Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

Her most recent project, Migration, 2006 for the Flushing Avenue station of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is a series of thirty-four laminated glass panels that function as an ensemble and as individual pieces. In this installation, Holder replaces recognizable imagery with symbols derived from many sources, organized in streaming ribbons to convey a metaphorical and actual journey. Based on extensive research, some symbols are universal directional indicators, others reference notations codified by hobos during the Great Depression, and still others derive from indigenous Native North American, Asian, and European languages.

Creating public art, whether alone or with students, flows naturally from both Holder's commitment to social issues and desire to merge art with life. The complexities of public art projects have required Holder to mine her experience as an arts administrator, arts educator, and visual artist, while allowing her to extend her studio practice into new realms. Holder's engagement with public art is part of a growing American preoccupation with projections of our national identity.

During the American Renaissance2 and through the 1920s, major mural commissions had been monopolized by white male artists, many of whom were members of male-only professional groups. Few women had the training needed to execute large-scale public commissions but more importantly, few had access to architects and patrons in charge of awarding such work.3 However, that changed in the 1930s with the inauguration of government sponsored art programs under the New Deal.

Holger Cahill, formerly a curator at the Newark Museum, became the national director of the Works Progress Administration (later Works Projects Administration) Federal Art Project [WPA/FAP], in effect from 1935–1943. He wanted the WPA/FAP to be as inclusive as possible, to counter the notion that art was by a select few for an elite audience. He envisioned a broad-based art program that embraced activities ranging from undertaking architecturally integrated public art to art education for the general public. Cahill emphasized projects that aimed to conserve skills and put artists of various talents to work in different capacities. His approach cast a wide net, drawing in artists of different abilities, ages, and prior experience. Many artists interviewed about their experiences with the WPA/FAP fondly remembered the camaraderie and interaction of the artists. African American artist Charles Alston, who painted one of the Harlem Hospital murals and who later served on the Art Commission of the City of New York (renamed the Public Design Commission), recalled, "One of the very important things of that period was that artists, for the first time, got some sense of identity … so younger artists had an opportunity to talk to the artists who were prominent. There was a democracy about the whole thing that was very rewarding, very beneficial."4 Democracy was, in fact, at its core. Holger Cahill and other administrators/theorists of the WPA/FAP wanted to prove that you could attain culture for the masses, to disprove that "democracy operating under the idea of progress is incompatible with 'culture.'"5 This idea continues to resonate for Holder, who has devoted her creative energy to art that reaches a broad audience, as a teacher, printmaker, and public artist.