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What is Public Art?

Public art is not a type of art. Rather it is the name for any art that exists in a public location and which focuses on a public dialogue, public message or to create a public conversation.

In this article, you will learn:

What is public art?

Public art is art that is in a public space and created for the purpose of having a dialogue with the public. It is art which should have longevity, yet also respond to and represent the society in which it is created.

Public art can include:

  1. Sculpture

  2. Architecture

  3. Murals

  4. Performance

  5. Landscape Art

  6. Memorials

  7. Digital Art

  8. Stained Glass

  9. Tapestry

  10. And, numerous other classic, new and emerging forms of art.

Public art is generally understood to be for the consumption of the broad public, in locations where access is not prohibited but instead encouraged. Additionally, public art can express community values, beautify, change or otherwise enhance our environment, heighten our awareness, question our assumptions or transform a landscape.

Public art is a part of our public experience (historic and future driven) and reflects but is also a part of our evolving culture and our collective memory. As artists respond to the world, they reflect their vision, and they can create a chronicle of our shared public experiences.

In general, public art can be furthered defined by the fact that often:

  • It is commissioned by public process: the community has a clear and defined role in selecting the artist, the site, and the artwork.

  • Public money funds the creation of the art piece, especially in the case of percent-for-art ordinances. The art, therefore, has many audiences, not just the artist and the selection committee. There is a degree of accountability assumed about the artwork that artists do not encounter when creating work for private use or museums.

  • It is associated with a sense of longevity. A work of public art, is protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act and would need to go through an official process (Deaccession) if it is to be sold or removed.

  • The piece must designed to rigorous standards and should last from 20-50 years, if not more, in an outdoor, fairly unprotected environment. However, this is not true of ALL public art. Some works are designed to be temporary by their nature or to suite a more temporary process.

  • And, the piece must often embrace the idea of interaction or assume public interaction. People love to touch what they can see.

Popular pieces of public art include:

  • Yayoi Kusuma's Yellow Pumpkin

  • Jeff Koons' Puppy

  • Sir Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate

  • And, Elmgreen and Dragset's Prada Marfa.

What is a definition of public art?

Public art is defined as the art that is for the public. The Tate describes public art noting that "Usually, but not always, public art is commissioned specifically for the site in which it is situated. Monuments, memorials, and civic statues and sculptures are the most established forms of public art, but public art can also be transitory, in the form of performances, dance, theatre, poetry, graffiti, posters and installations."

Public art may often be used as a political tool, like the propaganda posters or the murals painted by the Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland. Public art can also be a form of civic protest, as in the graffiti sprayed on the side of the New York subway in the 1980s or the Floral Heart Project in response to COVID-19.

Legally, public art is often defined as art to be funded from a Public Art fund. Such projects may be an integral part of a building, attached to a building, placed within or outside of a building, or within a public space, or in the case of performing arts performed in a public building or space.

Public art must always be, by definition, visually and physically accessible to the general population. Public works are most often seen in city parks, squares, or streets that residents can easily reach.

Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, 2018, London, via Phaidon Press
Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, 2018 (via Phaidon Press) shares a warning of the future

The London Mastaba by Christo, 2018, (via Wallpaper Magazine) creates a spectacle

What is the purpose of public art?

There are many purposes for creating public art. At the highest level it is meant to engage directly with communities and highlight issues that are culturally important to the community. In doing so, that art can create change socially, politically and within the landscape of a city. However, public art can do this within many forms and with many different intents.

The purpose of public art can include:

  • To remember a shared history (memorial),

  • To bring hope,

  • To create a spectacle or drive the imagination,

  • To ignite a cause or highlight an issue,

  • To cultivate an identity,

  • To warn about the past or the future,

  • Or, to enliven a space.

Public art done well should activate the imagination and get people to pay attention to the environment in which they are in. In doing so it can stimulate learning and thought about society, interconnectivity, and about the earth in general. Public art can help express a community's values and elevate our awareness for community members and visitors.

