Atlantic City Re-imagines Itself, Again

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Atlantic City is re-imagining itself again, said Jeff Guaracino, Atlantic City Alliance (ACA). In the 1800s, it was a prime beach destination. Then, 35 years ago, “the city had to re-imagine itself because of air travel.” Flying in planes had become something for the masses, as anyone who rides in economy can attest. The problem for the city was that people could fly anywhere, so why would they continue to visit? So the strategy became casinos. Atlantic City’s 12 gaming companies, which shared a monopoly on gambling with the casinos in Las Vegas, provided the only opportunity to legally roll the dice on the east coast. That kept the city alive for decades, but in 2007 gaming became available in 38 states, so the city had to re-imagine itself once again. The city could no longer just be a destination for gambling. In 2011, the city undertook a new master planning process in order to devise its “third future” and will spend some $200 million doing so.

In a press briefing at Caesar’s Palace Casino, Guaracino said Atlantic City still gets 27 million visitors a year and their 20,000 available hotel rooms are booked 90 percent of the time year round. However, those numbers are down from 35 million each year and continue to fall. He said the key to Atlantic City’s future is undoing the perception that it’s only a place for “blue-haired old ladies.” The city can’t simply be 12 casinos that basically act as “parked cruise ships” sitting on the boardwalk, even though they are filled with unique attractions.

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One plank of their strategy for revitalizing the city is to use the arts. The site of the old Sands casino had been vacant for a few years. There were plans to put a brand-new casino there, but the market crash changed everyone’s plans, so that vacant space “needed some imagination.” The ACA and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CDRA) decided to reach out to Lance Fung, Fung Collaboratives, an independent contemporary art curator, who was just coming down from his well-received Snow Show in Scandinavia and his art project for the winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He was given the task of using contemporary art to revitalize two key spaces — one just a few blocks from the historic 5-mile boardwalk and another smaller spot literally right on its path. The end result is Artlantic, a fascinating new sculpture park.

In his presentation, Fung said his goal is to put art before the public, not to just create “plop art.” His interest is in “free exhibitions that are open to the public,” which he says is not “public art.”

In his first venture into Atlantic City, he found “a lack of recognition of culture there, but not a vacuum.” Meeting with local arts groups, he discovered how desperate they were to do any arts education. Community groups were also telling him the city really lacked public space beyond the boardwalk, which is really like a “freeway.” There are “no roses to stop and smell” in Atlantic City.

He found that he was working in a place with a wildly different aesthetic than his own “minimal” one. Atlantic City, upon first view, is “overwhelming, with lots of visual stimulation.” So he also wanted to create a “place of respite in the loud aesthetic.” Fung also said “nature has been squeezed out with urbanization,” so he settled on creating a green public space to display art. He wanted the space to “feel safe and enclosed,” so he started playing with forms that refer to the local dunes and roller-coasters, large undulating forms with peaks and depressions.

He reached out to Noemie Lafaurie-Debany, a former intern who had risen to become a principal at landscape design firm Balmori Associates in New York City. Fung said “I gave them the original shape and they elongated and created access. They designed and realized the park and did everything a good landscape architect should do.”

With a design in place in record time, the only problem was that the park had to be actually put together in really just a few months, which seemed nearly impossible. Amazingly, Diana Balmori, FASLA, and her team agreed to do it, effectively pro-bono, because “this is what Diana believes in, too — sustainable green space in cities.” The concept they settled on was a space that would be both filled with contemporary art for adults and also be fun and safe for kids.

Fung said the exhibition design had to incorporate the landscape design. The earth-mound forms Fung and Balmori agreed on allows for three separate but connected solo exhibitions. “It’s like having three different spaces in a group context, different rooms.” Then, it was the job of getting it done.

The team trucked in 800 loads of dirt, which were used to form the underlying wavy berms. Local unions created the project along with countless volunteers. Some unions even offered volunteer time to build some of the art pieces, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, the team had to find alternative ways to build The Devil’s Rage, a massive pirate ship, because many of these workers had lost their homes. Fung said the storm definitely impacted the work, but the locals wanted it to move forward as quickly as possible in the wake of the storm. “This was done with local materials, local people” so they wanted something to point to.

