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What is Public Art? (Advice from the Experts)

Last week, I was given the chance to moderate a panel for Choice App, a new art focused app, on Public Art. You can find a recording of the session here: The below is an annotated version of the interview with expert advice from Suzanne Randolph of Suzanne Randolph Fine Arts and Patricia Walsh of Americans for the Arts.

Hunters Point South - Photo by: Bill Tatham

Kristina Libby. Artist: Could you just talk us through how a project like this comes to fruition? How long does it take? How do you choose an artist? And what role does someone like you play in that conversation about making public art.

Suzanne Randolph: This particular project and many of the projects that I am currently involved with, do come out of public at agencies that do have a percentage, not always a set percentage, but an allocation that come out of a Capital Project. So in this case, and I’ve done several projects with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which does that, it is a developer, and they take possession of public property and they create parkland, so many of these projects are with New York City Parks Departments, hire a design team of which I’m always joining as the Advisor for the Particular Public Administration Process. And then they also do develop. So there’s sort of homes and beautiful luxury apartment buildings that grow up around these projects. And this project that we did, did tie into the Queen’s community, that’s what the particular Planning Board was really very concerned about. They wanted an artist that was from Queens. And that’s we focused on. And we work closely with the very early phases of design, with the landscape architects to identify locations within their designs, that would be appropriate and opportunities for artists to respond to you through their an RFP that we develop, and come up with design proposals. So in this case, I think that this project took about, I would say, probably two years. The selection process, putting together, working with the designers, becoming sort of developing concepts, and then actually going out and researching artists doing a request for proposal, which is a formal request for artists to take the time to give us fully fleshed out designs, and then putting together a selection panel that represented people from the community, global cultural organizations as well, as the client representative and members of the design team. And then we look over the proposals and artists. We usually give artists, probably around two months to do a proposal. So it includes taking to the sites, going through all the elements of design and helping them if they need help in identifying fabricators that can really help them to realize the project within an established budget. And in these cases, these budgets are very modest. They’re not huge, big amounts of money. I think this project was $100,000 and the artist that did, is an artist who taught for many years in Stony Brook, heads of Sculpture Department at Wichita State University and lives in Queens area. So she was very, very knowledgeable, really new, had some great ideas. And this project is seven phases of the moon. And she actually went to, we’ve got phases of the moon, documented from NASA. And then these are wonderful kind of, Hemisphere, some of the actual engrave craters, moon craters at different times. And then she included in the fabrication of a cement phosphorescence. These little flakes that actually retain the light during the day and at night, they glow. So what you’re seeing here was sort of the sunset, you see sort of this little warm glow from the spheres. And I love it, it sorts of reminds me of a pieces of past. It’s gone on for a long time where kids are playing, parents are lounging. And it’s just a wonderful peaceful space that I would urge everyone to visit on Hunter’s Point in Long Island City. But typically, once we chose the artists, I would say that it was another year or a year and a half to get the piece installed. And it’s got to be coordinated with the fabrication, the actual site construction. Interestingly, when we first started looking at the site, the whole thing was infested with layers of snow and ice. And we could only give her the proposed plans and schemes. But now it’s beautiful and green and lush and really, really loved by the community. And really as a destination for people who come to want to see this beautiful view of Manhattan.

Kristina Libby. Artist: Patricia, as you think about public art, and you think about this process. Really, what is it to you? What makes something a successful public art piece? Is it like this Hunters Point piece, where families can play on it or do you look for something? That’s a too much of a simplification. Families can play on it. There’s so much it’s connected to the community, it’s really meaningful. Is this a good example in your mind? Are you looking for something else? How do you categorize and think about this space?

Patricia Walsh: I think for me, it really does come down to like, how was the community really responding to it? And that could be anything from as simple as they found it very beautiful, and they enjoy it, and it’s something that really kind of brightens their day. And that’s completely valid. It can be anything to something like this piece that’s Zimbra brought to us, which is about really kind of making a site more interesting and dynamic, that’s engaging in a different way, and allows people to have a place to kind of connect with each other and build. And have an opportunity for more social cohesion not only with their families, but with other people that are in the space. So this kind of this very broad understanding of what success actually means within this field? To me, if you’re really kind of runs the gamut as long as it’s addressing in some capacity, or it’s being responsive to the community that’s there, then to me that’s a measurement of success for any type of public artwork.

Suzanne Randolph: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that the community engagement is what quite honestly keeps a piece respected, and safe and beautiful. If people don’t feel as if it’s part of what they’ve had, a voice in it, maybe not, as part of this. It’s always good to have representatives. Some representative from the community, who represents maybe, a local art cultural institution, but someone that really can have a voice and knows the site, knows the community. It does make a huge difference in terms of the lasting pleasure that people can gain for.

