Is Public Art Dead?
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!