500 Art Cabs or Only Art Cabs, It's Your Call
John Amato, President of Show Media has given NYC a 100,000.00 dollar gift this holiday season in the form of donated art space on cab toppers (which he owns). While it is hard to get upset about free art in the city where once ads loomed, lets take a look at why this is still a problem.
First, altruism aside, who does this really benefit? Amato says, "Art is a great passion of mine, and I am very fortunate to be in a place in my life where I can do this as my annual holiday gift not just to myself, but to everyone who enjoys seeing the art as it travels around New York City’s streets." While I cannot question Amato's real intentions, one has to expect that the 12,500 cabs that are roaming our streets with ads on them will benefit from the public eyes looking for the 500 art cabs also on our streets. Advertising is all about impressions and with a format as oblique and ultimately as dull as NYC cab toppers, any new reason to look at these advertisements can only be a boost for business. I would imagine that this type of "gift" increases the value of the rest of Mr. Amato's inventory and if not by direct increase in price, this "gift" will be used as a selling point when new potential clients come to make contracts with Show Media.
Secondly, why do we allow a system to perpetuate in which a little art is seen as a huge gift to our city? Do we not all yearn for a public space in which public art trumps commercial media as the preeminent visual form adorning our streets? As it were, I have been arguing with Michael Gitter of Mediacy about this for over a year now in regards to his Gatescape program. Long story short, Mr. Gitter has asked me to help curate his Gatescape advertising inventory with artwork. While I have yet to agree to this, my one stipulation is that the advertising serve the art, only guaranteed by a 51% art 49% ad split. Any other agreement would mean that the artwork is being used to promote an advertising business and this is all to typical of advertising art interactions.
The question I always ask is why do we have advertising at all? Wouldn't we all be happier with only art instead of this once in a blue moon gift we have become accustomed to, and seem to enjoy greatly? Impossible you say? who would pay for such a thing? lets take a look using NYC phone kiosks as an example of a potential year long street gallery.
Currently approximately 22,000 NYC phone kiosks are almost entirely operated by 2 major outdoor advertising companies, Titan media, and Van Wagner. These companies took control of the NYC phone kiosk advertising business after the city decided they were too big a hassle in a wave of privatization that happened in 1999. See NY Times article. In 2006 phone kiosk advertising made 62 million dollars. New York City gets 26% of this revenue, meaning we took home about 13.7 million dollars. (interestingly NYC phonebooth advertising is one of the few outdoor advertising structures which pays NYC a percentage of their profits. Normally ad companies keep all profit and the only way the public benefits from the aggressive commercial marketing on its streets is through tax revenue.) 49 million dollars is a lot of money going into someone else's pockets that could be used to put art on the streets. Lets think of how this might be done.
First we will need a revenue stream that will pay for the production of artwork and the infrastructure needed to implement this phone kiosk gallery. Lets throw out a random number of 5 million dollars to cover this cost. This would have to cover printing as well as any operational costs. We would need to pay a curator, a secretary, and a handful of installers. lets say each of them makes 65,000 as a yearly salary. Total staff costs would be about 500,000. This leaves 4.5 million for printing and maybe a few vans for our installers to drive around. This seems reasonable. Of course that 5 million has to come from somewhere so lets figure out where it would be best to come by that money without burdening the city. Currently Times Square is the American capital of outdoor advertising and prices for ad space in and around this area are astronomical. I would propose that a 15 block radius stemming from 44th and broadway should include enough phonebooths that ad revenue from each would total around 5 million yearly. Surely a few more ads in this area would go unnoticed and because of the location provide the most revenue.
Now lets be absurd and say that the total number of phone kiosks raising revenue in the Times Square area is 5,000. That still leaves 17,000 phone kiosks with artwork in them around the city. Those kiosks in Times Square sporting advertising are then being used to support a massive unprecedented use of public space for artwork and public services. While this is really a simple post on the subject, it does not seem far fetched in the slightest. Someone could surely work these numbers out and give us a business model which would make this simple post a reality. Given the opportunity I would be happy to spearhead a program of this nature. The problem is that infrastructure like phone kiosks, cab toppers, MTA subway cars etc. are not seen as public infrastructure but rather private property to be profited from. A sea change must happen in our understanding of what potentials this infrastructure holds.
Using the infrastructure that is already in place, NYC could have a vibrant public arts program operating citywide in our phone kiosks. Instead we allow private outdoor advertising companies to profit off of our neglect and misunderstanding. In this same way, many other public infrastructures could be co-opted for public purposes including cab toppers. How about the MTA? surely station domination campaigns at the major transit hubs like union square could pay for the implementation of city wide art projects where advertising now stands. And the kicker is this comes at no cost to the city whatsoever. We are merely redirecting profits that currently go to private individuals towards public resources which benefit the city at large. Imagine the cultural capital we would raise as a city being able to claim that our outdoor advertising industry supports the largest public art program the world has ever seen. I think we would make more money off tourism just by this fact alone to balance out any tax revenues seen through our outdoor advertising business'.
While this may seem a pipe dream to many, I see this as a viable option. The only thing standing in our way is the long standing expectation that outdoor advertising is an inevitable evil in our public spaces. This simply is not true and with a change in attitude, outdoor advertising can be nearly eliminated and public art programs put in its place. So the next time a big media stunt like this is pulled by Mr. Amato, sending 500 cab toppers out on the streets with public art and the city into a frenzy about how wonderful things are, imagine the possibilities missed before you get too excited.