What Are the Organizing Ideas in Public Art Today?
What central ideas are today’s emerging public art leaders organizing around? What accomplishments will last, and how are we working collectively to better our field?
Every field has some organizing ideas or principles, and public art is no exception. From the outset of posing these questions, however, it must be said that relative newcomers to the field, like me, have benefitted enormously from the achievements of earlier leaders. Beginning with the widespread adoption of percent for art policies and ordinances at the local, state and national levels; to the fuller integration of artists and art in the design process; and the growth of public art in transit and private development projects, these successes have made dialogues like this possible.
And, yet, the challenges and questions facing emerging public art leaders today are distinctly different from those that confronted leaders before us.
Specifically, whereas an earlier generation of civic-minded artists and arts leaders strove to win a seat for art and design at the proverbial table, where the decisions that shape our built environment and civic life are made, today’s public art leaders, firmly in this seat, are challenged to continue to expand upon public art’s utility and relevance in a changing society.
Put differently, and I believe directly as a result of the ever-increasing number of public art programs, artworks and a desire for public art to serve myriad social, cultural and economic goals, our primary challenge as emerging leaders in the field today is to foster deeper and more lasting human connections through our work, in keeping with the unique ability of artists and public art to reveal place, tell stories and intersect with community.
In this way, our mission takes on a certain ‘back to the future’ feel; being art, public art must above all humanize our public spaces, and us.
So what are the organizing ideas for a public art field that seeks to achieve this kind of personal and communal resonance? Looking out at the incredibly diverse sea that is public art today, there are a number of compelling possibilities:
Deepening community engagement
Community-based public art is not new, but interdisciplinary and socially-oriented forms of public art are demonstrating new ways that the artist may address community needs, whether it is calling attention to environmental concerns or social strife, or becoming part of a local food ecology.
At this year’s Americans for the Arts Public Art Network Year in Review, held during the Public Art and Placemaking Pre-Conference, Matthew Mazzotta’s Open House project was a clear favorite among the jurors and attendees. As an artist-in-residence at the Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama, Mazzotta collaborated with local residents to transform a blighted home into a sculptural, open-air performance venue, addressing a community need and in the process engaging the town in a larger conversation about its future.
Making public art more accessible through technology
Initially, a focus on digital accessibility may seem counterproductive to the goal of fostering greater human connection, or simply ‘low-hanging fruit’ for a generation of leaders wired to mobile devices and technology. Yet, the proliferation of public art apps, online archives, and other tools including video and social media are a way to reach fragmented audiences and to begin a conversation.
Having drawn them in, however, making public art accessible to people on an emotional level – and not simply within reach geographically and intellectually – is a longer-term project for technology and public art.
Embedding public art more deeply into education
As the size and presence of our public art collections grow, so must the resources available to students and life-long learners to interpret and understand public art. This should include a focus on developing educational materials for the classroom, as well as partnerships with educational institutions. (For example, to coincide with the installation of a major public sculpture by artist Mark di Suevro, the Iowa West Foundation is collaborating with the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, on an exhibition of the artist’s work and artistic process.)
Compared to the museums field, public art feels behind in this respect, perhaps owing to its less institutional structure and lack of dedicated resources for education – making collaboration and partnership all the more essential.
Returning to my earlier point about our primary challenge, let me add just one more idea to this list, which should be an eternal aspiration of all public art leaders.
Recently I met with an established artist who has completed commissions across Iowa and the U.S and is regarded as successful in the field. In sharing with me some of his past projects, he pointed out a lesser-known work that was unlike any others he had made, stylistically or conceptually. The work, which reads literally as a constellation of objects or stars, symbolically marks the loss and honors the life of a close friend, a fact that is reinforced by the work’s tranquil setting.
Let us always aspire to do projects like this and to organize our ideas around them.
The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.