The Question We Should Be Asking is "Does it Work?"

Posted by Barbara Goldstein, May 14, 2012 0 comments

Barbara Goldstein

In an era dominated by Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and Yelp!, where we are constantly invited to hit the "like" button and share our reviews, it’s tempting to wade into evaluating public art without asking the question “why?” After all, anyone can should have a valid opinion of anything that lives in the public realm, right?

I’ve always felt that anyone who experiences public art or architecture should have the ability to judge its success. The question we should ask is not really "like" or "not like," though. The question we should ask is "does it work?"

As someone who plans and commissions public art, I feel it’s my responsibility to engage community members in the work we do—before, during and after art has been installed. After all, the difference between public art and art created in the studio is that the end user will live with it for a long time and we can’t easily move it into storage. If we actually involve our communities in the public art process, we will automatically develop the tools for them to evaluate it.

The first question we need to ask is “What are we trying to learn?”

For many years now, policymakers and implementers have asked whether the economic value of public art can be quantified. This is the wrong question.

It would be virtually impossible to measure whether one work of art has an economic impact in a specific place. The questions that can be asked are more subtle—what makes a specific place memorable? Can you describe what you experience there and how it makes you feel? What do you think when you see a particular artwork? Does it improve your experience of this place?

These are questions that we should ask ourselves and our policymakers before we commission art and they are questions that we need to ask our artists and our community members during the creative process.

If we hope to evaluate public art, we need to spend more time inviting our policymakers and community members to learn about it:

  • involve them in conversations when we are planning to integrate art in the public realm
  • introduce them to the artists
  • create guide maps
  • speak to schools and community organizations about the work we do
  • sponsor tours for policymakers and the public
  • cultivate the local press

Above all, build a relationship between art and the community so that people will feel comfortable participating in the conversation about commissioning art, enjoying it, and criticizing it intelligently.

Until we take our jobs as educators seriously, evaluating public art will be nothing more than a button that says “like” or “unlike.”

With an educated pool of artists and community members, evaluating the work will evolve into a bigger conversation about what kinds of places we hope to build and the significant role that art can play in making those places a success.

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