“Shift Change”: Transitions in Public Art Programs Today
Nationwide, it is no longer a question of whether or not the field of public art is going to change. It is more appropriate now to ask why the changes are happening and how can we keep up. Many of the changes observed and documented in Norie Sato’s blog from May, Is Public Art Dead?, are happening all over the country, including here in Charlotte. They are happening because we are reaching a point in the development of the field where there are some very specific “shifts” or transitions happening: in leadership, in program priorities, and also in communities themselves.
Leadership shifts are not easy to talk about, but the fact is in some cases the leaders who paved the way for public art for the last 30 - 40 years are retiring or moving on to other opportunities, leaving us with new leadership. This brings both advantages and disadvantages. There will be an experience gap, as new leaders emerging in public art have not experienced first-hand what former leaders have. But they also are approaching the challenges with an innate set of skills in technology and communication that is necessary to keep up in today’s world where information is everywhere. The biggest advantage we have at this point is the impact that these leaders and their work had on legislation, funding, and the general respect of artists and their art. They have laid a foundation that we need respect and take advantage of to move the field forward.
There are also shifts in the priorities of public art programs. The core program mission or goal of creating high quality public art to enhance the value of life in a community is still the same. However, the particular areas in which we focus our programs in order to meet that goal may have to change simply due to the age and status of the individual program. Here at Art-in-Transit, a 12 year old program, we are no longer looking to build a program from the ground up and set a precedent of support in the community. For the most part, the art itself demonstrates its value within our transit system and neighborhoods. Now that we have a collection of 18 capital projects and have worked with over 65 artists, we are an established program. Now our priorities include become maintaining our collection with no dedicated funding, creatively engaging the public with art that already exists, and using every opportunity to expand the collection with something new and different. Issues in the field nationwide are requiring a change in priority as well; growing collections require a higher level of maintenance and conservation attention and funds; evaluation methods change as programs continue to add more art; and finally in this age of constant connectivity education methods have to be evolving to compete for the public’s attention.
Finally, there are shifts happening in the local community. The demographics of Charlotte are changing. The population is booming, and residents in urban areas are looking toward public transportation as an asset and a reason to move here. The environment in which this public art lives is becoming increasingly diverse, intelligent, and connected, and we need to keep all these things in mind as we change the focus of the programs to create new public art. Also the expectations of the general public have shifted; residents now expect the city to provide them not only with services and amenities like wide sidewalks, easy transportation, and clean water, but with Public Art as well -- which is thrilling! It’s great that people truly see the value of welcoming an artist and the impact they can make on a neighborhood.
Reflecting on these shifts in leadership, priorities, and community response to public art in Charlotte, I can’t help but constantly be thinking of the next question: So what do we do now? To go back to Sato’s post – the topics she raised fueled my thinking about this question and developing something of an action plan. She brought up problems that we are all struggling to solve and I think her questions prompt a need for emerging leaders to pursue a solution. And I think the solution is twofold: It requires respecting the past in order to allow us to expand in the future.
First, we have to fight to maintain the foundational practices that built our programs and brought us to where we are today. Yes, it’s wonderful that more people in our community support public art, but we have to keep in mind that supporting the arts does not make someone an expert on high quality public art. Selection panels and public art committees need to be protected in the sense that they should be made up of art professionals who can make educated decisions regarding art opportunities and artists. We also need to advocate on behalf of artists. Public art should not be seen as the low-cost way to add something to a project. Artists and their art need to be seen and respected for the value that they add to a public space, just as any other professional involved in the project like an architect or engineer. As Administrators, we need to be the ones who speak up for these foundational principals, rather than compromising to make politicians and the public happy.
If we can maintain these and other foundational principals that were established by our predecessors, then we will have the freedom and support we need to reach farther and higher to avoid producing the “low hanging fruit.” Compromising the foundation is what causes buildings to crumble. Instead of responding to the environmental and personal shifts in public art by totally reinventing the program, why not embrace the structure we have, but find ways to push it beyond it limits? Perhaps we could be the best advocate for artists’ in the country, which in turn will bring new enthusiastic artists to you. Or by only using public art professionals to review the aesthetic quality of the proposals to ensure the highest quality of work possible. And especially by impressing upon citizens that good public art isn’t necessarily good because everyone likes it, but it is good because it does something. It makes people think, it makes a space more familiar, it teaches you a new word, it gives you a place to sit, or maybe it just looks different from anything else around it and yanks you out of your sleepy daily commute!
Twyla Tharp said, “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” Let’s embrace that box and instead of compromising the foundations of the public art field in order to make changes, let’s utilize them so that we have the support needed to move forward.
The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.