Public art may conjure images of historic bronze statues of soldiers on horseback in a park, but public artworks today can take many forms and be temporary or permanent. Often public art interprets the history of a place or its people, and addresses a social or environmental issue. It can be murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media, and performances and festivals. The purpose of public art is to enliven the environment, enhance a city or town’s identity, and entice visitors.
The creation of a public art project is a long and involved process, particularly for large projects. It requires a collaborative effort between artists, architects, designers, community residents, civic leaders, politicians, local arts agencies, approval agencies and funding agencies. In addition to the artistic content, public art is also meant to be functional, enhancing pedestrian visibility and movement around the artwork while remaining unobtrusive.
While the sculptural form of public art is common, it can take many other forms, such as dance, theatre, poetry and graffiti. Many artists who create public art choose to use it as a vehicle for political expression. For example, the artwork of American street artist Keith Haring used his murals as a tool to challenge societal norms, commemorate and memorialize events, or criticize politics and society.
Research has shown that the creation and engagement with art offers mental and physical health benefits, especially for those who are involved in its development or can connect to public art installations close to their homes. In addition, public art provides historically marginalized neighborhoods with the opportunity to develop their own culture and voice through art, and if strategically placed, can contribute to revitalization of these communities.
Local policymakers can consider creatively leveraging public funds to advance equitable public art for all their communities. For example, a community-driven public art project in Philadelphia brought together residents from formerly marginalized neighborhoods to build their own murals, giving them the space and tools to express their unique cultural identity and improve their sense of place.
Public art is a vital part of the urban fabric, defining the character and fostering the spirit of cities and towns. It is a symbol of local pride, and serves as a tourist attraction for visitors from far and wide. It also helps to animate the community, and can bring in much-needed economic revenue. Some public artworks become iconic landmarks, such as Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer or New York’s Charging Bull. Some artists dedicate their entire careers to creating public works, either by commission or of their own volition. A great example of this is the sculptor Gustav Vigeland, who spent most of his life creating a massive outdoor sculpture park in Norway.