Seven Reasons to Become a Public Art Leader

Posted by Ms. Barbara S. Goldstein, May 31, 2016 2 comments

Barbara Goldstein is an Americans for the Arts member and recipient of the 2016 Public Art Network Award. Find out more about the Americans for the Arts Annual Leadership Arts Awards.

Usually when people ask me what I do and I say “public art planner” a lot of confusing questions follow. Many lay people identify murals and public sculpture as public art; others consider public art to be concerts in the park, painted utility boxes and Cows on Parade ™

Braincast, Tony Oursler. Despite the fact that architect Rem Koolhaas only allowed the artist 12 inches of space in a wall cavity, this murmuring projection artwork is still thrilling Seattle Central Library users going up and down the escalator.I’m here to tell you that, yes, public art is all those things. But most of all, public art is a practice that creates a partnership between artists and stakeholders to create art in the public realm where people can discover it without having to pay admission. It can be an event in a park, an artwork on the internet, a work of sculpture, land art, functional art and much much more. What it requires from you as a leader is a willingness to interact with people, listen and collaborate. Here are my top seven reasons why you might want to become a public art leader:

  1. You want everyone to get to know each other and be happy.

You believe that art can start a conversation that may lead to new partnerships. When you start a job in public art you really try to understand the people and the place. And even though this isn’t always easy; you find a way to be introduced to a community as you work there. The benefit to you is that you’ve built a network of friends and supporters and feel like part of the community.

  1. Aviation buff Sharon Sweeney was suspicious of San Jose’s airport art and technology program until I took the time to get to know her better by flying with her. Here I am pushing the Citabria that we flew to Hollister.You want to change the world by making it look really great!  

Okay, okay. You get to look at a lot of really interesting and provocative art. You may even have a budget that’s bigger than many nonprofit visual arts organizations. Sometimes you even have the opportunity to commission an artist to create something in an important location like a library or your local children’s zoo. You can use what you know about artists to introduce the public to the ideas of contemporary artists. 

  1. You like getting to know a lot of different kinds of people.

Sometimes the people who seem least interested in art show up at community meetings and can become your best advocates. There’s sometimes an inverse relationship between people who are dubious about public art and the success of the project. If you befriend the most vocal critic in the room, he or she will become your advocate for life.

  1. The local historian wanted eight small concrete pedestals with bronze plaques stating simple historic facts. We commissioned artists Donald Fels, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Joe Feddersen to create a several mile trail telling multiple histories and incorporating viewers, sidewalk inlays, poetry and this replica of a wooden boat. Over time, the project included funding and partnerships from Washington State, the Port of Seattle, and a local high school.You love trying to influence people’s decisions

You know that there’s no better way to promote a great project than to entice the community into adopting it. You listen carefully to community concerns then engage them in a conversation about how public art can represent them. If you introduce the stakeholders and the artist to each other, the work is likely to become a beloved part of the community.

  1. You love tackling unexpected problems and turning them into funny stories

There is no better thing to learn new skills than to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Just remember that today’s front page story is tomorrow’s recycling. When some kind of scandal erupts, you take a deep breath, don’t get defensive, and develop a communications plan to turn the criticism into an opportunity to educate people. In the end, the story of the crisis will make a funny anecdote.

  1. You see failure as the next step in a continuous learning process.

I’m not going to lie to you…sometimes projects fail miserably–they get vandalized, a newspaper reporter makes a negative statement about the artwork and gives it a rude nickname, the artwork falls apart. Instead of stressing about the problem, you see its potential to teach you something that you can use the next time.     

  1. You’re too creative to want a practical job like dental technician.

This speaks for itself. My late father, who was a dentist, always wanted me to go into a safe profession where I’d have a chance of meeting a nice Artist Tom Otterness wove a number of unexpected themes into his artwork at San Jose’s Happy Hollow Park and Zoo. Here a zebu is munching bills and pooping coins, one of several controversial features we needed to overcome when the artwork was installed (Photo Eric Castro).husband. I rebelled, studied art and architecture and eventually drifted into public art. I met a nice husband anyway. Maybe your story is similar.  In any case, working behind the scenes to build community, influence policymakers, and commission artists is a very creative and rewarding profession. I encourage you to try it.

2 responses for Seven Reasons to Become a Public Art Leader


Mr. Kevin M. Vaughan-Brubaker says
June 03, 2016 at 11:32 pm

What is a work sculpture?

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June 10, 2016 at 11:06 am

Hi, Kevin -- it's a typo!  It should have read 'work of sculpture!'  I'll see if I can fix it.

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