Public art

Public art

The term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that have been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. The term is especially significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a particular working practice, often with implications of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. The term is sometimes also applied to include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings.

In recent years, public art has increasingly begun to expand in scope and application - both into other wider and challenging areas of artform, and also across a much broarder range of what might be called our 'public realm'. Such cultural interventions have often been realised in response to creatively engaging a community's sense of 'place' or 'well-being' in society. After all, a public right to experience such culture should not only be enjoyed as an optional extra, but is actually one of our basic human rights: A long-forgotten principle of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (key principle 27.1), actually states: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Such commissions can still result in physical, permanent artworks and sculptures. These also often involve increasingly integrated and applied arts type applications. However, they are also beginning to include other, much more process-driven and action-research based artistic practices as well. As such, these do not always rely on the production of a physical or permanent artwork at all (though they still often do of course). This expanded scope of public art can embrace many diverse practices and artforms. These might be implemented as stand-alone, or as collaborative hybrids involving a multi-disciplinary approach. The range of its potential is of course endless and ever-changing. The only real restriction to its scope and ambition is that created by the blinkered vision and opinionated prejudice of a inadequate commissioning client, funder and/or curator.


The scope of public art

Monuments, memorials and civic statuary are perhaps the oldest and most obvious form of officially sanctioned public art, although it could be said that architectural sculpture and even architecture itself is more widespread and fulfills the definition of public art. Increasingly most aspects of the built environment are seen as legitimate candidates for consideration as, or location for, public art, including, street furniture, lighting and graffiti. Public art is not confined to physical objects; dance, procession, street theatre and even poetry have proponents that specialize in public art.

La Joute by Jean-Paul Riopelle, an outdoor kinetic sculpture installation with fire jets, fog machines, and a fountain in Montreal.

Sculpture intended as public art is often constructed of durable, easily cared-for material, to avoid the worst effects of the elements and vandalism; however, many works are intended to have only a temporary existence and are made of more ephemeral materials. Permanent works are sometimes integrated with architecture and landscaping in the creation or renovation of buildings and sites,an especially important example being the programme developed in the new city of Milton Keynes, England.

Some artists working in this discipline use the freedom afforded by an outdoor site to create very large works that would be unfeasible in a gallery, for instance Richard Long's three week walk, entitled "The Path Is the Place in the Line". In a similar example, sculptor Gar Waterman created a giant arch measuring 35x37x3 feet which straddled a city street in New Haven, Connecticut.[1] Amongst the works of the last thirty years that have met greatest critical and popular acclaim are pieces by Christo, Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, and Anthony Gormley where the artwork reacts to or incorporates its environment.

Artists making Public art range from the greatest masters such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, to those who specialize in public art such as Claes Oldenburg and Pierre Granche, to anonymous artists who make surreptitious interventions.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Africa Centre presents Infecting the City the Spier Public Art Festival. Its curatorial mandate is to create a week-long platform for public art - whether it be visual or performative artworks, or artistic interventions - that shake up the city spaces and allows the city's users to view the cityscapes in new and memorable ways. The Infecting the City Festival believes that public art should to be freely accessible to everybody in a public space[2]

Public fountain sculpture that is also a musical instrument (hydraulophone), which any member of the public can play at any time of the day or night.

Online documentation of public art

Online databases of local and regional public art emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. Aside from electronic archives at national libraries (such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum), online public art databases are usually specific to individual cities or public agencies (such as transit authorities) and are therefore geographically limited. A few web-based databases have emerged from efforts to provide more regionally comprehensive online public art lists, such as the Public Art in Public Places Project, completed in 2010 for the Los Angeles and Southern California area and providing information on thousands of public artworks.

Other online database efforts have focused on particular public art forms, such as sculptures or murals. From 1992-1994 Heritage Preservation funded the survey project Save Outdoor Sculpture!, whose acronym SOS! references the international Morse code distress signal, "SOS". This project documented more than 30,000 sculptures in the United States. The records of this survey are available in the SOS! Database.

Starting in 2009, WikiProject Public art has worked to document public art around the globe. While this project received significant attention within the academic community,[3] it remains relatively obscure.

