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Public Art Thefts

Monday 28th July 2014

Public art is often something a gamble. When bureaucracy and art intertwine, it's not always with pleasing results. A perfect example occurred in Ottawa, Canada, recently this year when a public art installation was erected whose entire design and premise was based on an incorrect encyclopedia entry, leading to snickers and jeers and red-faced officials. Almost the opposite occurred recently in New York City, when the Department of Transportation put up a sign-based art project throughout the city.

Actually the work of Ryan McGinness, the signs were part of the Summer Streets project, where large sections of roadway are closed to motor vehicles and opened for public recreation. The signs, which were designed to look relatively official, following the general white, black and red pattern found commonly throughout New York City streets, instead sported much more appealing notices than the usual parking signage.

However, a curious thing began happening - the signs began disappearing. Eventually, the Department of Transportation caught on, and began to replace the signs, but not before 40 of the 50 signs had been stolen by presumably artistically-inclined thieves. The really strange thing, however, is that it seems like the average passerby couldn't care less about the signs, which may blend too closely with the cacophonic visual language that is part of the New York City parking system.

The Department of Transportation is working with the New York Police Department to track down the stolen signage, despite their rather modest production value (roughly $800 USD). What about these art pieces spoke so deeply to some passersby that they felt inclined to steal them, whereas others simply failed to notice them at all? Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Ryan McGinness said, "There's a lot of expense involved, and a lot of labor. To have an individual steal them or to have them stolen by the public really flips that mind-set."

It raises a question about street art that has also been raised thanks to the incredible values placed on works by popular street artist Banksy about who actually owns the pieces that are created on walls and other "canvases" that aren't actually owned by the artist. In this particular case, of course, it's likely that the Department of Transportation could be considered the actual owners of the pieces, but street signage is stolen fairly frequently, and any attempts to sell the pieces would doubtless swiftly bring down the wrath of the NYPD, something that the casual public art thief is likely unprepared to deal with. Here's hoping that the signs are restored, and will continue to bring wonder and joy to those lucky few who take the time to truly appreciate and enjoy their surroundings.

Posted on July 28th 2014 on 06:25pm

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