Kristina Libby. Artist: Is that a transition you’ve both noticed, I think but I would love to be told that I’m wrong, the kind of, in the last, 10-ish years, maybe the last 15 years, that idea that public art should be connected to the community, responsive to the community, representative of the community feels much more prolific as a concept. Has that always been at the heart of public art? Or are you seeing a change in that conversation?

Patricia Walsh: I definitely been seeing it. I think, there’s definitely a change. I don’t think, it’s a new thing. I think, it depends on the project and the type of work that you’re seeing and the location.

Suzanne Randolph: If it is different.

Patricia Walsh: Yeah. It’s a place in downtown Manhattan. It’s a very, very different thing. If it’s really in a more residential community. It makes a huge difference as well. And I think, I really agree with you. I think that it was a bigger deal years ago, because there was so much other kind of social unrest that was going on, that people did not want people to come in and say, “This is what we’re doing for you.” And then I think it kind of fell back again. And I think just understanding stakeholders is what’s been proven to be an important ingredient in assessment.

Suzanne Randolph: I’ll just add to that, what we also saw is that people really, it just kind of goes back to like, what makes us successful public artwork? But people really want to see themselves reflected in their built environment. And public art is one way in which that happens. And so in order for that to happen, in order for that to be really sincere, and genuine. They need to be the general community, or whoever’s really kind of engaging with the work at the end, needs to be part of the overall process. So there’s been like a push. I think, from community to really want to be engaged with that. I’ll also say from the arts administrator perspective, I think, more and more particularly, I’d say, since the mid to early 2000s, there’s been sort of this push to like, understanding that the sooner you bring in artists into a project, particularly with some sort of construction based project, the sooner that their ideas can be incorporated. And you may have a much more interested in site specific piece than you did. If you just brought them in near the end, [unclear 16:43] look like something. So bringing them in, so that there was a sort of this interesting push between bringing in the community, want to be engaged, plus this sort of change in arts administrators. I’ll also say the other thing I noticed, and then I will stop talking. The other thing I noticed is this notion of really kind of stepping aside, and there’s definitely pushing pull in the arts world around this. But stepping aside, this notion that only artists or arts professionals, understand what good art is, and allowing in sort of these other voices to know what’s best for them in their spaces? So public community members know what they want, they may not have the credentials, if you will, of what art is, but they know what they like, and they know what they want to see? And that’s really kind of, arts administrators really play a strong role in being able to facilitate that conversation like understand what the community wants, and working with the artist, to be able to create a piece that only works with the artist’s aesthetic, that also speaks to the relevancy and needs of the community.

Patricia Walsh: And I think to pick up on that, having been one advisor to working on clients, both, public sector and private sector, I’m always amazed, I’m shouldn’t say amazed, because that’s really not the case. But I should say, I’m always delighted to see how good art resonates across every amazing cohort that you could ever imagine. If artists are really tuned in or really pure and their vision, it resonates. And it really drives a very positive response for people who may go to museums, who may have a PhD. And they just say, “I know what I like.” And most of the times, they are liking the most sophisticated and most interesting ideas. And I think that a lot of that is how...? I think, the other thing with public art is the artists and how they engage with the community? It’s not only what the form of the art is, but it’s also that engagement. And I’m doing a project now in the East River, along the East River, but on the Harlem River Side by the Triborough Bridge, so wonderful piece in which they’re going to be sort of pipe organs that will be within the piece, and it’s going to be an area where musicians can come and play. But if you saw it, you wouldn’t know it. So that’s the other issue in terms of what the programmatic aspects of public art.

Kristina Libby. Artist: I think, there’s something really interesting in what you just said that I want to bring out. Because this is a community of people, who are artists and who are interested in making art. You talk about really focused ideas and ideas that can kind of transcend everyone, from people with a PhD in art history to people who live and work in this community who maybe don’t have that sort of sophisticated academic background but who do really like and respond to what they see? How do you see artists going about creating that clarity of focus? Or what are you looking for as you are looking through proposals or through art that has been out in the community? I guess the question is two parts. One, what do you think artists should be doing to get to that level of clarity? And then B, what does that really mean? How do you spot it? How do you see it? Is it about simplicity of ideas? Is it about deep connected roots? What does that really mean?