Interactive public art

Some forms of public art are designed to encourage audience participation in a hands-on way. Examples include public art installed at hands-on science museums such as the main architectural centerpiece out in front of the Ontario Science Centre. This permanently installed artwork is a fountain that is also a musical instrument (hydraulophone) that members of the public can play at any time of the day or night. Members of the public interact with the work by blocking water jets to force water through various sound-producing mechanisms inside the sculpture.

Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr, Melbourne is also public art which works as a musical instrument.

Arne Quinze. Wooden public art installation The Sequence at the Flemish Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 2008
An outdoor interactive installation by Maurizio Bolognini (Genoa, 2005), which everybody can modify by using cell phone.
Public art on display at Clarence Dock, Leeds, UK

Percent for art

Public art is usually installed with the authorization and collaboration of the government or company that owns or administers the space. Some governments actively encourage the creation of public art, for example, budgeting for artworks in new buildings by implementing a Percent for Art policy. 1% of the construction cost for art is a standard, but the amount varies widely from place to place. Administration and maintenance costs are sometimes withdrawn before the money is distributed for art (City of Los Angeles for example). Many locales have "general funds" that fund temporary programs and performances of a cultural nature rather than insisting on project-related commissions. The majority of European countries, Australia and many cities and states in the USA, have percent for art programs. The first percent-for-art legislation passed in Philadelphia in 1959. This requirement is implemented in a variety of ways. The government of Quebec requires that the budget for all new publicly funded buildings set aside 1% for artwork. New York City has a law that requires that no less than 1% of the first twenty million dollars, plus no less than one half of 1% of the amount exceeding twenty million dollars be allocated for art work in any public building that is owned by the city. The maximum allocation for any commission in New York is $400,000.[4]

In contrast, the city of Toronto requires that 1% all of construction costs be set aside for public art, with no set upper limit (although in some circumstances, the municipality and the developer might negotiate a maximum amount). In the United Kingdom percent for art is discretionary for local authorities, who implement it under the broader terms of a section 106 agreement otherwise known as 'planning gain', in practice it is negotiable, and seldom ever reaches a full 1%, where it is implemented at all. A percent for art scheme exists in Ireland and is widely implemented by many local authorities.

Guerrilla art in New York

Arts Queensland, Australia supports a new policy (2008) for 'art + place' with a budget provided by state government and a curatorial advisory committee. It replaces the previous 'art built-in' 2005–2007.

Public art and politics

Public art has often been used for political ends. The most extreme and widely discussed manifestations of this remain the use of art as propaganda within totalitarian regimes coupled with simultaneous suppression of dissent. The approach to art seen in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China stand as representative.

In more open societies artists often find public art useful in promoting their ideas or establishing a censorship-free means of contact with viewers. The art may be intentionally ephemeral, as in the case of temporary installations and performance pieces. Such art has a spontaneous quality. It is characteristically displayed in urban environments without the consent of authorities. In time, though, some art of this kind achieves official recognition. Examples include situations in which the line between graffiti and "guerilla" public art is blurred, such as the art of John Fekner placed on billboards, the early works of Keith Haring (executed without permission in advertising poster holders in the New York City Subway) and the current work of Banksy. The Northern Irish murals and those in Los Angeles were often responses to periods of conflict. The art provided an effective means of communication both within and beyond a distressed group within the larger society. In the long run the work proved useful in establishing dialogue and helping to bridge the social rifts that fuelled the original conflicts.


"Sculpture for an objective experience of architecture" - David Chipperfield & Antony Gormley, Kivik Art Centre, Sweden (2008)

Public art sometimes proves controversial. A number of factors contribute to this: the desire of the artist to provoke; the diverse nature of the viewing public, with widely varying degrees of familiarity with art and its syntax; issues of appropriate uses of public funds, spaces, and resources; issues of public safety and civic oversight.

