Is Public Art Dead?

Posted by Ms. Norie Sato, May 30, 2014 6 comments

Norie Sato Norie Sato

In the late 1970s, artists and critics were asking “Is Painting Dead?” In the face of new approaches, media and concepts, the art world was looking at new ways of art making versus the old.   It was somewhat of a facetious question, yet there was a lot of truth in it. Public art as we know it, as “government-sponsored” percent programs, is getting to be more than 40 years old. Programs are celebrating 30, 40, 50 years of existence. It is no longer a new thought, no longer exciting in its promise, reach and approach…or is it? I’m not sure I can answer that question yet, but here are a few observations that may signal a trend.

Types of artworks are being rehashed over and over both by programs and by artists. Do we need more pavement inlays, quotes by famous people, hand and animal prints, “culturally relevant” patterns, spiral paths, salmon? When initially done, these were fresh ideas, but now?  Does each program or city need to have at least one of each?

Selection committees are composed of people who do not know art or public art and do not really know how to assess projects, but they are given the power to do so.  Selection committees are increasingly composed of a majority of people who don’t know much about art or public art, instead of balancing them also with people who do. Selection processes are increasingly based on “competitions”. We want to know what we are going to get before we commit. We don’t want to take chances to select an artist based on their past work and an interview, then work with that artist to craft a proposal. Rather, we give artists only a short time, little discussion and dialogue, little real research and thinking time and little money to develop a proposal. Proposals are selected not necessarily based on which concept may actually be the best, but how does the model look? Which is glitziest, the prettiest? Which fits most into what was expected? What is easiest to understand? What’s been done elsewhere that can be replicated? The selections are sometimes put to public vote, to online comments and feedback, with selection going to the one with the most “positive” comments and votes. Negative comments even by one person can kill a project.

Project managers sometimes have no art training to help interpret the artists’ work for the public and to politicians.  Artists are left hanging to defend their own work.  With no art training (nor public art training), how can project managers partner with artists as they should in the process and also help artists to create the best work they can? Do they have other experience and qualities to work with this process or is this just another building project? Is public art now just a process, with no art discussion and something that anyone can make and build?

Money has become the driving factor not value. 1% was clearly too little as it is now being whittled to .75%, .5%,  0% and what was 2% is now 1% and getting smaller. Can anything significant be made for the budgets available or do the budgets promote the tried and true? Did we oversell the fact that artists can do things cheaper? Can we really make fences more interesting and more cheaply than boring standard ones? Can we make benches more unique and more cheaply than off the shelf ones? Can we really? Or are we just asking artists to work for less? Artists live on the cheap so they don’t need to make money, do they? Why pay them as professionals? They don’t have any overhead, do they? Budgets are scrutinized, artists are asked to create more for less. Unfortunately, sometimes we do.

Popularity and likability are the measures of success.  How can we tell whether an artwork is successful or not or even good or bad? In the absence of being able to explain public art, its meaning and its value, do we look to whether “most people like it” as the measure? It scares us if someone does not like it. Is popularity the only measure of when an artwork is good or successful? Don’t we realize that there isn’t anything in the world that everyone likes, so why should public art’s measure be tied to like and dislike? Can we explain why an artwork is good to those who do not “like” it? Why are we putting public art out there?

Artists are not the only ones who can create public art.  (This is not to denigrate the other professions).  Architects, landscape architects, children, interior designers, graphic designers, engineers—it’s a field open to anyone creative! More than art for other art contexts like museums or galleries, it is a field that is more open people other than “artists.” Is this a good or bad thing?   

Ok, OK, OK!  I am guilty of some of the above. Those observations may be extreme and are meant to provoke conversation, not end it. Let’s talk a bit more at the conference, be inspired by the Year in Review, the panels, tours and other presentations and discussions. Then, let’s continue to ask the questions because self-criticism and discussion is one way to keep our field vital, alive, and inspirational.

Norie Sato is Americans for the Arts’ 2014 Public Art Network Award Honoree. Every year, we honor individuals, organizations, and programs committed to enriching their communities through the arts at our Annual Convention. This week, we are featuring a series of blogs by our award recipients on their projects or an arts policy issue of their choice. Follow the tag Annual Awards 2014

6 responses for Is Public Art Dead?


Mr. Joe O'Connell says
June 04, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I largely agree with your observations, but I’d like to address a few of the issues you raise, starting with popularity and other ways we judge public art.

I have always wanted my own works to be popular, and if they are not, I feel they have failed. By popular I don’t mean loved by everyone, just that the majority of people like it, some love it very much, and very few hate it. Because public money pays for public art, it seems reasonable to expect a certain level of popularity. A private commission would be no different – popularity would simply devolve to an even smaller group. It is hard to imagine a piece of public art rising to the level of greatness if it is not popular. But popularity is not enough. For greatness, the art needs to be popular but then to yield new insights over time, to become more relevant, more beautiful as it becomes a part of civic life – almost like a living thing settling into an ecosystem. It is worth noting that many great works – that Statue of Liberty, Michelagelo’s David, the Eiffel Tower – have assumed roles somewhat different than those for which they were commissioned. They have had a successful life beyond their initial popularity – and of course all three of these were contentious from the start, although popular.

