Public art is any artwork that is commissioned to be placed in a publicly accessible space. It serves multiple purposes including: aesthetically beautifying spaces, commemorating important people and events, acting as tools of social propaganda or activism, and expressing the ethos of a community. It can take on many forms, including sculptures/statues, murals, site-specific installations, architecture, graffiti, actions and interventions, land and environmental art, and even performance.
Traditionally, we think of paintings and sculptures when we think of public art, but it goes beyond those media. It can also be incorporated into the design of buildings or structures and found in areas where they are visible to the public such as terrazzo floors, etched glass, ceiling panels, textiles, stair railings, risers, pavers, planters, fences, landscape and sidewalk grates. The possibilities are as limitless as an artist’s imagination.
The goal of these community-centered processes is to facilitate public engagement in the process of creating public art by making their knowledge and experience part of its design, as well as allowing them to make choices about what type of artwork will be created and how it should be presented. This can be done through community forums, meetings, workshops, and surveys. It can include a range of people, from citizens and community residents to artists, architects, designers, engineers, planners, politicians, approval agencies, and construction teams.
While it is difficult to make public art that appeals to everyone, this is a good thing; public art is meant to spark debate and discussion, not necessarily satisfy everyone’s aesthetic sensibilities. Varied opinions are a sign that people are engaged and paying attention, rather than tuning out or turning off the piece.
It is also a good thing that public art can be controversial; this shows that it is challenging and thought-provoking. It can be especially powerful when it is in a space that is historically significant or carries deep social meaning, as in the case of the Confederate monuments popping up all over the country.
The most meaningful public art projects are those that serve a practical purpose in addition to its aesthetically compelling design. Mitchell Reardon describes these types of projects as creating “community fingerprints” that foster a sense of belonging and a shared identity, which can be especially effective in urban settings.
One example is the nine-foot luminous Hello Kitty sculpture in New York City’s Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, which allows visitors to leave personal mementos in time capsules that will be sent to Tokyo for future generations to enjoy. Another example is the Topo Map for School Avenue in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where artists and engineers used thermoplastic materials to create a life-sized topographic map along School Avenue, educating viewers about stormwater issues in the town’s hilly landscape. The markings, in multiple colors, represent micro gradients, while the dotted lines indicate culvert locations where water from storms and runoff flows into the adjacent creek. These functional art projects not only improve the visual appeal of the street, but they also help residents understand how the environment around them works.