Assessing What to Assess in Public Art
I believe we need to be really careful about what results we claim public art produces. Inevitably, and understandably, we will be asked by someone to produce the evidence to back our claims.
Careless claims can be most difficult task prove and, unproven, confound the good efforts of us all.
My caution is not because I think public art does little; rather that some things we might believe (or hope) we do are difficult to prove.
There are recent examples of assessments of well-known cultural agencies that provided little or no support for the assumptions made about their work. Does that mean that the work is not valuable (or properly valued)…or that the assessment of its value is nearly impossible even when well financed and professionally investigated? Assessing public art is nothing like counting beans.
There are examples of attitudinal assessments that work for some cultural experiences—not so much public art.
If you assess attitudes before and after a theater performance, at the very least you are asking someone to reflect on an experience that is both visual and aural and one that they have invested some significant amount of time (and perhaps money) to experience. Similarly, if someone has gone to a museum, they have invested time (likely at least an hour) and money and have chosen the experience because they anticipate satisfaction of their desire. And, in both cases the producing agency can hope to see an increase in funding from annual memberships as a long-term form of assessment.
Can public art begin to match those conditions for assessment? No.
Public art does not have the ability to compel people to match such commitments of time and focus. Public art does not sell annual memberships (at least not yet).
But, let’s not under-value the value of public art either.
Public art is more than a beautifying (or inspiring) public amenity—it is social catalyst and civic infrastructure. Picasso’s untitled sculpture was dedicated in Chicago’s Civic Center in August 1967 the same month that the first community mural, The Wall of Respect was painted by the artists of Organization of Black American Culture just a few miles away.
Each were astonishing moments in the history of public art. But can we say that the Picasso has ever brought more than a handful of people in to town just to look at it for 90 minutes—or that the loss of The Wall of Respect in 1970 ended its ability to inform and inspire?
Each are part of a democratic culture in which ideas give form to voice. Voices that once expressed the collective formation of faith in churches now extend the conversation to the collective formation of our public spaces. Wait. Am I preaching to the choir?
I do believe that are some anticipated outcomes of public art that should be direct and widely known from the very beginning. What kind of things can be assessed?
Artist – Personal communication skills, being on time, and be able to work/lead as part of a team.
Artistic – Aesthetic judgment that consider use of color, drawing skills, negative space, conceptual appropriateness, safety, etc.
Fiscal – Was the budget appropriate and adequate? Were payments timely?
Organizational – Did the sponsoring agency provide respectful and timely communication and support? Were the goals for participation by community members met? Was the PR rollout a success?
Partner – Did the project meet the appropriate needs of partner(s)? The significant word here is "appropriate."
Political – Did Fox or CNN do an exposé. (Yes, that is a joke.)
So, if those items aren’t enough to assess public art—what else is needed?
Some things require an act of faith. More on that next time...