THE USUAL RULES OF MUSEUM DECORUM—no touching, noise or horseplay—go right out the window at Socrates Sculpture Park. Visitors to the outdoor space in Long Island City encounter art that can be touched, climbed, danced on and even played with. “Fun is underrated,” said executive director John Hatfield. “People have difficult lives and providing enjoyment, distraction, absurdity, humor or beauty is something Socrates recognizes as a role.” The four-acre park offers serious art but also kayaking, kite flying, movies, yoga, tai chi and capoeira. Socrates is that extremely rare museum that even welcomes dogs (especially at its Halloween canine costume competition).
Conceived three decades ago by renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero—then carved out of an abandoned landfill and built by an ambitious community of artists and locals—the Queens park is now internationally recognized as a top tier venue for contemporary sculpture. Socrates’ urban vibe comes through as hardy plants frame sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. Here, the sounds of traffic compete with the susurrus of breezes passing through trees.
Hatfield, who honed his eye for cutting-edge art during a 17-year stint with the New Museum, took the helm five years ago. A former artist himself, Hatfield said, “Art can be anything. And the latitude of that and the amorphous nature is very attractive. There are no rules.” That freedom joined with a respect for fun leads to something profoundly important.
“Art allows cultures to explore, question and think about things in a space that doesn’t attach itself to practicality. That ‘play space’ allows us to talk about things we might not necessarily talk about…It might illuminate. It might disturb. It might do any number of things. But it’s where the discourse occurs in a safe way, and I think that that’s an unbelievably important thing.”
Hatfield loves to watch plans come alive and admitted he’s more likely to say yes to an idea than no. The evidence can be seen in the 15 selections in Socrates’ 16th annual Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition, the end result of a three-month long project in which the museum allowed rising artists to work on-site, creating ambitious, large-scale works of public art.
Though it’s common to see text in art, it’s unusual to see it half-buried in the ground. “All Else is Pale” by Galería Perdida presents the words “MORE LIGHT” spanning 35 feet of lawn, as the letters seem to either climb above or sink into the earth. It invites questions. Would the words break free if they were more light? Does their shiny surface provide or need more light? “It’s a half-empty, half-full statement,” Hatfield said. Liene Bosquê’s “Terracotta Impressions” utilizes bricks from demolished buildings in Long Island City to create a roofless structure recalling relics like ancient abbeys in Europe. Bosquê’s piece resembles something touching both past and present, offering a whole other set of questions.
Many internationally acclaimed artists have gotten their breakout moment at Socrates. That’s partly because of Hatfield’s enthusiastic openness to experimentation. “We’ll entertain any possibility,” he said. “When it comes to gravity, I don’t know,” he added, alluding to Dachal Choi’s and Mathew Suen’s “AQ625: Site on the Move” that imagines the park floating into the sky. “Well, maybe,” he chuckled. “Do you have an idea of how to make that happen? I’d love to hear about it.”