In doing so, public art can provide an enormous value to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of a community. Urban design now greatly accepts that public art enhances the quality of life for its residents and visitors. According to the Project for Public Spaces, two-thirds (65%) of American adult travelers say they included a cultural, arts, heritage, or historic activity or event while on a trip of 50 miles or more, one-way, in the past year. This equates to 92.7 million cultural travelers. Of the 92.7 million adult travelers who included a cultural event on their trip, 32% (29.6 million travelers) added extra time to their trip because of a cultural, arts, heritage, or historic activity or even

Many cities have public art programs and innovative ways of bringing public art to communities. Chicago’s percent-for-art program ensures that a percentage of the cost of building or renovating municipal structures be utilized for original artwork on the premises. Through this program, the city has purchased hundreds of works of public art, including Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2006) in Millennium Park. London also has an innovative system for commissioning public art through its Fourth Plinth program. Since 1998, the office of the Mayor of London has selected artists to create temporary works to sit atop the th Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Public art is typically funded through the government, but increasingly through public-private partnerships as well. Percent for Art is a policy that mandates that a percentage of a city’s capital improvement project funds (CIP) are set aside for the commission, purchase, fabrication, and installation of public artwork. Typically, around 1 percent of the total construction or renovation budget is allocated to this purpose. Private developers are increasingly incorporating and funding public art in private development projects.

What does public art look like?

There are a number of Contemporary Art practices ("New Genre Public Art" (Suzanne Lacy), "Relational Aesthetics" (Nicolas Bourriaud), "Dialogical Art" (Grant Kester), and "Participatory Art" (Claire Bishop)) that make up the category of public art. These practices focus on the relationship between artist and audience. The works notes that the relationship itself often becomes the artwork and as such can be seen as "not art for public spaces but art addressing public issues [...] It reconnects culture and society, and recogniandzes that art is made for audiences, not for institutions of art."

As a result, prominent examples of public art can be wildly diverse. From more traditional sculpture to electronic art installations to buoys in a plaza, public art plays with scale, color and materials to transform the environment in which it sits. It can be graffiti art or bronze sculpture.And the community generally dictates their preferences in material and design by the perceptions, ideas and values of a society.

How is public art different than private art?

Public art is the opposite of private art. It is made for public consumption. Private art is made for individual or institutional collection.

Public art is:

  • Community-funded.

  • Meant for consumption by many people at once.

  • May be focused on a social message or conversation.

  • Often is large scale.

Private art is:

  • Privately purchased.

  • Meant for consumption by a single viewer at a time.

  • Does not need to be socially minded or with a social message.

  • Often made to fit indoors or within a more normalized scale.

An opinion piece in the New York Times shares that "With outdoor sculpture, the private act of looking converges with public habit. Public art is a communal activity; its reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers."

What are types of public art?

Types of public art vary by city, need, community, and culture. These works can be permanent, temporary or traveling. And, understanding the differences between types of public art is important to understand the breadth of artists and communities working within the space.

  • Ephemeral/non-permanent: This is temporary art that is created with the intention it will fall apart, degrade, or blow away in some fashion. It may makes a statement about community art and sense of place or be responsive to a time and moment. The Floral Heart Project was designed as an ephemeral art practice.

Floral Heart Project Public Art Project

  • Applied: Murals and sculptures mounted on buildings or other structures fall into the category of applied public art. They may be large scale and highly visible on the street. This category can include Giant Binoculars by Oldenburg and Bruggen.

45-foot by 44-foot by 18-foot building-mounted, concrete and cement plaster sculpture, incorporated into the building façade over both vehicle and pedestrian entrances
Giant Binoculars Public Art

  • Integrated: Sidewalks, building faces, and landscapes may play host to integrated public art. The artist or design team frequently takes the surface of the building or landscape into account and makes the art around what is available, like designing large shapes into grass fields. Collaboration between architects, landscape architects, planners and practitioners can is a cross disciplinary activity that transcends function to create and develop highly innovative and relevant integrated design solutions for public places.

