For two weeks, the streets of New York City played host to 60 pianos as part of a traveling global public art project, “ Play Me, I’m Yours.” The project was the brainchild of British artist Luke Jerram, and has been showcased in Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Bristol since 2009; pianos are currently open in London through this weekend, and will be up in Blackburn and Burnley, UK, over the course of the summer. The New York installation involved the most pianos to date.
Sing for Hope, an American non-profit that seeks to bring together professional artists and local communities, brought the pianos to New York City. The U.S. leg of the project was a year in the making, with the main challenge being to find those 60 pianos, which were removed the day the heat wave hit the city.
Watch our exclusive interviews with the pianists, singers, and characters involved .
Many were donated, according to Emma Penick, but some pianos were simply found around the city. “They were just sort of sitting in warehouses,” she said, adding, “I mean, we’re in New York, so people don’t really have room for pianos, and a lot of them needed homes.”
The pianos were painted by New Yorkers from schools, hospitals and other organizations, as well as by New York artists, including Sophie Matisse (Henri’s great-grandaughter), who decorated the four instruments that were dotted around the Lincoln Center.
The location of each piano was crucial; Sing for Hope brainstormed ideas with the Parks Department and the City. Penick said that while they were primarily looking for picturesque settings (preferably covered, to protect the piano), they also wanted somewhere with a lot of traffic so that people could stumble across the instruments easily.
All 60 pianos were kept in shape by Fred Patella, a local piano tuner who trawled the city every day. Patella said that keeping the pianos outside for two weeks was not ideal: “The pianos are in a completely unnatural environment. This is as bad as either throwing them in a swimming pool or setting them on fire. Being outside like this is the worst thing you could possibly do.”
But Patella added that the pianos held up remarkably well, especially because each piano was cared for by volunteers known as “buddies,” who ensured the pianos were open between approximately 9am to 10pm each day, and at night locked up and covered with tarpaulin.
Despite the vigilant buddies, vandals stripped one piano in Queens of all of its keys last weekend, while another was removed due to weather damage. But Sing for Hope’s Penick was still surprised that only two pianos suffered from such problems. “We expected many more difficulties with 60 pianos spread out through all the five boroughs!” The pianos’ future will now be decided by the buddies who watched over them; each caretaker will choose which an institution will next appreciate these public pianos.
Patella believes that the best part of the project was discovering unknown talent. He referred to the business types around the piano based at City Hall. “It’s so not in their mode of thought to pass such a beautiful instrument, and then they see it, they stop, and they think. They go back and they knock out a few passages and they leave with a cheerful heart.”
Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Originally from London, he is a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.