — one 15 feet high and one 17 feet high — is intended to give the feel of an optical illusion.
The second site between Iowa and California avenues on the Boardwalk, which should also open this year, will tie into the design for the Pinnacle lot. Designed by California-based artist John Roloff, the site will feature spiral forms. The ground surface will be painted, and beach grass will be added.
Plans for the former Playboy site will address the frequent criticism that Atlantic City’s beaches can’t be seen from the Boardwalk due to the dunes. There, Fung envisions a series of ramps elevated on the property that will lead to a surface where tourists can see the beach and hear the ocean.
“In this kind of economy, the first sector that was pretty much annihilated was culture because people view that as expendable. And maybe when it’s compared to education and health, it kind of is,” Fung said. “On the other hand, it’s kind of not, because through culture, it’s what inspires people. … It’s that creative sector that drives industry, drives tourism and also has an impact. They’re the ones who create the next invention.”
All involved acknowledge that the projects are temporary and could come down without much warning, but that’s a good thing, they said.
“There’s a risk. We put this in and six months later, someone says, ‘I’m going to build something.’ Bad news on the public art project, but good news on economic development,” Cartmell said. “The whole idea is to encourage economic development, and there’s plenty of other land spaces in Atlantic City that are an opportunity for us.”
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