NEW YORK IS PREPARING FOR ITS LARGEST PUBLIC ART PROJECT--7,500 SAFFRON GATES LINING CENTRAL PARK PATHS

"The Gates," New York's largest-ever public art project, is the brainchild of husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. After all 15,000 bases are positioned along 23 miles of Central Park paths by more than 1,000 paid workers, 7,500 gates adorned with golden nylon panels will be slid into place at 12-foot intervals. Seen from above, the cumulative effect is intended to be that of a saffron river, coursing through a denuded wilderness. But, the artists say, it will best be experienced on foot, by strolling through a miles-long golden tunnel, with the hanging fabric dangling down to seven feet above ground. "Our works are works of art of joy and beauty," the French-born Jeanne-Claude told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview from their home in New York's SoHo district. "The gates are going to activate the most unused space, and that is between your feet and the first branches of the trees. That space is an empty space that you never look at. It's not there. That will be activated by the gates and the movement of the fabric."

Christo and his wife, equal partners-in-art, are known for their massive environmental art installations, such as wrapping Berlin's Reichstag in a shimmering cloth, surrounding islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay with a pink polypropylene fabric and erecting a 24-mile long nylon fence that jogged through California's Sonoma and Marin Counties. But "The Gates," 26 years and $20 million in the making, is their first project in their adoptive hometown. As with all of their previous undertakings, "The Gates" will be entirely financed by the artists, at no cost to the city. To pay the enormous bills, Christo sells as much of the current project's preparatory artwork and works from his past as is necessary. Although the artists don't make money or royalties for themselves off their projects (good luck finding an official commemorative T shirt), as of this week an 8-by-10-inch sketch of "The Gates," the least expensive one-of-a-kind drawing, bears a $30,000 price tag for museums and private collectors alike. "Today, Christo has 34 more days to create preparatory work," says Jeanne-Claude. Once it's up, she says, he will never make another drawing of "The Gates."

Patti Harris, New York's deputy mayor, estimates the city will net $80 million in revenue from the work--an amount based on the number of people who have been to see the artists' previous installations and "by people going to hotels, eating out and visiting other parts of the city." Hotels like the Mandarin Oriental are offering special packages for February (starting at $1,050 a night, guests get binoculars placed in rooms with a view of the park and a book on "The Gates" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art). At least a half dozen area restaurants are creating special menus, which will prominently feature saffron, natch. And NYC & Company, the city's tourism marketing group, reports that several major tour operators in Germany, France and Japan have arranged trips to New York for the occasion.

But the relationship between the artists and the city has not always been quite so symbiotic. An early plan for "The Gates"--which was rejected by former Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis in a 140-page decision in 1981--involved twice as many gates, drilled directly into the earth of Central Park. The artists had also initially wanted to erect the gates in autumn, peak season for leaf-peepers, fall sports and migrating birds. But, over time, Jeanne-Claude and Christo's vision evolved. The number of gates was cut in half to keep them out of wildlife areas and away from trees; their engineer designed a steel leveling base, obviating the need to drill; the project was moved to February for its low-hanging sun, naked branches and relative calm. "Then the miracle happened," says Jeanne-Claude: a billionaire art collector was elected mayor of New York. Michael Bloomberg, who himself owns two Christo drawings, supported the project before he ever ran for office. Bloomberg and the parks department approved "The Gates" last January with the backing of the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park.

Still the installation, slated to stand from Feb. 12 to Feb. 27, is not completely without its detractors. Former city parks commissioner Henry Stern remains steadfast in his opposition to the project. Central Park, he says, has itself been the city's largest public artwork since it was designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1857. It certainly ain't broke today ... so why fix it? "It's a park, not a laundry room," he says. "The park is itself a work of natural beauty and doesn't require 7,500 flapping tangerine shmatas [rags]." The current parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, has heard these and other worries, and he shrugs them off. "If you don't like it, it's gone in 16 days," he says. "If you do like it, too bad--it's still gone in 16 days. I compare it to an artistic Halley's Comet: if you blink, you miss it."

A more serious concern than aesthetics, however, is safety. One of the artists' previous projects--"The Umbrellas"--was marred by two separate and, according to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "freakish" and "unavoidable" tragedies in 1991. The artists spent $26 million to erect more than 31,000 umbrellas, each 20 feet high, along valleys in Japan and California. But a few days after a visitor was killed by a storm-tossed umbrella in the United States, one of the workers on the Japanese site was electrocuted while standing in a wet rice field underneath electrical lines. For "The Gates," the couple says they left nothing to chance. Vince Davenport, the project's chief engineer and director of construction, installed 18 prototypes at his home in Leavenworth, Wash., where they have been subjected to the elements; a wind-tunnel test in Canada, and worse. "I drove a Jeep with a snowplow into it," Davenport told NEWSWEEK. "That didn't work, so I took a Bobcat to it." The tractor, he reports with a grin, was also no match for the art.