Public art is artwork or elements of design permanently or temporarily located in a public space accessible to the general public. The term encompasses a broad range of artistic forms, from sculptures and monuments to public installations, murals, architecture and more. Public art serves multiple purposes including aesthetically beautifying, commemorating events or individuals, and reflecting community culture, history and identity. It is also a tool for activism and can function as social commentary. Public art can also foster connections between residents.
When people think of public art, they often imagine statues and paintings in outdoor spaces that are accessible to the general public. But the definition of public art goes well beyond these traditional media and can include terrazzo floors, etched glass, ceiling panels, textiles, stair railings and risers, pavers, landscaping, fences, grates, park benches, tree plantings and even water fountains.
In addition to being a form of civic beautification, research indicates that creating and engaging with art offers a host of other social and psychological benefits. These can include enhanced mental and physical health and increased feelings of belonging to a community and connection to place. Public art can be a way for historically marginalized communities to express themselves, build relationships and connect with their community.
As such, it’s vital that local government and organizations planning public art consider community involvement as a key factor in successful projects. Public art programs should consider involving the public in a variety of ways, from engaging residents in the selection process to building engagement opportunities to enhance understanding and appreciation of the artworks.
Many communities are turning to a participatory approach that invites artists to create works that reflect neighborhood culture, history and residents. This type of public art is more responsive to the environment and a more meaningful contribution to community life.
To increase community engagement in their public art, communities can encourage residents to take part in the creation of the artworks themselves through workshops and/or other educational activities. For example, sculptor Julia Vogl engaged 1,800 Boston residents to directly participate in her Pathways to Freedom installation in the Spring of 2018. By allowing residents to choose the pin designs that were incorporated into the final piece, this artwork was both a means of promoting engagement and a reflection of the community’s collective voice.
In addition, communities can promote educational programs and tours of public art. They can also create apps and searchable databases that highlight public artworks and provide interpretive information. Lastly, they can train community representatives to offer guided experiences with their public art collections.
As the demand for public art continues to grow, it’s important that local governments consider expanding their methods of engagement. Some options for doing so can include changing policies that limit the use of all percent-for-art funding narrowly to the physical location of capital projects, establishing an alternative public art funding mechanism for areas with little new construction or developing mobile collections and loan programs that can get artworks into underserved locations.