Public art can evoke smiles, jaw drops and tears. It can be a way to honor the past or a means of progression and protest. It may be a permanent installation or something that’s ephemeral, and it might even be digital or discursive. But regardless of its scope or location, it’s always meant to engage people. GBH News spoke with a critic, an artist and the curator of a new exhibit on the subject to learn more about how public art works and how it can be used as a tool for progress.
Unlike most other art forms, most publicly displayed artworks are created with a particular audience in mind. They are commissioned by government entities, which usually shapes the themes and styles of the projects they support. That’s not to say that public art can’t be controversial, it just tends to do so in a more abstract or conceptual way, which often makes it harder for viewers to pinpoint exactly what the artist is trying to get across.
While some artists create public sculptures that are purely decorative, others want to inspire change. For example, Siah Armajani’s sculptural installation Bridge Over Tree in Brooklyn Park uses a pre-existing tree to remind visitors of the importance of environmental conservation. Other works, like Peter Eisenman’s The Shoes that sit along the Danube River in Berlin, are both a memorial and a tribute to the Jewish victims of World War II.
But the true value of public art lies in its ability to spark dialogue about important issues that affect our community. That’s why this month’s issue of Forecast is devoted to exploring public art in all its forms, from a conversation between two communities that are using theater to envision their futures to an interview with an artist who has used her public artwork to help people better understand and fight racism.
The process of establishing an effective public art project starts with the creation of a public arts committee and the creation of a Request for Proposal (RFP). Once an RFP is issued, the selection committee will review submitted proposals and choose one or more projects to move forward into design phases.
Once an artist is chosen, the public art committee will work with them to ensure that the final design of the artwork closely aligns with the goals set out by the selection committee and envisioned by the community. It’s also essential to involve the artist in background planning work, community outreach and site visits as outlined by the selection committee or specified in the RFP.
It’s essential to remember that public art is designed for a specific setting and intended for public viewing. Removing it from its original space robs the community of its voice and goes against the ethical foundation of the practice. It’s important to keep that in mind when discussing the controversies surrounding The Embrace monument to Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common or the decision to remove a mural by artist David Wolkoff from the walls of The University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library.