Percent for Art Program

Department of Cultural Affairs



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Public art in the schools has added beauty and imagination to children's daily learning environment since the inception of formal programs at the turn of the century. Today, the Board of Education's art program through the Department of Cultural Affair's Percent for Art is the largest effort in New York City since the WPA commissioned artists to create art in the schools in the 1930s. More than half of New York City's Percent for Arts projects are located in public school buildings providing opportunities for hundreds of artists to collaborate with schools and to create art for and with the children of New York City.


In 1901, when the Board of Education was consolidated into a single entity, a formal policy of mandating the installation of permanent artwork into the architectural setting of new school construction projects was instituted. In 1905, the noted American muralist, Charles Yardley Turner, was commissioned to create murals celebrating the development of the Erie Canal for the auditorium of the new DeWitt Clinton High School, then located in Manhattan. DeWitt Clinton is now located in the Bronx at Mosholu Parkway and Paul Avenue.


Funding permanent artworks in New York City schools became more and more popular. Proponents included the Society of Beaux Arts Architects, the National Society of Mural Painters and the Municipal Art Society. Public art in the schools remained limited to murals, stained glass and bas reliefs evoking local and national history, literature and literacy, but after World War I, in the 1920s, it also included the commemoration of fallen students.


The New Deal art programs began in 1932 and were followed by the Public Works of Art Project in 1934 and the Works Project Administration (WPA) in 1935. The theme of many of these works was the American experience and showed a growing awareness and affirmation of ethnic diversity. WPA artists created murals that related to the institution that would house it. After World War II, most artists were no longer funded by the federal government and those who were commissioned for school projects leaned towards simple ideas of education using semi-abstract mosaics (rather than painted murals).


In the 1950s and 60s, exterior sculpture became an important feature of school commissions. Major 20th century artists were commissioned, such as Hans Hoffman who designed an abstract mural featuring printers' symbols for the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Manhattan; and Ben Shahn who created a mural, Science and the Humanities, which explored the theme of technology versus humanism in the nuclear age. New themes became prevalent including the space age, and the Civil Rights movement commemorated by William Tarr's 1973 monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. located at the school that is named for him.


In 1982 the Percent for Art legislation was passed, followed by the New York City School Construction Authority in 1989. Today's themes still include science, technology, history, music, literacy, and multi-culturalism, as seen in the work of Bill and Mary Buchen's Sound Playground, P.S. 23; Cándida Álvarez' What Do You See?, stained glass windows; and Andrea Arroyo's Harmony I and Harmony II, I.S. 206.


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