Artists are sometimes given an impossible ‘program’. By ‘program’ I mean the list of things the art is supposed to accomplish – e.g. tie together and appease disparate elements of the population, recognize history and point the way to the future, be entirely new yet use only proven methods, be graceful and different from its surroundings but require no maintenance, be iconic and particular in its message yet offend no one – the list goes on. It is worth considering that the ‘program’ under which Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was simply to paint twelve apostles where the twelve columns supported the ceiling. Michelangelo obviously met the objectives of the program and then some. It makes me wonder if we might get better art if we simplified the program but spent more time judging how well an artist might respond to it. Some of the most successful art responds to its program, but does so selectively – giving much more weight to certain aspects while almost ignoring others.

When I first began making public art someone to whom I described my job said “oh, you’re a general contractor doing custom design-build.” Only years later do I realize how right they are. I had foolishly imagined myself as artist wearing a beret and drinking a glass of single malt while a nude model posed for me. Because it engages the public realm, public art is necessarily tied to civic infrastructure, the need for permits, the difficulty of interfacing with other private contractors who may have gotten civic jobs under dubious bidding methods, unknown soil conditions, etc. – it becomes very tangled and many factors are beyond the artist’s control, yet with a fixed budget and a pre-described scope the artist is often limited in their ability to address unknowns.

There is no other profession I know of where the practitioners are tied to a budget and scope at the start of a job with so many unknowns that are out of their control. This, more than the low budgets, is the way in which I feel artists are not treated professionally. To continue to do public art, my company has had to evolve in the direction of a small construction firm. Very little of our resources are spent studying art history or observing how people behave in public spaces. In fact most of our work leading up to a proposal might best be described as risk management. The job of being creative falls to me and my collaborators, and we’re not complaining. We really like being out in public and watching how people interact with each other in the presence of objects. Art has always thrived amidst great constraints. We once had a client who remarked “I love art for its freedom. It is like a bird flying freely in the sky”. I thought for a moment then said “art is more like a bird in a cage, finding new and beautiful ways to escape every time.” Public art is difficult, given the current structure of the field, but it has always been so. And yet some great art has been made from time to time, and will continue to be.

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June 04, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Nori Sato raises the fundamental questions that we are all thinking about.. Is it possible to have meaningful dialogue without hurting feelings?
How can we advance the public ART dialiogue out of cliché's?

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June 04, 2014 at 8:52 am

Norie, Extremely thought provoking questions. As a Public Art Administrator who has been in the field awhile, I have witnessed much of what you have commented on in many programs and communities. The risk taking in public art seems to be a thing of the past, driven by a will to please and paranoia about not being the administrator to single handedly bring down the public art program, It seems that one public art miss step these days and you and your program are toast. Reminds me a bit of the Culture Wars in the 90s and the NEA's retreat to safe vs. gone. Also as someone in the field a long time, I also recognize the need for a new generation of public art administrators with new ideas and new models to re-ignite the field. I too take heart in the Year in Review, which always seems to show us examples of public art that elevates itself beyond community decoration. I hope your comments, most likely shared by many continue to create dialog. Jeff

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Ms. Norie Sato says
June 16, 2014 at 7:43 pm

This year's Year in Review was very intelligently selected by jurors who were smart, talented and well spoken. I hope you had a chance to see what was selected. Their presentation at the conference was so eloquent. I wonder if we have set up a scenario where art has to be a sure fire "success" and made the "public" think that if it isn't, then something is wrong, that the program should be toast. Have we been talking about it in the wrong way? Nothing in the world is like that.

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June 03, 2014 at 10:47 pm

I love that there is a maturity to this field now - it means that while there is still a huge lack of Public art specific knowledge at the level of practitioner and project managers -for those who care, there is depth to this field. If you want to seek great artist models find peers internationally to seek critique and support it is at your fingertips - fantastic!

Best of all there is a track record showing that creative public interventions can generate connections! Public art can generate connections between people, connections to place, a sense of ownership and inclusion. Another fantastic benefit is that it can prompt rich exchanges - that in turn can feed and energise artists and audience - while blurring the differentiation of these roles. Love that the icy peaks - the elitist academy cool of fine arts has been opened up so that this primary urge to make art and share is made easy and welcoming in our shared lounge - public space.

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June 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm

The past artist deserve their place. But, new artist are drowned out of galleries in every town in American, especially in New York because art is a commodity valuable to trade and collectors want paintings of pretty things to decorate their homes instead of thought oriented works which stand the test of time and belong in museums not over someone's gold plated toilet. There are so many struggling artist who become home decorators to survive and on top of this there are more con-artists in the world of art who prey on the weak vanities (vanity gallery) that its impossible to be seen by those who recognize the one who dons Van Gogh's severed ear announcing the plight of the modern artist.

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