“The maps started as a tool for getting people back downtown,” says architect Abby Suckle, who began mapping New York City’s cultural assets in response to 9/11. “It was way before Google Earth. I actually created the first map out of old real estate maps and something from City Planning. I squashed it all together. They were done in Illustrator. Very old-fashioned.”
Suckle’s mapping project would eventually become cultureNOW, a nonprofit organization that houses interactive maps of public art and architecture for cities around the world, accessible to the public online.
At first, there was no big vision for the project, says Suckle. Then, the question became: How are we going to live in the future?
As Lower Manhattan rebounded, cultureNOW set its sights on mapping New York City’s public art. The initial map took three years to complete, as members of the organization pursued a grant and walked the city cataloging artwork. Once their list was complete, circa 2007, the project began to take on a life of its own.
“The physical map became an eight-foot-long document,” says Suckle. “It had to be printed in four parts and glued together by hand, so that wasn’t a very practical thing.”
After a few more trial-and-error attempts, the organization had a stockpile of digital photos and recordings of artists talking about their work, with no great way to show it off. If it weren’t for the rise of the smartphone, the mapping project might have ended there, or been scaled down. Instead, Suckle and others at cultureNOW were inspired by a smartphone app at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. They wasted no time developing their own version that would allow people to learn about art and architecture via maps.
Once they got the app up and running, the idea began to catch on. The first taker for creating an interactive map of public art outside of New York City was Porter Arneill, executive director and public art administrator for the Kansas City Municipal Art Commission.
“It didn’t cost him anything,” says Suckle, “but it solved a big problem, and he was accessible and he didn’t have to put QR codes all over the place. Once we had one done, everybody in public art thought that was a great idea.” That was in 2010.
Since then, cultureNOW has become a tool that helps people understand place in cities across the globe.
“At this point I think we might have 85 collections online,” says Suckle. “We’re looking at place as a juxtaposition of the built environment, which is architecture; the cultural insertions, which are public art or monuments; and the history of what actually happened there.”
The maps have also proven useful in post-disaster scenarios. “We became very interested in how you preserve cultural assets. How do you design for the future? What do you need to do to protect that?”
After Superstorm Sandy, disaster workers used the tool as a helpful overview of the areas in need of support. “You had a bunch of people who didn’t know the city coming in, and then you had a lot of stuff that was in clumps depending on what organization had authority. What we happened to have was a list of everything cultural. It became very useful. You could see what the problems would be and what you had on your list.”
In addition, cultureNOW’s maps can be used as a design tool for artists and architects. “Nowadays public art is used when people don’t know what to do with a place,” says Suckle. “It’s this leftover place somewhere and they say, ‘Well, we’ll find an artist.’ As if the art is going to miraculously come in and pull it all together for you.” Instead, Suckle advocates for a more integrated approach. “You have to fold the art in. You have to fold in what happened, and you have to make it so that your insertion resonates and works. If I can make a tool that helps my colleagues do a better job, that’s better for everyone.”
Given the diverse—and often surprising—uses that individuals are finding for the technology, Suckle expects the platform to continue evolving. “I would say this is very much a work in progress,” she says. “We’re really excited because it’s kind of taken off and the way it’s used in the art world is as a way of understanding where you are. There are over two thousand podcasts now, where you can listen to the artist or architect talk about their buildings. It’s really something you could never do any other way.”
Part 1: Maps in the ‘Hood. Mapping public art: Project Willowbrook.
Part 3: Street Art, Meet Google Maps. Street Art Project.
Part 4: The Journey is the Destination. Wayfinding: 100 NYC Public Sculptures.