By Steve Barnes
For museums and cultural organizations around the country, finding ways to expand programming outside the walls of an indoor exhibition space has become an increasingly important part of their cultural mission.
That trend is strongly in evidence here in Queens. From PS 1’s “Warm Up” series, the outdoor music series that introduces audiences to a wide range of up-to-the-minute music and DJs in the museum’s courtyard, to this summer’s “Passport Thursdays” at the Queens Museum, which each week offers a sampling of the music, film and food of one of the many countries that make up Queens’ cultural quilt, the borough’s art spaces are turning their focus outside. Moving past the four walls of gallery spaces, they are connecting with Queens’ residents in a variety of ways, both making art a central part of their lives and addressing a range of quality-of-life issues.
One institution that takes the idea of addressing all the aspects of its audience’s well-being seriously is Socrates Sculpture Park, the outdoor exhibition space in Long Island City. Founded in 1986 by sculptor Mark di Suvero, Socrates sees its function as not only bringing art to the community, but also as interacting with that community in ways that are not normally associated with an arts institution.
“When one is an artist,” di Suvero said in an interview with Art in America, “one wants to do art that is meaningful to a lot of people. Most art is shown in museums and galleries, which eliminates a whole population. By putting it out on the streets, you open it up to the world.”
But putting that art out in the world, where everyone can see it, is just one of the ways in which Socrates engages its audience. “Socrates as an organization believes in the transformative power of art, community building and the stewardship of our natural world,” John Hatfield, the park’s executive director, said.
In addition to presenting a wide range of sculpture and architecture-related projects, the institution also offers many events under its “Healthy Living” program, giving borough residents the opportunity to learn a variety of skills that can help them in their quest to become healthier. From yoga lessons to workshops on urban farming to greenmarkets that sell nutritious food, Socrates is providing not only a fun way to get outside on summer weekends, it is also demonstrating how that fun can extend into an improved lifestyle for those who take part.
On Saturdays and Sundays from now through Sept. 25, Kripalu Yoga classes will be taught outdoors in the park’s waterfront setting. Taught by Monique Schubert and Yojaida Estrella, the classes consist of a mix of body postures, breathing techniques, relaxation and meditation. While the teachers are there to provide guidance, participants are also encouraged to incorporate their own personal yoga practices into the mix.
The art of Tai Chi is also being taught outdoors, surrounded by the exhibitions of contemporary sculpture, on Sundays through Sept. 25. Certified instructors from the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA teach classes in the ancient Chinese martial art, which is also seen as a pathway toward inner balance and peace.
And Capoeira, the Brazilian practice that combines dance, music and martial arts, is also on the menu. Starting on Sept. 3 and running through Oct. 8, instructors from Capoeira Nago Queens will introduce participants to the basic fundamentals of the form, offering guidance with balance, flexibility, and agility while also teaching the cultural traditions and history of capoeira.
For those who’d like to take advantage of the park’s proximity to Hallets Cove, the LIC Community Boathouse will free kayaking and canoeing in the cove (tide and weather permitting) on Aug. 6 and 21. On Wednesday, Aug. 17, a special opportunity to combine the park’s cultural and athletic focuses will be available in the Outdoor Cinema Paddle, which begins at 6 p.m. and runs until sunset. (The film scheduled for that night is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God which. perhaps not coincidentally, prominently features water and boating.)
The emphasis on wellness at Socrates goes beyond physical activities, however. The GrowNYC Greenmarket that the park hosts every Saturday (through Nov. 19) and the NYC Compost Project that is stationed at the Greenmarket’s entrance, are two prime examples of how Socrates is attempting to set a healthy example for its community.
On Sept. 12, the park’s partnership with the GrowNYC Greenmarket will result in Queens Food Day. Along with City Harvest, the nonprofit organization that distributes reclaimed food to over 500 kitchens and food pantries across New York City’s five boroughs and Hellgate Farm, an organic urban farm located in Astoria, Socrates will put on activities including planting workshops as well as performances by local artists. The focus of all events that day will be on expanding community access to fresh and affordable food.
Hellgate Farm is also collaborating with Socrates on “Urban Farming 101,” a program of events that includes “Pollinators in Our Food System” Aug. 13 and “Eating Seasonally in the Northeast” Sept. 10.
When all of these programs are combined with the museum’s current exhibitions, such as New York City-based firm Hou de Sousa’s Sticks, the winner of Folly, an annual juried competition for architects and designers, the breadth of Socrates’ mission becomes clear. By reaching out to the community it serves in ways that go far past the traditional functions of an art museum, Socrates Sculpture Park manages to include something that should please just about everyone.