Suzanne Randolph: Well, I think, it is hard. And I don’t want to say that it’s intuitive. But after having done this for a long time, in many ways, it is. For this one Harlem River project that we’re doing, we had seven or eight artists, which is what we usually do, get seven or eight artists. And then we went down to that three to do proposals, and I can’t explain it, but some of the ideas are cold. Some of the ideas are not clear. Some of the ideas are engaging. And it’s also how does an artist present his or her work? And that’s really important. How do they talk about the work? What other projects have they done? What’s their kind of narrative, visual and spoken narrative about the idea? So it’s the artists, they rise to the top, I can’t even explain it, to put it into words. But in this one case, for the Harlem River Project, we did a second round with three artists. And one artist was totally unclear, and only thought about himself. Another one, again, the idea was very, very, very detached. And the one that we chose was really more about engagement. And that’s when we really pushed hard, because the agency first didn’t like that proposal, then they say, “Okay, but it’s not what we want,” and we really work with him and said “Let’s rethink this.” And when everybody rethought, it’s just stood out. And it was great. It’s wonderful. So it is somewhat gut. But you really looking at, what they’ve done, how they think, what they’ve done to make it special? I think with public art, you might have thoughts about this is that sometimes there are artists who just present their studio work, end of the story. And there are others that did not, and really think about where it’s going the intended audience? And that, again, makes a huge difference. But in one case, we had an artist that just kind of blew up a gallery space and plunked it on a pedestal in this area. And it just wasn’t appropriate. That just wasn’t the right experience that we thought could endure. And that could be engaged and enjoyed.

Patricia Walsh: Yeah, I’ll add, I think there’s a couple of things. One, I work that Suzanne and I are really kind of talking about are pieces that are really being integrated into a site. And so there’s an expectation that when the artist presents themselves, they’re going to bring a piece that is unique to that site, that is reflective or responsive to whatever the histories or the cultures or the community in, whatever that looks like? And I think there’s other opportunities for like sculpture works and things like that, we can just bring your piece. That’s a studio piece. They did sculptural piece, and just install it for like six months to a year. And then you take it or either you sell it or, [unclear 23:55]. I think the work that we’re really thinking about is, for me, when I’ve start through selection processes, you know when an artist is just bringing you a piece, we’re really excited to do it. It’s not because it has really anything relevant to do with the site. They’re just trying to find a location, court or something like that. And that’s not the work that I think Suzanne and I are really talking about here. There are places for that. And there are ways to kind of get that work into the public spaces. But that’s not exactly what, when I think of public art in this sort of, like deeper kind of connection to the art site location, to the people that are there. That’s what we’re really talking about is who’s being able to bring that in and present that and who’s really thought deeply about that and how their work reflects that?

Kristina Libby. Artist: To you, I think we’ve talked through a couple of examples, but either of you artists working today that you think just nail this because they’re creating exceptional public art works, site specific, that is warm, that is engaging for the community? This is also really focused and interesting. That’s put you on the spot.

Suzanne Randolph: There’s tons of artists doing this type of work. It’s coming up with one on the spot. The one person that just immediately came to me, who I think is fairly well-known in the New York area and growing throughout the country is Vinnie Bagwell, who’s been doing this type of forum for years now, we can really talk about bringing in her experience, in really making sure that the work that she creates is responsive to the site. But there are tons of artists that are out there, that are really being [unclear 25:38], really understanding what it means to be engaged, what it means to really have the community first, process and practice in that, that’s exciting. And it’s very exciting to see that continue to happen.

Patricia Walsh: I think that part of the fun of all this, which is why I think all of us have been doing this for a long time, is that the opportunity that is to new folk artists, so it’s the chance to re-fix something, an idea that comes as a result of the opportunity. And that’s what’s exciting, because you can never really predict through the proposal process, what’s going to come up? And that’s what’s exciting about it, that it’s not always predictable. And artists use it as an opportunity to really kind of stretch themselves and that’s fun.

But I don’t know if there’s anyone, and it’s interesting, the stories that we’re working with, doing this project. And he just got a huge, huge project at the University of Pennsylvania. So, had he not done this project? And he also did one at the University of Virginia, which was just mentioning the current issue of art in America, the whole Memorial piece, the beginning, you never know, one thing leads to another. And it’s just really wonderful to be able to give artists the opportunity to be seen, and a new way to express your ideas in your way.

Kristina Libby. Artist: That’s really great advice on both of your parts. And both such interesting points, I want to kind of close up the conversation by, thinking about it from an artist perspective, is there anything that you would encourage artists to do, to think about, winning these Public Art Commissions to sort of stepping into this part of their career? I think you’ve said a few things. So I’m just going to repeat them. And one of which is to have really focused ideas, to really could draw things on that are connected with the community to make sure they know the community and to create ideas that have this sort of true engagement. And I think engagement meaning engagement with space, engagement with people. But are there other things that are there specific assets, you want to have them created? You mentioned narrative or are there specific ways that, you think crafting, crafting responses or proposals are useful for getting into this world?