  • Richard Serra's minimalist piece Tilted Arc was removed from a New York City plaza in 1989 after office workers complained their work routine was disrupted by the piece. A public court hearing ruled against continued display of the work.
  • House, a large 1993–94 work by Rachel Whiteread in East London, was destroyed by the local council after a few months. In this case the artist and her agent had only secured temporary permission for the work.
  • Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light tree (1998) near Canary Wharf, also in East London, caused some confusion from motorists when first constructed, some of whom believed them to be real traffic signals. However, once the piece became more famous, by 2005 it was voted the favourite roundabout in the country by a survey of Britain's motorists.
  • Maurice Agis' Dreamspace V, a huge inflatable maze erected in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, killed two women and seriously injured a three-year-old girl when a strong wind broke its moorings and carried it 30 ft into the air, with thirty people trapped inside.[5]
  • 16 Tons, Seth Wulsin's vast 2006 work includes the demolition of the raw material it works with, namely a former jail, Caseros Prison, located in the middle of Buenos Aires. The prison is guarded by the Argentine military 24 hours a day, so that, in order to gain authorization to carry out the project, Wulsin had to engage a huge network of local, city and national government agencies, as well as groups of former prisoners of the jail, former political prisoners, human rights groups, and the military.[6]

In any given controversy, complexities are involved. Though press reports often present community debates as contests between two rival camps, a variety of views exist among both art specialists and lay public. Neither subset of the population is a monolithic group. Art is challenged and defended in a variety of ways by a number of individuals.

The Spire of Dublin World's tallest public art

Recent developments in public art now demonstrate an appeal to a friendlier notion of the public in the form of "community" art. Artists accept the many contexts brought to public art by its diverse audience, along with their own standing as members of the communities they address. They design pieces that generally curb avant-garde tendencies in favour of work that celebrates shared experiences. This approach validates the concerns of most public arts administrators and granting agencies. The approach encourages community involvement and critique of art works in the planning stages. It can head off controversies before large expenditures of public resources are involved.

This approach tends to alienate those who wish to see art take a more confrontational approach to social issues. Work that emphasizes common experiences within a community, they charge, plays down unpleasant conditions that persist within that community. Art groups like the Viennese Wochen Klausur (Weeks of Enclosure) aim to offer an alternative by working with expert agencies and using contemporary art idioms to explore possible solutions to pressing social problems.

In terms of economic controversies concerning public vs. private art, there exist a number of different viewpoints and propositions to make art more publicly available. In an age of increasing technological advancements and modernizations, the business aspect of art has become all the more complex. Whether a part of the art world or not, many people believe that for the industry to maintain its’ integrity and honorable intentions, art should be made more available. Curator Jon Ippolito states in his article “Why Art Should be Free” that “property, intellectual or personal, is the enemy of art…the art market’s presumption that art is a physical property…serves as a smokescreen”.2 If the market in deed deems art a physical property, then many ideas support the fact that it should be considered part of a public domain available to all without potential consequences. If we look at the people who profit notably within the art market, it becomes apparent that the artist rarely reaps the majority of the monetary credit. In modern day society, those who profit are primarily the middlemen. Ippolito explains that this business issue is often condemned due to the fact that “There is no way for a market-driven art world…to survive without a rich culture of art to draw from..”.2 In purchasing art and paying museum entrance fees, we as a society support most avidly, not the artists who created and produced their own forms of intellectual property, but the people whose occupations depend on the privatization and sale of art. This idea, coupled with the notion of commission rates, creates an unsteady market for artists to be a part of. There exists the additional problem concerning style specificity when it comes to the sale of art. Certain styles are seen and appreciated by certain collectors. Ippolito explains the downfall and possible justification of this trend, concluding that “It’s possible…that the need to find a marketing niche is responsible for the pluralism apparent in recent contemporary art”.2 The market does not take into consideration the various exploratory natures of artists and their works, nor does it encourage experimental techniques and methods. Instead, galleries, museums and other institutions will accept only a specific style that they deem profitable and appropriate in order to create opportunities for monetary advancements. With the privatization of art comes the inability for artists to experiment outside the realms of certain determined styles and methods despite the fact that artistic inspirations constantly adapt to changing ideas and events in our society. Now that we’ve established some of the opposing viewpoints that argue the art world is better off without being market driven, lets look at some modern advancements that have created the opportunity to support art as a public domain. Before the introduction of the Internet, it was difficult to consider the possibility that artists would continue to make art regardless of whether or not there was a market to handle their works. We as ordinary citizens reap the benefits of this new age demonstration of art as public property. Online accessibility allows for an unlimited amount of art and ideas to be viewed, swapped, and advertised, sans purchase. This makes for a globalizing effect in that people countries apart can now gain access to genres and styles never before witnessed. Even though the Internet facilitates artistic awareness and accessibility, co-editor of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker notes the setbacks in terms of enforcement and copyright problems associated with new technology. He writes that “The size of these inefficiencies and the extent of the enforcement problems have increased dramatically in the Internet Age, as digital technology allows for the costless reproduction of…material”.1 Baker proposes an approach that would take the place of copyrights in the form of an artistic freedom voucher (AFV) that would “take full advantage of the potential created by new technology”.1 This system would allow for a wide distribution of material and would create incentives to facilitate the transference of material. The controversy remains; with museums and other institutions in the art industry now catching up in terms of Internet publicity, will Internet artists be able to survive and prosper on their own in a world where art is publicly accessible and economically gratis?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 1Baker, Dean. “The Artistic Freedom Voucher: An Internet Age Alternative to Copyrights”. Center for Economic and Policy Research. November 5, 2003. 2 Ippolito, Jon. “Why Art Should be Free”.

