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Is art a public service?

I first stumbled across this expression when I was researching Frederick L. Olmsted, a landscape architect who, together with Calvert Vaux, created almost all of the famous parks in the United States, including Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the government district in Washington, D.C., the park around Niagara Falls and the park-like universities of Berkeley and Stanford.

Van Dalen came to New York from Amsterdam in the 1960s and found an apartment in the East Village in southern Manhattan, a bitterly poor and rather dangerous area at the time that was very popular with drug dealers and artists. As a gesture to his quarters, but also to the world in general, he wrote the word "Peace" in beautiful typography on the facade of his house, which van Dalen has lived in for more than fifty years.

Van Dalen not only lives in the East Village, he is the East Village, he has accompanied and documented it over the decades, the explosive riots and the daily, silent struggle, the burning cars and the small happiness of people with an ice cream in hand; the trees that gave way to the new construction projects, the puddles and again and again the animals that he loves so much, especially the pigeons and the dogs. After fifty years of living sociology, he has come to the realization that there are two things that destroy a community: heroin and the real estate industry.

Van Dalen sees his fantastic drawings and paintings, including his stencil drawings, which he attaches to facades in the Village, primarily as a service to society, as the duty of the long-established to document the changes. He never felt the need to live anywhere else, since he was constantly on the move - in and with the time, which brought more variety and new things to his quarters than he could process in his service public art.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.