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The Politics of Urban Beauty

New York and Its Art Commission

Since its founding in 1898, the Art Commission of the City of New York (ACNY) has served as the city’s aesthetic gatekeeper, evaluating all works of art intended for display on city property. And over the years, the commission’s domain has expanded dramatically to include everything from parks and courthouses to trash cans and sidewalks. In ThePolitics of Urban Beauty, Michele H. Bogart argues that this unprecedented authority has made the commission host to some complex negotiations—involving artists, architects, business leaders, activists, and politicians—about not only the role of art in urban design, but also the shape and meaning of the city and its public spaces. 

A former vice president of the ACNY, Bogart tells its story here from an insider’s perspective, tracing the commission’s history from its origins as an outgrowth of progressive reform to its role in New York’s reconstruction after 9/11. Drawing on archival correspondence, drawings, and photographs from commission collections, Bogart presents bracing examples of works—ranging from New Deal murals to Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs—that illuminate the ACNY’s subtle yet powerful role in shaping New York’s identity. 

The Politics of Urban Beauty is thus a fascinating history of a New York art world that paralleled—and sometimes unpredictably intersected with—the more familiar realm of prominent architects, painters, galleries, and museums. Bogart’s fresh view adds a critical dimension to our understanding of “the city beautiful” and makes an important and lively contribution to the study of art history, urban design, and New York City itself.

352 pages | 85 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Architecture: American Architecture

Art: Art Criticism

History: Urban History


“The Art Commission of the City of New York ‘reviews all works of art designed for City property’ from benches and streetlamps called street furniture to works of art placed on city buildings’ walls as well as in the parks. The history is fascinating and some of the descriptions of the participants fighting with the art commission are hilarious. I recommend The Politics of Urban Beauty. It’s easy and delightful reading and you will learn a lot.”<Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City>

Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City

“Outstanding. The Politics of Urban Beauty will be the definitive history of the Art Commission of the City of New York. The depth of the research is remarkable, as is Bogart’s ability to narrate a highly complex story of New York politics and culture.”<Max Page, author of The Creative Destruction of Manhattan>

Max Page, author of The Creative Destruction of Manhattan

 “Who decides how a city ‘looks’? In Paris, it’s been the government. In New York, it’s been more a free-for-all, with contending classes and cultures battling to leave their stylistic mark on the metropolitan landscape. Still, for a century now, as Michele Bogart argues in this intriguing study, a major player in the aesthetic wars has been a municipal agency called the art commission, whose decisions on everything from mailboxes to monuments have had an outsized (and largely beneficial) impact on Gotham’s public appearance.”

Mike Wallace, coauthor of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gotham : A History of New York City to 1898

“Eminently readable, Michele H. Bogart’s political analysis of design excellence relates tales, familiar and obscure, of the transformation of our city’s character and aesthetic quality through the efforts of the Art Commission of the City of New York.  From controversies about newsstands, signage, and memorials, to debates over parks, public art, and major public buildings, The Politics of Urban Beauty candidly speaks of the dramatic circumstances under which projects get built or blocked. Along with the passion of an engaged participant, former art commission member Bogart brings an historical perspective that edifies, clarifies, and excites any reader of the urban scene.”

Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter

"As [Bogart’s] tightly written account demonstrates, despite the high aims of the Art Commission, politics has generally triumphed over art."

Christopher Gray | New York Times

"It is an informative work with fascinating and little known facts and adds much to our understanding of how actors create urban environments. Using concrete artifacts as point of entry, it provides new leads for researching power, organizational process, and aesthetic sensibilities."

Harvey Molotch | City & Community

"Bogart successfully demonstrates how the longevity of the ACNY as an administrative body is due to the ability of it commissioners to reconcile their transcendent visions of municipal beauty with a willingness to admit the political, pragmatic and cooperative nature of their work."

Sophia Krzys Acord | Sociology

"Bogart combines shrewd historical analysis with pragmatic experience. Her book is rich with information. . . . This volume should provide a mandatory starting point for any study of work in New York City’s public realm and also serve as a model (perhaps a cautionary one) for writing about such bodies elsewhere."

Harriet F. Sente | Winterthur Portfolio

"In telling the story of the ACNY (Art Commission of the City of New York), this book makes an important contribution to our udnerstanding of urban history and design."

Patricia J. Fanning | Urban History

"I would strongly recommend this book, and not only to those with a prior interest in the arts. This is the story of how one city has shaped its public built environment, and in its tales of monuments, murals, and mailboxes one can discern a full history of a city’s social and political transformation."

Elizabeth Strom | Urban Affairs Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. From Chaos to Structure in New York’s Public Aesthetic Realm
2. In Search of Visual Culture
3. Monuments, Place, and Municipal Identity
4. Culture Wars
5. Restraint
Appendix A: The ACNY and Monument Conservation
Appendix B: The Approval and Selection Processes


International Planning History Society: IPHS Book Prizes

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