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Museum's graffiti exhibition faces criticism

A girl walks by a wall of graffiti
A girl walks by a wall of graffitiPhoto by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Just about anywhere you walk in New York today - on your walk to the grocery, at the bars, on the subway, in the public bathroom stalls, at the bus stop - you'll see graffiti. You may not notice it, but it's there. Williamsburg and Little Italy are especially rife with colorful murals of video game and superhero characters, made-up and monstrous creatures, political commentaries, re-dos of classic artworks and more.

From the collection of Martin Wong, on view at the Museum of the City of New York
From the collection of Martin Wong, on view at the Museum of the City of New YorkKeith Haring, Untitled, 1982 • Acrylic and ink on wood • Museum of the City of New York, gift of Martin Wong, 94.114.102 • © Keith Haring Foundation

It was back in the 1970s when the illegal craft really began, and for a time, graffiti garnered so much attention that it became known as a form of high art. Its peak lasted for two decades, during a period of bleak financial assuredness, and the city later spent about $300 million to clean it all up in the 1990s. Today, graffiti is still generally relegated to the lower realms of the art world, although it has gained better appreciation as commissioned murals pop up and street art tours gain popularity. The Museum of the City of New York has been hosting its exhibition on street art, entitled City as Canvas, since February 4 of this year. Originally meant to end today, August 24, the museum has decided to extend it another month, until September 21, surely in part because of its popularity - and possibly in part because of its controversial nature.

City as Canvas is an exhibition of about 150 works - drawings and paintings on canvas and paper, photographs of street art in the late 20th century - taken from the collection of Martin Wong. Wong, an East Village collector of street art who worked in an art supply store in the late 1970s, befriended many of the popular artists of the time, and amassed an impressive stash of objects from writers (as they preferred to be called) such as Cey (Cey Adams), Dondi (Donald White), Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara), Keith Haring, and more. Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994, five years before he died of AIDS in San Francisco.

The exhibition, composed of only about half of Wong's entire collection of works, is displayed in the main exhibition space on the first floor, and the jumble of colorful and eclectic works on display leaves the viewer in a head-turning state. The sketchpads, or black books, used by artists to prepare for their final artworks, provide a glimpse into each writer's mind, providing a sense of identity and personality into the show. Photographs inhabit the exhibition space, allowing those younger visitors to experience subway cars as they've never seen them. The museum also highlights the debate that graffiti has developed over the decades as to whether or not graffiti is a true art form - a wall of quotes at the back of the exhibition features political and popular voices giving their opinions. A catalog and related activities and talks also accompany the show.

The Museum of the City of New York without a doubt hails graffiti as an acceptable art form through this exhibition. And, while there are a few legal graffiti spots around town still standing (the graffiti haven of 5 Pointz in Queens was recently whitewashed), most walls are illegal to paint or write on. Banksy, the British graffiti artist who took up residence in New York City for one month last year, caused quite the stir when he left his artwork around town. Graffiti, by its very nature, is a form of vandalism, and therefore illegal. The exhibition has therefore garnered some criticism, especially from government agencies, insisting that the museum is encouraging the illicit activity to take place.

Police commissioner Bill Bratton, who has made it the one of the NYPD's lead missions to crack down on graffiti artists in the city, recently spoke out against City as Canvas, arguing,

"I find it outrageous that one of the city's museums is currently celebrating graffiti and what a great impact it had on the city."

Susan Henshaw Jones, director of the MCNY, fired back, "We are not in the business of trying to encourage children, teenagers, grown-ups or elders to do graffiti."

A number of editorials have popped up on the topic as well, some claiming that the museum is "romanticizing" and "glorifying" an art form and a period of New York history that are better left in the past. Others love the idea of the exhibition and even change their initial bias against graffiti as an art form, arguing that it “gave a crumbling city a voice.” The aim of the exhibition, curated by Sean Corcoran, is simply to "explore the cultural phenomenon of New York City graffiti art" and its unique form of "self-expression" from the artists.

Thankfully, you now have an extra month to check out the exhibition and create your own opinion on the topic. Enter City as Canvas with an open mind, and you just might leave the museum with a changed mind. Let us know your thoughts by commenting in the space below.