The landscape has a temporary feel, which seems to be intentional, given that the team behind the project doesn’t own the land or even have a long-term lease on it. Given the site was submerged in salt water for months, it was looking pretty great. But still, Balmori and her team are replanting all the sea grasses, so those are expected to take root around the edges in a few growing seasons. Fung said that will really help create the sense that the place is enclosed and private. Right now, there’s only an unappealing chain link fence surrounding the site, closing off access a bit. There are many entrances – at the corners and the middle, but ideally that fence should go.

These are quibbles though. The overall effect is positive. The space is like no other in Atlantic City or elsewhere. Balmori and Fung succeed in creating a place you want to explore, an outdoor sculpture park you want to meander through. The effect of the landscape design is to create a figure-8 pattern on the ground in which visitors walk through and then around the two large earthen mounds.

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There are also a few cafe tables and chairs, flexible seating that’s a nice touch.

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Balmori’s unique ribbon-landscape aesthetic is also found in the red garden, which she co-designed with art-world star sculptor Kiki Smith. The red garden, which Fung said Balmori is still adjusting, is designed to bloom red in all seasons. In springtime, it’s covered in red poppies.

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Smith, who is known to work very slowly, loaned a sculpture from her own personal garden in New York City. The powerful piece, which features a naked woman carrying what appears to be a dead female deer, is centered within the ribbons. Smith wanted the garden to be red because her sister died of AIDS, and the red ribbon is a key symbol in the fight against that disease. The piece also explores “man’s relationship with nature,” said Fung.

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Smith’s piece faces off with The Devil’s Rage, the first American commission for Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Russian-born artists who now live in the States. The piece looks like a pirate ship submerging into the sand or perhaps emerging from it. Fung said the kids call it the playground, which he said was “just great.” There are pirate treasure chests. Fung said grounds keepers have found pirate swords and other things there.

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Sprinkled throughout are Robert Barry’s illuminated word sculptures. A leader in the conceptual art movement, Barry conceived of these pieces for this Atlantic City site. Words are distorted, upside-down, or tilted, making you wonder at their meaning.

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A few new pieces were just added, too. Robert Lach, a local New Jersey artist, just installed Refuge Nest Colony, a set of bold-colored fiberglass “nests” based on his found art assemblages.

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Peter Hutchinson’s “thrown rope” pieces now dot the landscape. This artist actually throws long ropes and then traces their paths in a variety of materials. In this piece, they are traced in local boulders, native shrubs, and flowering annuals.

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And Jerediah Morfit’s wonderful bas-relief, Victorian-style, metal-lawn furniture art pieces are worth examining. Embedded in each piece are visual stories from the Hurricane Sandy storm and recovery.

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Down the boardwalk about a mile, there’s a separate smaller piece by John Roloff, a visual artist. His Etude Atlantis is a vortex, with a mirrored “fountain” off-center. Lots of visitors were exploring and taking photos there.

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Beyond the landscape and contemporary art works, the group is now programming these spaces, too. Artlantic’s twitter feed is abuzz with arts and jazz events in the evenings and yoga classes in the morning. They aim for nearly 500 free events in less than 100 days, in their effort to make the city more than just a place to gamble.

The Artlantic team has succeeded in re-imagining Atlantic City, adding a otherworldly, contemporary space that feels like it belonged there all along. But it remains to be seen whether this project can succeed in “revitalizing” the city’s economy — or spur broader social and cultural shifts. There were very few people there when we visited the larger site, although we could imagine it being busy during other times. The questions remain: Can this project build support for more contemporary art work in Atlantic City? Can this place become a contemporary arts center in New Jersey? Can this project bolster local arts groups and boost art education there? The opportunities are certainly there. Stay tuned.

Image credits: (1-9) Layman Lee, Fung Collaboratives, (10) Heidi Petersen / ASLA, (11-13) Layman Lee, Fung Collaboratives, (14-15) Heidi Petersen / ASLA, (16-17) Layman Lee, Fung Collaboratives

One thought on “Atlantic City Re-imagines Itself, Again

  1. Vince 04/13/2014 / 8:02 am

    Atlantic City has always struggled with their identity over the years. It’s good to see they are using the arts to try and reinvent the city, especially when the casino industry has been struggling there. I’m sure that whatever they come up with, will definitely draw in more tourists from neighboring states.

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