Socrates Sculpture Park is not your average neighborhood playground. It’s a museum, movie theater, event space and, yes, a park, all rolled into one. This 5-acre space, located on the banks of the East River at the intersection of Broadway and Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. 2017 marks the start of the park’s next 30 years. It’s come so far from where it started, and there are still big plans for its future.
Looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine the park as anything less than lush and green, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.
“The interesting and wonderful thing about that park is that was started as a sculpture park by the people for the people,” said Audrey Dimola, director of public programs at Socrates.
Its founder, artist Mark di Suvero, was working in Astoria at the time when he came across this empty, desolate space — essentially a landfill. Dimola, who grew up not too far from the space, described the site before its transformation an “illegal dumpsite.”
But di Suvero had a vision to reinvent the neglected area. He gathered a group of artists and people in the community and they started turning the space into a park. It took a lot of landscaping to tame the wild land, but eventually it was named an official New York City park.
Since the opening 30 years ago, the landscaping has greatly progressed. They planted plenty of trees and now have a “grove,” which they continually add to. All different kinds of plants thrive, and many gardens were created — the perimeter of the space is now lined with gardens. The park is always adapting to cater to its ever-evolving audience.
Although originally created to be a space for public enjoyment and for artists to showcase their work, Socrates hosts numerous events catered toward all age groups — and the best part is that all events are completely free. The park itself is free and open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to sunset — plenty of time to enjoy its wonders. As event specifics may change, an event calendar lives online, and information is always posted on the front gate.
There are always two exhibitions held each year, and no exhibit is permanent.
“Socrates is always a place of regeneration and transition, so there’s nothing that’s permanent in the park ever,” Dimola said.
This year, they are trying something new: for the first time, they will be dedicating the park exhibition space to one artist: Nari Ward.
“Ward’s artistic practice echoes the park’s community-driven philosophy, and his solo show will integrate the public at every stage,” said Katie Horowitz, director of external affairs. Ward’s exhibition, “Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again” features six commissioned outdoor pieces created onsite. It will be on display April 29 through Sept. 4.
Dimola said that because Socrates Sculpture Park is outdoors and always open to the public, the installation process is unlike that at most museums.
“The thing that’s really unique about Socrates in comparison to other art institutions is that it’s an institution without walls,” Dimola explained. “So when we are installing or de-installing sculptures, the whole process is open to the public and everyone can watch. There’s no like ‘gallery is closed; installation in progress’ wall that we can put up. It’s a really transparent and wondrous thing for someone to behold.”
The fall exhibition is more of an open call: anyone can propose a project to appear in the park and the artists chosen will have the full support of the Socrates staff.
Besides walking around the grounds and viewing exhibitions, there are numerous art workshops for adults held Sundays from May-September such as jewelry making, soap making, and screen painting, as well as a family-friendly sculpture workshops on Saturdays.
Their “Healthy Living” program offers tai chi on weekends and various other outdoor activities.
During the summer, the “Outdoor Cinema” program — an international foreign film festival — screens movies every Wednesday in July and August, with a different country or culture showcased each week.
Finally, numerous concerts like the Met Opera and many jazz and dance performances occur throughout the year, and festivals and parades are regularly held. There certainly seems to be something for everyone at Socrates.
Looking toward the next 30 years, the team at Socrates hopes to continue its growth and uphold its mission to serve its community. They hope to bring in more cultural organizations and artistic mediums and expand their audience.
Dimola said that the goal is “for everyone to see themselves represented in Socrates and see it as a place that they can belong — no matter if they grew up here or just moved here, what income what background, what ethnicity.”