On Governors Island, Family-Friendly Art With a Stroke of Whimsy

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Art That Opens Up the Clubhouse

CreditJennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Christopher North and his 8-year-old son, Xavier, studied a yellow art installation on a lawn on Governors Island.

"What do you think this is?" Mr. North asked.

A tennis racket, his son guessed. Close: It was a light bulb. Xavier gave it his approval: He jumped on it.

The giant light bulb was meant to be kid-tested. It occupies the fourth hole of a miniature golf course created by Figment, a nonprofit arts group that, in a world of million-dollar auctions and big-ticket, blockbuster museum exhibitions, is trying to make art, or at least its notion of art, more accessible.

Each of the 11 holes is a carefully curated work designed around a single central theme: "Mini Is the New Big." Half the fun is figuring out what is being represented: watermelon slices, a keyhole, a footprint, a mousetrap with Swiss cheese, an iPhone plug and cord.

"We believe everyone is an artist, if you want to be," said David Koren, 45, the executive director of Figment, who has written a book about the group.

Since 2007, Figment has grown from a group running a daylong festival on the island, a 172-acre former military base turned recreational oasis in New York Harbor, into a grass-roots movement with more than 1,000 volunteers, organizing free events in 18 cities, including Boston; Toronto; Boulder, Colo.; and Geelong, Australia.

Its signature festival on Governors Island has expanded to three days from one, drawing more than 18,000 people last month, up from 2,600 the first year. Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, once donned a rubber chicken costume as a participant in the Figment festivities. "We like to say we're a platform for groups like Figment to share their passions with the public," she said.

In Figment's hands, a treehouse resembles a modernist tepee. The miniature golf course doubles as a temporary art exhibition, returning every summer now with new themes and installations; each hole is created by a different artist who receives a $250 stipend, in addition to expenses and material costs.

"It's functional, thought-provoking and entertaining, all at the same time," said Mr. North, 47, a musician and composer who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and has brought Xavier here to play for the past several summers.

Gail Gilson, 76, a retired teacher from Manhattan, was putting with her daughter and granddaughter. "I love it because it's very odd," she said.

Photo
Figment's signature festival on Governors Island has expanded to three days from one, drawing more than 18,000 people last month, up from 2,600 in its first year. Credit Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

This year's holes are tame compared with some from the past. Several years ago, an Occupy Wall Street-themed hole required players to hit their balls through two giant number 9s to reach Zuccotti Park; a shortcut allowed unsuspecting players to hit their balls over a 1-shaped ramp, but it was a trap. The ball rolled into a locked box in the shape of the New York Stock Exchange

Yung Oh Le Page, a teaching artist at the Children's Museum of the Arts in Manhattan and the man behind the Occupy Wall Street hole, built a keyhole this year to symbolize that volunteering is, in his words, the key to the world. "I wish there were more opportunities like this," he said

The inspiration for F igment, Mr. Koren said, came from his trips to Burning Man, the alternative arts festival in the Nevada desert, where he also met his wife in 2002. Mr. Koren said he wanted to create a similar creative outlet at home.

He thought of the name in the shower one day. It comes from an Andy Warhol quote, after the artist was asked what he would want to see on his tombstone: "No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I'd like it to say 'figment.'"

"What happens is a product of everyone's belief, creativity, passion and energy," Mr. Koren said about the group. "It speaks to the ephemeral quality of what we're doing — it's there and it's gone — and it speaks to the imagination."

The first year, 2007, Mr. Koren dug $1,000 from his own pocket to pay for signs, fliers and T-shirts for volunteers for the festival. About 60 interactive art exhibits were hauled onto the island on carts and hand truc ks, including a carousel made of Razor scooters. A "limbonade contest" rewarded limbo dancers with lemonade.

Today, Figment's annual budget, $269,000, is raised entirely from grants and donations. It does not accept advertising or corporate sponsorship. The closest it came to any commercialization was in 2009, when it briefly sold Figment T-shirts. "It felt icky," Mr. Koren said. "Your experience is not for sale."

The group's two paid administrators help coordinate the volunteer work; everyone else, including Mr. Koren and his wife, Sasha Koren, are unpaid.

Ms. Koren, 44, a digital creative director for Clinique, and Mr. Le Page were working the golf kiosk on Governors Island on Saturday, after a volun teer canceled at the last minute. Children and parents crowded around. "We all step in when there's stuff to do," Ms. Koren said. "The best part is when people walk up and ask, 'Is this free?'"

Mr. Koren, also at the kiosk, said he had often been asked over the years whether he was an artist himself. At first he did not know how to answer, he said. When he founded the group, he was a marketing director for an architecture firm. Currently, he is the president of Shift Living, a start-up that is developing a community-based residential living model in Brooklyn.

Now he answers that yes, he is an artist, too.

"I make all of this happen," he said. "Art is not about creating a product; it is about creatin g a framework for expression."

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