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Global Studies Faculty Facilitates Public Art in NYC

Public art consultant, curator, and art historian Emily Blumenfeld was central to the permanent installation Diatom Lace on the East Midtown Greenway along the East River.

Global Studies faculty member Emily Blumenfeld played a central role in the permanent installation of Stacy Levy's Di...

Where Art Meets Architecture, Urban Planning, and the Environment

Global Studies professor and co-founder of Via Partnership Emily Blumenfeld’s latest project is the New York City permanent public art installation Diatom Lace (2023) by artist Stacy Levy, a paving project illustrating diatoms (single cell algae) found in the waters of the East River along the East Midtown Greenway.

Five thousand embossed concrete pavers are placed along the half mile walkway, which hovers over the East River. The artist worked with landscape architects from Stantec to create an artwork that embellished the park’s paving pattern with an ecological ornament of microorganisms.

What Is a Diatom?

Unseen by our naked eye, microscopic organisms called diatoms drift in the East River, thousands in a single teaspoon of its water. Single-celled and photosynthetic diatoms supply oxygen to one out of every five breaths we take. Floating in the water below are the common diatom groups Coscinodiscus, Navicula, and Cyclotella. Crucial to life on earth, they are celebrated on the patterned, interlocking concrete pavers of Diatom Lace.

Tiny Creature, Huge Role

The outsized, critical role of these tiny phytoplankton is as unrecognized as their intricate architecture. Their ornate silica shells are magnified and represented in the artwork. The artist focuses our attention on an invisible keystone of the ocean’s food web.

Levy worked closely with research ecologist Judy Yaquin Li, NOAA Fisheries, Milford Laboratory. She collaborated with Stantec on creating this half-mile long park, creating 5,000 Diatom Lace pavers set in clusters along the pedestrian path.

The form of the clusters refers to the shape of the hydrological patterns drawn on the river’s surface as it flows. These mythical sea creature pavers reveal a vastly different but indispensable world “under the sea,” placing their ornate forms underfoot.

Art Makes Nature Visible 

Working with micro-organism scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Levy has created a pavement rendering that depicts the actual creatures living in the waters of the East River.

The installation is intended as a true-to-site image of what lives in the river—so people can get to know and appreciate their aquatic neighbors.

Inspired by the patterned tiles created by Gaudi (1904) over a hundred years ago in Barcelona, Spain, the East River Esplanade now has its own underfoot experience of the local aquatic world.

Global Studies faculty member Emily Blumenfeld played a central role in the permanent installation of Stacy Levy's Di...

The Role of a Public Art Curator

As an experienced public art consultant, curator, and art historian, Blumenfeld was central to making the project possible. Using her strategic planning and project management skills, and her deep knowledge of the public art field, Blumenfeld works with public agencies, developers, cultural organizations, and local groups to produce art that positively impacts the community and public.

For the East Midtown Greenway, she worked with the NYC Economic Development Corporation and NYC Parks to select an artist for the design team, led by Stantec.

She developed the public art project plan, Request For Qualifications, and assembled the Artist Selection Committee made up of project partners and neighborhood arts professionals. Brokering and coordinating these instrumental partnerships comprise the latest example of Blumenfeld’s inspiring work benefitting the public.