Art in the New York City public schools can be grouped into time periods that are linked to specific superintendents of school buildings, funding sources, or larger social and cultural trends.
The time periods identified here highlight the underlying forces that have shaped public art in our schools and provide a framework for connecting the art to a broader context.
The Progressive Era (1890-1933), during which C. B. J. Snyder was chief designer, gave rise to the school as a civic monument that cemented the connection between public education and American democracy. Schools such as DeWitt Clinton and Washington Irving were holistic environments that united art and architecture to convey the idea of a shared history that fostered civic pride.
The New Deal of the 1930s made the public a more active participant in the nation’s cultural life and ushered in both a more inclusive approach to how art was created and what it represented.
The 1950s celebrated new technology and reinforced the design principles of Modernism, opening the door for abstraction in school art.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s prompted African American artists to examine their cultural identity, a focus that continues to evolve as both the student population and contemporary artists reference diverse cultural traditions.
All these strands, coupled with an expanded definition of art, have come together in recent projects commissioned through the Percent for Art program.
In 1982, the Percent for Art law was initiated by Mayor Edward I. Koch and passed by the New York City Council requiring that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities. In partnership with the School Construction Authority and the Public Art for Public Schools program, the Department of Cultural Affairs has up to this point commissioned more art for new schools than for any other type of civic building—and the direct beneficiaries are New York City’s 1.1 million students.