Suzanne Randolph: I always suggest that artists register with every registry imaginable. But some things like Department of Cultural Affairs, the city. They turn an MTA, Arts for Transit, they turn to their resources, which had been in some cases vet, to see who’s there. And so I always think that it’s about, looking at these resources and registries where you can be considered so that people have a chance of seeing your work and doing all the kind of documentation, of course, as always Instagram or, other sort of SEO opportunities, but the registries are really great. And I always think that’s a way that can be seen by organizations, that are turning to their own resources to get to look for ideas for artists.

Kristina Libby. Artist: That’s extremely helpful. Patricia, did you have anything else down on that point?

Patricia Walsh: Yeah, it’s about going out and trying new things, particularly if you’re new to doing work in the public sphere, I think, it takes a lot to kind of go from being a studio artist to doing the kind of project like the Hunters Point Project that Suzanne, brought here for us to look at. Because I am thinking about it, one way though, I don’t always agree with it and has some issues around it, we’re talking about 1000s upon 1000s of dollars that were given to this artist or I’m assuming, to do this type of work. So building up a portfolio and a resume that allows people to understand how you’re seeing your work in the public sphere? So it’s not that big of a leap for them. So finding ways to engage, your local community and do pieces out in the public space, before you start jumping into these really large projects, is one way to do it. I’m not saying it’s not possible, there are people that have come from studio backgrounds have been easily made the jump. But being able to build up your portfolio and your visuals that really kind of showcase, how your work sits and exists within the public spaces is definitely helpful, particularly if you’re new to public arts.

Suzanne Randolph: It’s an interesting idea. The other thing is, you have to do that. And in some cases, I have found artists by sitting on panels. And I just thought that their work was interesting. And I followed up and I’ve used it for a couple of projects. And then quite honestly, I’ve slinging something today in America, about the historic monuments, which is interesting piece to read. But the thing that was interesting is that what I saw was a submission, it would did not win, but it was a submission. So again, trying out, sharing your ideas, whether you win or not, it’s still an idea that you’ve thought through, as an example, I think, this is a great idea is going small and still documenting it well, so that you do have more to build up and to share when it comes to the project.

Kristina Libby. Artist: Amazing, thank you both. Is there anything else on this topic of what is public art? How that’s start thinking about it, which is, obviously, a topic that we could talk about for hours and hours and hours, but through any last thoughts or bits of advice for this audience as they start to dive in a bit deeper to the topic?

Patricia Walsh: I’ll just sort of add. I’m always fascinated by this question, like what is public art? Because I think over the past easily, 1520 years, it’s expanded dramatically on to what it’s really defined. We used to have conversations internally about like, what do we mean by defining it? We look at it just as like a very broad concept of like, arts in the built environment. We’ll be looking at it from this concept of like art and public spaces. And then at that point, you’re asking a question, like, what is a public space? Dive into what that means. And I think, as you move through this process, you’re going to notice that people use this term in a lot of different ways. There’s the ways that Suzanne and that I have been using it today, which I find to be somewhat traditional, that you’re going to start seeing it more and more expanded into what people are defining as public art, or art in public places is another term that’s used, or civic art [unclear 33:39], about trying to figure out what it means to have art in public spaces? So it’s not going to look the same everywhere you go, you’ve probably noticed that if you started doing any research [unclear 33:49] responding to its community. So that’s the one thing to keep in mind that this is an ever changing and expanding field, for sure.

Suzanne Randolph: Yeah. And I think the other thing that certainly the medium, the format, the materials used are totally different, and so much boarder. I think, the other thing that doesn’t have to be something that hits you right in the face, it doesn’t have to be 20 feet tall. They could be experience, it’s really all about discovery. So I think, that the way the format and means of engagement is so much boarder and maybe it’s just how you want to connect with an audience, period. And it’s the connecting process, that’s really the key part of it, whether it’s intimate, sort of something that could be just discovery along the street, tiny. You think about some of them, even Tom Otterness, his pieces, kind of pop up and there’s a little something or whether. Max Harry’s has done some pieces in [unclear 34:59] sort of cast these gloves or scraps of food on the floor of a market in Boston. So I think it’s really about understanding that can be subtle as well as broad. And that scale can medium to range. And I think it’s really connecting again with your intended audience, as the public of one who knows.

Kristina Libby. Artist: That’s wonderful. Yeah, I think, that idea of just how do you want to connect with people is such a profound question. Also, when you’re thinking about, is this a space you want to be in? Do you want to be part of a large public dialogue? Do you want to talk and in that public dialogue, who do you want to talk to and how?

Suzanne Randolph: Do you want to be louder or do you want to whisper?

Kristina Libby. Artist: Yeah. And to whom do you want to do either of those things, to and how and all of those questions. I am so grateful that you both took the time to have this conversation.

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