  • Installation: This type of public art utilizes the specific build site as inspiration and catalyst during the design process. Generally, this form utilizes three-dimensional things in some sort of thought-provoking way.

  • Stand-alone: These tend to be stand-alone sculptures or large structures that are site-specific, like a public sculpture garden. Examples include these pieces listed in the public sculpture art section.

  • Street art: This often includes unsanctioned art like graffiti art, memorial art, sticker art or chalk art in communities. Street art has been the inspiration for numerous fashion and community collaborations, as well as being a form of protest. Street art is often meant to provoke thought rather than rejection which may make its purpose more evident than that of traditional graffit works. .

What Makes Public Art Good?

Charles Griswold noted that to assess public art: “It is necessary to understand the symbolism, social context, and the effects of the art work on those who experience it.”

Good public art should require merely that it engage in a dialogue with the community. This might include:

  • A space feeling comfortable,

  • A space creating a desire for people to return,

  • Creating a sense of interplay with a community, or

  • Encouraging connection to the surroundings.

To achieve this, public art should be fully a result of work within a community: artists should crowdsource ideas, host public discussion and encourage and ask for input.

"Expecting the artist to become a spokesperson for the community, or a social critic addressing significant and sensitive aesthetic, political, and social issues has become increasingly problematic in culturally diverse, ideologically driven, advanced technological societies. This process is notably tenuous in an environment where substantial doubt exists about whether artists have the necessary knowledge or wisdom to dispense truth, and where interpretations of history shift rapidly with changes in ideology. From the artist’s perspective there is also the risk of her/his becoming merely an instrument of propaganda for the state, or for one of the many interest groups that make up the community." - Curtis Carter, PhD Philosophy

What is Public Sculpture Art?

Public sculpture art is a genre of public art that focuses more specifically on sculptural pieces. These can be pieces in wood, bronze, polymers, glass, or any number of other materials. Generally these pieces are not temporary and are intended to last decades if not centuries. However, there are numerous events, fairs and exhibits that host temporary sculptures like Australia's Sculptures at Sea.

Historically, sculpture has been characterized as “the art of representing observed or imagined objects in solid materials and in three dimensions.” And, public sculpture has existed as landmark, monument, architectural embellishment, cultural symbol, and independent aesthetic object since the very early start of our society. This traditional notion of sculpture represents a baseline from which sculpture as public art has evolved.

The following examples of public sculpture art are International renowned for their execution and conceptualism:

How to Find Public Art for Sale ?

Various mechanisms exist for procuring and purchasing public art. A large amount of public art is commissioned through RFPs or RFQs to experienced artists some purchases made by made through galleries or public art brokers, and others come directly through arrangements made between develops and artists.

Various pieces of public art may also be found via online market places and online stores that specialize in supplying art for the public market.

How to Bring Public Art to Your Community?

The best way to bring public art to your community is to work with your local arts or development council. Many large and small scale cities already have public art planning boards who help source, request and purchase art for the community.

Public art is typically developed and managed by a city or regional agency such as a local arts agency or private entity such as a nonprofit arts organization. The agencies that may implement public art include City Planning, Parks and Recreation, and Economic Development departments. The commissioning organization, group or entity distributes a RFP ( request for proposal) or an RFQ (request for qualifications) for a project. They then select an artist or artist group to install and develop the proposed work. Frequently, the selected winner works with a team of other professionals who might include public art administrators, planners, architects, landscape architects, and engineers.

Public art may also be created be an artist, self-funded, and developed outside of more traditional institutional environment. That being said, many public art projects especially when publicly funded, are typically part of development or construction projects that revolve around a larger urban development or cultural plan.

Americans for the Arts shares how public art is determined and approved: "The design for a proposed public artwork is typically approved by city’s art commission or art council. Appointed members to an arts commission may include: artists, visual art and public art professionals, designers, landscape architects, and planners. Following the art commission approval of the proposed public art design, the permit to build the public art work typically goes through a city’s building and zoning/permitting department. If the public artwork is temporary, the project is often categorized as an event and goes through a city’s event permitting department."

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