Sustainability of Public Art

Public art faces a design challenge by its very nature: how best to activate the images in its surroundings. The concept of “sustainability” arises in response to the perceived environmental deficiencies of a city. Sustainable development, promoted by the United Nations since the 1980s, includes economical, social, and ecological aspects. A sustainable public art work would include plans for urban regeneration and disassembly. Sustainability has been widely adopted in many environmental planning and engineering projects. Sustainable art is a challenge to respond the needs of an opening space in public.


  • One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon. MIT Press, 2003.
  • Public Art by the Book, edited by Barbara Goldstein. 2005.
  • Dialogues in Public Art, edited by Tom Finkelpearl. MIT Press, 2000.
  • The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, edited by Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette. MASS MoCA, 2004.
  • Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, Grant Kester. University of California Press, 2004.
  • Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, edited by Suzanne Lacy. Bay Press, 1995.
  • Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, Rosalyn Deutsche. MIT Press, 1998.
  • In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture, Victor Burgin. University of California Press, 1996.
  • Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, Malcolm Miles. 1997.
  • Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities, Erika Lee Doss. 1995
  • Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy, Harriet Senie and Sally Webster. 1993.
  • Public Art Review, Forecast Public Art. Bi-Annual publication
  • On the Museum's Ruins, Douglas Crimp. MIT Press, 1993.
  • Art For Public Places: Critical Essays, by Malcolm Miles et al. 1989.
  • Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health, Critical Art Ensemble. Autonomedia, 2006.
  • The Lansing Area Arts Attitude Survey, by Suzanne Love and Kim Dammers. Michigan State University Center for Urban Affairs, 1978?
  • Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, by Dianne Durante. New York University Press, 2007
  • Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Meorial Landscape, Kirk Savage. University of California Press, 2009

See also

Mural on a boardwalk, Halibut Cove, Alaska


  1. ^ Mary E. O’Leary (July 11, 2010). "Stored away for decades, artifacts from New Haven Arena coming back". New Haven Register. Retrieved 2010-10-19. "They also cast the arch by sculptor Gar Waterman that straddles Wooster Street, the seagrass fence behind the Shubert Theatre in Temple Plaza, the iron railing around the fountain on the city Green and the owl that sits on top of Engleman Hall at Southern Connecticut State University." 
  2. ^ Brett Bailey, Curator, Infecting the City Festival
  3. ^ Mary Helen, Miller (4 April 2010). "Scholars Use Wikipedia to Save Public Art From the Dustbin of History". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 16 October 2010. 
  4. ^ Percent for Art in NYC New York City Department of Cultural Affairs website. Retrieved September 4, 2007.
  5. ^ Stokes, Paul (24 July 2006). "Women killed as artwork floats off". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  6. ^ [1]

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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