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The Gates

The Gates Project in Central Park

This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of The Gates, Christo and Jean Claude’s monumental work which transformed Central Park for two weeks in February, 2005; 7,503 vinyl rectangles holding orange curtains, standing along 23 miles of pathways in the Park.

Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are know for their site specific works of art, particularly wrapping large objects, like the Reichstag in Berlin. They worked on this project for years, and met with mighty resistance until our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “Sure, let’s do it.” I love him for that. We were still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there are things we never get over, we have to move on and doing something huge just for art, for fun, for the heck of it, had great appeal.

Shoveling snow for the Gates Project

I was able, through the New York Artists Circle, to sign up to become a worker in a gray smock, carrying a long pole with a tennis ball at the tip. Our job was to stand guard at our station, deter vandals and when the wind wound the curtains around their supports to unwind and set them free.

I found it enchanting. There was a snow storm the night before my first day and the saffron curtains were even more brilliant against the white. Here I am at my post, clearing the path and learning once again that shoveling snow is a great way to keep warm.

Look at the way the puddles reflect the color of the curtains. And doesn’t my pink hat look nice against the orange? I wish I still had that hat in January of 2017.

I thank my friend, Carol Leibenson, for finding this shot in her files when I had lost it.

Christo and Jeanne Claude signing smocks

Here we are getting our smocks autographed by the artists. I'm a New Yorker and I would die before asking a famous person for an autograph but this was different. I am in awe of these two and what they achieved.

Central Park, so often deserted in winter, came alive. Every morning I walked past the statue of the King of Poland, looking over Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn. Now there was a curtain in front of him and as the sun rose behind him in the east I thought, “Wow, he’s never seen his shadow before! I wonder how he likes it?”

The whole world came to celebrate, especially Christo and Jean-Claude’s biggest fans, the people of Germany. I asked one visitor, “So who’s running Germany while all you guys are over here?”

There was the most lovely feeling of community under those arches. The whole project was completely open and democratic; it reached every square foot of the park and you couldn’t pay more to get a better seat. It was for everyone. A young man came up to me and asked, “How do I get to the Gates?” And I said, “You’re here!”

Dogs are allowed off the leash in the park before nine am, so they’d come out to play and their human companions would visit.

My partner was a young woman who was also not tall so we couldn’t always reach high enough to unwind the curtains. A tall man came along with his family and helped us; when he freed the cloth his children yelled, “Yay, Daddy!”

The hotdog venders, usually lucky to make a hundred dollars on a winter day, were raking in the money—as much as a thousand dollars a day.

My son, Sam, called me on my cell and said, “Mom, it’s really cold today. Can I bring you some extra warm clothes?”

The project was funded entirely by the sale of Christo’s artwork. There were no volunteers. Although many of us would have participated for nothing; everyone got paid. When I received a check for three hundred and fifty dollars Sam said, “Mom, you should buy yourself something nice with that money, because you worked hard for it...and...have you given away ten percent?” So some of my lessons had taken root. I asked him where I should direct my tithe and he suggested an organization working to legalize marijuana.

“Uh, anything else?”

He was working as a barista, so he suggested I increase my tips whenever I got coffee. "There's nothing like finding a five in the tip jar!" So for the next month I was a big tipper. It was a ripple effect of the Gates.

And then it was over; the gates were taken down and all materials were re-cycled. Nobody could buy a gate and put it up in their yard. That ephemeral nature added to the magic.

I was so impressed--awed, really, that I asked myself what I had done to come anywhere close. I remembered that when I stood and gazed up at Mount Rushmore I asked myself, “Should I be working bigger?”

I had always wanted to start an exhibition program at my church. I served as co-chair of a capital campaign to restore the church’s south wing, an 1874 McKim Mead White Gothic Revival that had suffered some years of neglect. One of our dreams was to hang art in the beautiful Great Hall. But after raising more than a million dollars and overseeing design and construction and listening to the church members who hadn’t done the work but didn’t like the results, my co-chair and I took some time off from church work.

Then Christo and Jeanne-Claude inspired me. If they could pull off the Gates, after twenty years of negotiating and planning, surely I could persuade the church to hang some pictures in the Great Hall. I presented my idea to our pastor, Jon Walton, and he replied that a church in the Village should serve the artistic community. The result was Art at First, a program of exhibiting art by emerging or unknown artists. We've had some great shows.

It’s much more fun to be in the game than to watch it, and if you think you can’t do something, just give it another go. You might be surprised.

"Have you Seen the Gates?" townhouses with orange curtains blowing

January 31, 2019

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