The story of public art in the United States is also the story of American democratic institutions. Our public schools in particular, malleable and shifting under changing societal expectations, provide clues about the nature of our educational enterprise in their very design and the commissioned art that enhances them. In New York City, home to the nation's largest public school system and one of the first, art in schools is a barometer of aesthetic preferences and a measure of larger social issues. The constellation of events that led to the decentralization of New York City's schools in 1970 also led to the creation of an outstanding collection of work by African-American artists at Brooklyn's Boys' and Girls' High School.
Better known for its athletics and as the school that hosted Nelson Mandela than for its public art, Boys' and Girls' High School first opened its doors as the Central School, with a Girls' department on Nostrand Avenue and a Boys' department on Court Street. In 1886, the Girls' department moved into a new building on Nostrand Avenue and in September 1890 school officials changed the official organization of the school to two schools, with Girls' High School on Nostrand Avenue (with added wings under construction) and Boys'High School (under construction) on Marcy Avenue. By 1960, efforts were under way to build a replacement school. The planning of the new Boys' and Girls' High School coincided with the fight by New York City minority groups for local school control, and the commissioning of art for the new building was paradigmatic of this struggle.