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Messages Of Hope, Gratitude And Safety Replace Ads In Times Square

Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — with tourists gone, and commuters home — around 30,000 people pass through Times Square each day. A new public art project unveiled Friday wants to give them something to look at — visual messages of hope, gratitude and public safety on Times Square's iconic billboards.

Jean Cooney, director of Times Square Arts,oversees temporary installations of public art in the Square's plaza and on its billboards. And she says there are still people going through Times Square and many of them have critical jobs — they are health care workers, law enforcement, grocery and pharmacy workers, and others.

Times Square Arts wanted to say thanks, and it turns out the Poster House museum and Print Magazine had the same idea. So they decided to collaborate, says Poster House museum director Julia Knight.

Billboard owners — whose spaces were now depleted of advertisers — "really wanted to contribute their assets to something beneficial to the city," Knight explains.

So they donated their billboard space. The three organizations chose artists and designers to fill them. The list includesMilton Glaser who designed the "I ❤ New York" logo, artist and illustrator Maira Kalman, and Matt Dorfman, who art directs the New York Times Book Review.

For his Times Square piece, Dorfman created bold bumble bee yellow and black stripes that simply repeats the phrase "six feet is six feet."

"With nearly anything else that I'm doing I'm trying to assign fine art values to a piece of design, insofar as that I'd like people to stop, sit and look at it for a little while," Dorfman explains. "This particular kind of poster kind of demands for the opposite reaction. It's something that you should read and absorb and then quickly move past."

Another image in rotation shows health care workers in masks with angel wings below the words "New York Loves You."

Images from the billboard project will also be displayed on nearly 2,000 screens throughout the five boroughs, and just above the entrance to Lincoln Tunnel.

For the project's second phase, the art collective For Freedoms is working with artists around the world to make pieces for the initiative. Hank Willis Thomas is a member of For Freedoms. When Thomas thinks of Times Square he sees New Year's Eve — a kaleidoscope of colors and lights — and the tens of thousands of people in the square thinking about the past and looking forward to what comes next. He says now's the time to give Times Square some of that energy back.

"Right now everyone is at home reflecting on all of our life choices in looking towards an uncertain future," Thomas says. "I think Times Square is this really special container in many of our hearts and minds for a space for joy, reflection and communion. In a way, you can say it needs our energy even when we're not there."
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