A dream of turning Times Square into a huge blinking art gallery comes closer to fruition

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A potential vision of Times Square. (Courtesy Times Square Art Square)
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Jed Lipinski

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In December 2009, Justus Bruns, a young Dutch artist and industrial designer, created a website on which he announced his plan to transform Times Square from a colossal advertising venue into a public art exhibition space.

As Bruns envisioned it, the project, titled Times Square Art Square, would involve curated shows in which the square’s billboard and video ads were replaced with giant paintings and installations.

The post quickly went viral. Within days, the New York Post and other major media outlets started to call. Bruns calmly explained that, when he was done with it, all the ads in Times Square would be turned into art. At the time, he was a 22-year-old college student in Delft. He knew what Times Square was, but he was a little foggy on its exact location in the city.

“I think they maybe thought I was crazy,” Bruns said in a recent phone interview, noting that the Post story never ran. “I had not actually visited Times Square. I was, I admit, very naïve.”

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Still, his passion for the project endured. In June of 2010, he traveled to Times Square for the first time (“It was like, ‘Holy shit, no wonder why New Yorkers don’t believe me”) and conducted interviews with various city agencies and public arts organizations, like Times Square Alliance.

Back in the Netherlands, he helped establish the Times Square To Art Square Stichting (Dutch for “foundation”), and launched a three-month Kickstarter campaign, requesting $10,000—a goal the organization achieved in January 2011.

Now, after two years of building awareness through social media, Justus has launched a second Kickstarter campaign for the project, the title of which has been shortened to “Times Square Art Square.” Citing the success of other ambitious public projects like The High Line, The Low Line and +Pool, Bruns and his team are looking for $100,000 to afford expenses like commissioned art, city permits, insurance, infrastructure, and a “proof of concept” event tentatively planned for early 2013.

Times Square Art Square’s new incarnation began in earnest around seven months ago. It was then that Bruns—whose website bio reads: “I’m a pacifist who loves marching music and picking warm candle wax”—decided it was a good idea to hire a PR and marketing expert. Angela Moschetta, who assumed that role, now works full-time with Bruns and three others out of Alley NYC, a co-working space on 37th St. and 7th Avenue.

“Justus is wonderfully charming and ebullient,” Moschetta said. “But I think the best part about him is his naïveté. Not many people would actually think to do this.”

Since Moschetta joined the team, Times Square Art Square has established partnerships with Tumblr, the art blogazine Hyperallergic, and Behance, on online platform for showcasing and discovering creative work. The Brooklyn Brothers ad agency created the campaign’s Kickstarter video. The team has even recruited Hrag Vartanian—the critic, writer, and editor of Hyperallegric—to act as chief curator of the debut exhibition next year, should the Kickstarter campaign succeed.

Swapping ads for art is not new to Times Square. In 1982, Jenny Holzer installed an electronic sign on the Spectacolor lightboard that broadcast various messages (“Protect Me From What I Want,” “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise”).

More recently, the Times Square Advertising Coalition donated space on more than a dozen billboards for a contest thrown by the for-profit business ArtistsWanted.org. The winners, chosen from a pool of around 35,000 contestants, had their work displayed on the billboards in the early evening. (There was, as comments on the linked Capital story attest, some controversy over that event.)

Those behind Times Square Art Square have something different in mind.

“In this case, we want to select artists whose work will fit into the space and complement what’s already there,” said Vartanian. “We want to make sure that what artists want to do is represented. It’s not a contest in which we put someone’s image up for ten seconds or whatever.”

Vartanian takes a realistic approach to the project’s feasibility.

“Obviously, the first year would not involve the entire square—that’s an administrative impossibility,” he said. “The billboards in Times Square are owned by tens if not hundreds of different companies, some of which are more open to displaying art than others.”

Even so, he believes in Kickstarter’s ability to not just generate money for a project, but to inspire interest from companies, which are more likely to invest in something with a record of public support. Two days into the campaign, Times Square Art Square already has 117 backers, who’ve contributed a total of $4,785 thus far.

After some difficult months spent sleeping on couches and air mattresses throughout the city, Bruns is now renting his own apartment in Williamsburg. To support himself, he continues to do design work for a company in The Netherlands, while applying for a work Visa to stay in New York.

"This whole thing, it used to be a kind of joke,” he said. “And I am sometimes too much of a dreamer. But I am also a doer. This is not a joke anymore. I think it is slowly starting to work.”