Art in public spaces can be a powerful tool to energize, activate and enhance a community’s vitality and social life. It can also be used to highlight cultural, historical and social issues.
The term “public art” may conjure images of historic bronze statues of soldiers on horseback in parks or streetscapes, but it also refers to a wide variety of artworks that are made specifically for exhibition in public space. The scope of contemporary public art is much wider, and can include murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architecture work, community art, digital new media and even performances and festivals.
Applied (two-dimensional) art is the most common form of public art. Examples include murals on buildings and footpaths, as well as legal’street art’ and illegal graffiti. The Melbourne Art Trams are a unique example of an applied public artwork, in which artists were invited to create a work that was specifically tailored for the exterior surface of a tram.
Temporary art is also an important category of public artwork, with works ranging in duration from hours to years. Often using a variety of materials and techniques, these pieces are designed to be ephemeral or disappear entirely after a set timeframe. Nick Selenitsch’s series of drawings titled Linemarking 2009-12, which were created in various outdoor public locations across the city of Frankston and then washed away, is an example of this type of work.
Static art is another popular category of public artwork, with works ranging from murals painted onto walls to statues carved from marble or cast in bronze. A notable static public artwork in Melbourne is Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault 1980, located just outside ACCA.
Site-Specific Art is another important category of public art, with works that are specifically designed for a specific location in the city or landscape. The most common example of this category is the Women’s Suffrage Petition 2008, a 260-metre-long piece by Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee, which commemorates the women who gained the right to vote in Victoria in 1908.
These types of artworks are often created as a statement about a particular issue or event. Artists such as Diggs, for instance, have centered their projects on social issues, in order to make a greater impact on society.
A public artist’s aesthetic vision is constantly challenged by the environment in which it is displayed, and this is especially true in an urban setting. The dense population of a city, its unpredictable activities, ultraviolet light and pollution all add to the challenges faced by public artists.
Despite these factors, the role of public art in a city is crucial. It can be a means of fostering a sense of community, of building relationships, and of promoting economic development. It can also be a catalyst for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, public art can be an integral part of a city’s planning process.