The Dialogue National Tour in New York, NY:  Obtaining Permission

Here is a summary of the process I went through during the 9 months it took to secure a location to display Dialogue in New York...

We have had a wonderful, welcoming reception from most of the cities we are planning to visit. Everyone seems to immediately comprehend the positive and important benefits Dialogue will spark in their communities. We have been working cooperatively with city officials in over a dozen cities to maximize the positive effects of Dialogue in high profile locations via the media and community groups.

For instance, I received this email back from another public park official in an East Coast city we are visiting in May:

"I've spoken to City Hall and the dates of May 22 through the 30th are presently open. The location we would be using is our Courthouse Park, which is a lovely outdoor setting in the middle of town with this grand gothic county Courthouse in the background. There is a tentative Memorial Day Parade scheduled for Monday, May 29. The streets around the park would be closed, but the parade is short and might help to bring out an audience that might not otherwise attend (veterans).

Right now I've got all those dates on hold for you. Let me know as soon as you can how many and which ones you will really need. The May dates are before my summer season actually begins, but I'd like to include it in our overall summer publicity so we'll need to get the ball rolling on this soon.

Glad we are finally able to make this happen. I'd like to arrange for some youth organizations/student groups to attend and meet with you. School will be dismissing in late May so we might be able to work something out on that level as well."

The New York experience has been a bit of a contrast, though. I understand that New York is very dense so the need to regulate public spaces for the common good is important. But the bureaucratic system is draining a lot of the vitality and freedoms of expression from our community squares.

I've been trying to find a welcoming home for Dialogue for three days in mid-May. Union Square was a first choice due to its central location and diverse visitors. Central Park and Times Square would also be ideal locations, so I applied for all three at the NYC Parks Department.

For the past 9 months or so I've been contacting various government agencies, filling out forms, sending information packets, answering questions and securing insurance certificates. Only to be referred in circles and mostly ignored until last week, when I was sent this email from the Public Art Coordinator for the New York City Parks Department: 

"Your inquiries about "Dialog Project" have come back to my desk again, via Commissioner Jeffrey's and Linn's offices. The project was rightly funneled to the Manhattan Borough Office, special events team, and so we are back at square one. The project was declined by that office, and that is the position of the Parks Department."

I was a bit shocked when I received this email, especially since many of the people I had spoken to in the Parks offices were so excited about the project except, apparently, the one or two decision makers (who I never got to speak to personally). For instance, one Assistant Parks Commissioner wrote, " Thank you for the detailed description of your event plans this definitely sounds like something we can work with you to make happen."

I called the Parks Department to find out the reasons why Dialogue was rejected (thinking there might be some type of safety or space limitation issue that could be addressed). The only three reasons noted were:

  • "Too much visual noise". Yes, I'm not joking, they actually said that the great sayings from the world's leading thinkers are "visual noise." But, not apparently the hundreds of commercial billboards, advertisements and signs that surround these areas.
  • That because Dialogue is being set-up in other cities, it is ineligible to be set-up in a NY Park.
  • Dialogue is ineligible because I wrote a book about it, making it a commercial project. I'm confused by this reasoning, since corporations set-up huge product launching campaigns in our public spaces. I've spent my entire life savings creating this project and self-published the book so that I might recoup possibly 20% of the costs.

A wonderful New Yorker who I met via this Web site (who has been looking forward to viewing Dialogue) sent this heartfelt email to the commissioners as soon as she heard about our dilemma:

"As Spring graces the air, NYers are offered an indulgence to qualm our nerves and energize our human spirit. The spoken word is quickly losing its relevance especially among our youth so why not encourage it with a visual beckoning, a chance encounter for some and an opportunity to learn for many. We must practice more of what we preach and set by example. Not to mention that this is the "stuff" that makes tourist flock to our City. Certainly it's as noteworthy as the exhibition last year in Central Park and this one provides something we are quickly losing... the time to stop, think, and breathe. Do reconsider your position. New Yorkers need a good rallying cry ... we didn't get the Olympics!"

It seems the decision makers in the NYC Parks Department are a bit out of touch with the public they serve. Most all of the NYC Parks Department people I talked with during this process were wonderful, helpful and genuinely excited about Dialogue coming to New York.

It seems the system in many cities is set-up so that public officials are trapped and not able to say "yes" to interesting projects since it's easier to say "no." There are lot's of essays and opinions on the Web and in public art journals about why this is. Robert Lederman is one artist who has been battling for public art and freedom of expression in New York, for instance.  Here is our interview with Robert onsite:


In the meantime, I'm trying to secure another location and have submitted proposals to Bryant Park (waiting to hear back), Madison Square Park and NYU (have not heard back). I've also appealed for help from the City Parks Foundation, the Office of Culture at City Hall, Alliance for the Arts, Public Arts Fund, PPS (People for Public Spaces), Times Square Alliance and the Union Square Partnership, but none seem to have the power to issue permits or exert much influence over the Parks Department (or just a general lack of motivation). Powerful indeed!