The Importance and Impact of Planning for Public Art

Posted by Ms. Patricia Walsh, Kimberly O’Keeffe, Dec 18, 2018 0 comments

There is a growing interest in public art from across the country. In the Public Art Programs Fiscal Year 2001 report, Americans for the Arts estimated 350 public art programs across the U.S. The 2017 Survey of Public Art Programs identified more than twice as many (728 programs). With this growth it is important to understand the various ways public art is planned for and implemented in different communities.

In this post, we provide an overview of three papers published by Americans for the Arts that speak to the diverse needs of public art programs across the country, and how local institutions are approaching the topic in innovative ways. With a focus on planning for public art from a municipal perspective, growing public art programs in small to mid-sized cities, and recognizing grassroots and folk art in rural communities, these papers show that successful public art values local context and the public art programs are as unique as each community.


Art does not need to adhere to an urban definition of public art to be meaningful for the artists and the culture it is stemming from.


In “Grassroots Growth for Creative Cultures: Programming Public Art for Rural Areas,” author Erika Nelson explores how public art is implemented in rural areas. Nelson explains that art does not need to adhere to an urban definition of public art to be meaningful for the artists and the culture it is stemming from. Public art is defined as free and accessible to all, and should not be defined by its monetary value or impact on the cultural economy. While rural art may work outside of financial and government systems, it is still a valid and important form of expression that provides a snapshot of a culture at a certain time. The paper investigates three rural communities that are building off local assets to foster creative partnerships, as well as the struggles they face allocating limited resources: The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX), The Wormfarm Institute, and the work of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, Kansas.

“Nature of Medicine” by Rupert Garcia, 2015. Collection of the City and County of San Francisco.In “Beyond Accumulation? Planning for Public Art,” author Joni M. Palmer dives into the growing interest across the country in public art, exploring the opportunities and challenges that larger communities have in adapting to this change and planning for public art. Palmer explores how public art programs are not all the same, as each is guided by ordinances and defined by local context and institutional history; and how including public art practitioners in the planning process provides space for them to interact with planners and urban designers, as well as to normalize public art as an integral part of the city making process. She explains that while procedures vary by location, there are universal trends that are relevant to planning for public art, including the importance of the program location and title, the need for public art to be actively planned for, that executing public art is built on relationships, and that information must be shared.

Palmer’s research is based in part on understanding the intricacies of three public art programs highlighted throughout the paper: Broward County Public Art & Design Program, the City of Minneapolis Public Art Program, and San Francisco’s Public Art Program and Civic Art Collection.

For “Building Public Art Programs in the 21st Century with a Focus on Small to Mid-Sized Cities,” author Mandy Vink, currently a member of the Public Art Network Advisory Council, looked at the recent shift away from the 20th century trend of large scale public art installations towards smaller scale, temporary projects that encourage community participation and conversation. Nearly 224 American cities have populations between 100,000 and 250,000, but only about half of those have formal public art programs, which creates potential for small to medium sized cities to establish innovative and accessible public art programs. Vink explores how public art must be reflective and responsive to the community where it is located, and why a one-size-fits-all model is unsuccessful at addressing local nuances. This paper investigates how three small to mid-size cities built off their unique assets to support a public art initiative: Boulder, Colorado’s Office of Arts and Culture; the public art program in Des Moines, Iowa; and the public-private partnership in Buffalo, New York.

Check out additional resources for planning and implementing public art in the Public Art Resource Center.

Experiments in Public Art: “Harm to Table” by Matthew Mazzotta, commissioned by the Boulder Office of Arts and Culture. Photo by Dasha Gaian Photography/Boulder Office of Arts and Culture.

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