The world’s playground was always tops in entertainment but never very big on art. Maybe that’s why Atlantic City’s modern history with public-funded art has been rather ugly.
In the late 1990s, the city and its state gaming agencies still had boatloads of revenue. When they decided to spend $88 million redeveloping the Atlantic City Expressway entrance into the city, a block-sized installation with high-tech fountains, lighthouse and laser effects was included.
What was intended as a signature image for the city instead became the inescapable symbol of the failure of the state and city to wisely use their casino windfall to create an appealing tourism destination. The fountains and lasers never worked properly, and the stagnant water drew lots of (defecating) gulls, becoming fetid and smelly. After attempts to fix the plaza failed, the whole thing was removed at additional expense.
Even in 2013, when it was obvious that regional gaming competition was slowing the gravy train, state/city agencies spent $12 million for various art projects in the vain hope they would make the city more appealing to tourists.
One project was the installation of 40 sculptures along a bayfront walkway through the casino Marina District. That area was already thriving due, in large measure, to being separate from the city’s rough urban landscape.
We think misguided spending on art reached its zenith with Artlantic Wonder. For $3 million of the art money, the city got a temporary installation in a block of Boardwalk-facing land. In the middle was a small wooden, half-sunken pirate ship, surrounded by some oversized lighted words such as “Almost” and “Look.”
We thought the ship looked more like a playground feature than art. Sure enough, earlier this year, a California city acquired it to be the centerpiece of a children’s playground.
All this makes the latest city art effort last month extra satisfying and reassuring.
The 48 Blocks project — a joint venture of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation and Stockton University — drew on the artistic potential of the community to create dozens of works throughout the city’s 48 blocks.
Some were permanent, such as murals on buildings. Others were temporary, even ephemeral, such as ballet, music and puppet shows. One quirky effort took poetry performances to different locations by jitney.
Lisa Honaker, dean of Stockton’s School of Arts and Humanities, painted the lights outside the Atlantic City Free Public Library. She and Joyce Hagen, executive director of the foundation, oversaw the creation of the 48 Blocks project.
“I feel like people are so hungry for these kinds of things in the city,” Hagen said. “There’s such a variety of what’s going on, and that all came from the community.”
Exactly. Instead of giving outside artists big bucks for works of dubious tourism value, 48 Blocks is local and authentic. The artistic expressions of people in the community enrich the public space and help the artists and others in the community grow.
Marcus Hughes, who grew up in Egg Harbor Township and is now a medical student in Jersey City, put in nicely as he helped paint a mural facing a city school: “Having a project where they’re getting local artists to do art in Atlantic City is pretty cool.”
This is the direction to go to develop culture and arts in the community. And we think Stockton University’s city campus will create such opportunities on another level. We can’t wait to see where it all leads.