Into the weeds of public education

There are a lot of dichotomies within New York City that reflect the complexity of maintaining a globally influential and locally heterogeneous metropolis. Access to public education and public spaces are two areas with glaring disparities based on socioeconomic status and race.

In a city known as “The Concrete Jungle” because of its urban density, parks are an essential setting for residents to experience local ecology and get respite from the foreboding buildings and bustling streets and sidewalks. However, the size and proximity of parks to residential neighborhoods is skewed in favor of white and Hispanic or Latino residents (Abbiasov, 2021. p. 16). This means that Black residents have less access to ample and quality outdoor spaces. The burden of racial discrimination is also experienced within New York City’s school system, which is one of the most segregated in the nation. Recent reports which continue showing a lack of racial and economic diversity in schools, reflect how segregation impacts student achievement and their developmental well-being (see: Gould, 2021).

The data clearly suggests that one of the most diverse cities in the world has been challenged with providing equal and equitable educational and recreational access.

Data is essential because it upholds factual information that has been scrutinized by experts in a particular professional discipline. These facts have to be presented in a manner that adheres to certain parameters, such as being supported by extensive research, citations from prior studies and going through a process of peer-review. Artists have the liberty of interpreting data in a more subjective manner.

Hugh Hayden, Brier Patch, 2022. Installed at Madison Square Park in New York City. Photograph by Yasunori Matsui, courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

This is the case with Hugh Hayden’s Brier Patch, a sculpture that artfully communicates the city’s (and by extension, the nation’s) educational inequalities. The sculpture was most recently displayed throughout Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. One-hundred handcrafted wooden school desks were rendered unusable due to the addition of large twisted branches sourced from pine trees that had succumbed to the effects of climate change. The branches create a visual analogy to a brier patch and suggest inaccessibility, danger and stagnation in an allusion to the local educational system.

A brier patch is a poetic symbol to express inequality and inequity. The sculptural installation’s title comes from Br’er Rabbit, a character in a series of folklore told in the oral tradition throughout the African diaspora. The Br’er Rabbit is cunning and able to trick his foes using logic. When caught by his adversaries, like Br’er Fox, he convinces them that they should throw him into the brier patch. He explains that this action would cause his painful demise, as he would be stuck in an impassable patch of thorny vegetation. When tossed into the patch, he lets out a series of blood curdling screams to ensure that his act is believable. In reality, Br’er Rabbit is familiar with the architecture of the brier patch and is able to easily escape from the tangled brush.

In Hayden’s Brier Patch, there is no Br’er Rabbit to be found. This highlights the situation of inequality and inequity within the educational system that has entrapped generations of students and educators. Furthermore, a brier patch is a sharp analogy to the segregation within New York’s schools. Without being didactic, Hayden’s installation implores us to consider the stark contrasts that exist within our communal lives.

The intent is to raise awareness, but the placement of the artwork brings up a potentially thorny issue about public art; which is its relevance and impact within the space it occupies. In the case of its installation within Madison Square Park, art critic and educator, Erin L. Thompson, argues that the park’s status as a well-patrolled environment within an affluent and commercially focused region of the city, dilutes its intended message. Thompson (2022) alleges that this amounts to virtue signalling: “in the wealthy bubble of Madison Square Park, Brier Patch allows viewers to pat themselves on the back for their mere awareness of inequalities in our educational systems. The parents walking past who send their children to private schools are not made to question their decisions. The nannies whose own children are in sub-par public schools are not encouraged to protest that inequality.”

This sounds more like anecdotal evidence than quantitative and qualitative data. Thompson’s point about the park catering to a wealthier population is apt, but I take issue with the dismissal of the installation as ineffective, as well as her assigning specific identities and attitudes to both the parents of private school children and nannies of “sub-par” public schools. Unless demographic surveys and testimonials were conducted, there is no way of proving that this statement is anything more than speculation.

The Madison Square Park Conservancy, which maintains the public recreation space, organized public programming throughout the duration of the installation. These events and activities were in conjunction with the overall theme of educational equity and access to equal opportunities and resources throughout the curricula. There was a talk with professional artists (including Hayden) reflecting on how learning art in school impacted their personal and professional lives. There was also an interactive initiative that involved a blackboard and chalk with a prompt for visitors to write their thoughts about what education means to them. While this reflection board and other associated programming might indeed amount to what Thompson calls allowing “viewers to pat themselves on the back” for simply being aware of ongoing systemic issues; awareness and efficacy is a foundational part of pedagogy. If that awareness leads to deeper understanding and empathy, then it is a job well done. There is no clear way to quantify these results based on this particular installation, but I do think that it is more profound and involved than an exercise in virtue signaling.

To Thompson’s point, there should be more transparency regarding the efforts taken to make public art more reflective of myriad communities. It would behoove organizations who sponsor public art and programming to provide public data that would show us tangible results related to their efforts. Reflection and assessment is a necessary part of the cycle of teaching and learning. Understanding visitors’ needs and interests enable facilitators to differentiate services and programs in order to make content accessible for a plurality of demographics. This is precisely what educators do in their heterogeneous classrooms. They comprehend that each student has a variety of skill sets, experience and prior knowledge. Their job is to support all types of learners by incorporating these differences into the curriculum.

While Madison Square Park is indeed in a fairly exclusive and opulent section of the city (Nomad is number twelve on the list of the city’s top twenty most expensive neighborhoods), there are valuable avenues for reaching a more diverse and inclusive audience. Perhaps the Madison Square Park Conservancy could have extended their outreach by involving the plethora of public and private schools that sit just a few blocks away from the park. By collaborating with educators, administrators and students from different social, cultural and economic demographics, they could have fostered a really representative and experiential notion of education in New York City. This type of collaboration would have made the concepts of Hayden’s installation more memorable and relevant to the audience that the artwork seeks to highlight.

There is a well known proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child.” Essentially, this means that it is necessary for the entire community to participate in the educational process so that children can grow and develop in safe and healthy settings. The first step is to literally uproot the allegorical brier patch that causes divisiveness and inequity within our educational system.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abbiasov, Timur. “Do Urban Parks Promote Racial Diversity? Evidence from New York City.” Columbia University, 24 August 2021. p. 16 https://tabbiasov.me/static/NYC_Parks_Diversity-85542f4ef5da40a8bf5525be300d3519.pdf

Gould, Jessica. “New York’s Schools Are Still The Most Segregated In The Nation: Report,” Gothamist, 11 June 2021. https://gothamist.com/news/new-yorks-schools-are-still-the-most-segregated-in-the-nation-report

Thompson, Erin L. “Surrounded by Wealth, an Artist’s Comment on Education Loses Its Edge,” Hyperallergic, 20 March 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/716447/hugh-hayden-brier-patch-review/

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