Whether it’s an officially sanctioned statue of a local historical figure in a town square or a piece of illegal Street Art spray-painted guerrilla style on a storefront window, public art often engages with audiences outside of gallery and museum walls. Despite the many challenges of bringing a public artwork to life in the city, where weather, accelerated usage, and a density of needs can exert significant forces on even the most carefully planned project, urban environments are the perfect canvas for artists seeking to connect with diverse audiences.
Public art is a broad genre that can take on any form or media, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, and indoors or outdoors. It can be permanent or temporary, and may be commissioned by a government agency, a city council, a public body, a charity or a private developer. Art can be a tool for social change or simply a beautiful addition to the cityscape. Often, cities look to commission artists to create civic sculptures or monuments to honor a notable person or event that the city is proud of, but there are a number of ways that public art can be used beyond this, for example as a tool for educating and inspiring citizens.
A defining feature of public art is that it is designed specifically for the space in which it will be installed, rather than simply adding an artistic element to a pre-existing structure. Typically, a public artwork will be integrated into the design of a building or landscape and can take the form of street paving, sculptural seating or artist-designed glazing (windows). This type of public art is often created through the use of a community engagement process and the work can represent the cultural identity of a local population.
Public Art can also be transitory and can be conceived as a way for a city to create what urban designer Mitchell Reardon calls “community fingerprints” in its streets, parks and other public spaces. These fingerprints, which can be in the form of murals, chalk drawings on footpaths, legal’street art’ or graffiti, and even artistic compositions etched on the sides of trams as seen in Melbourne, are intended to foster local connections and build community ownership of public spaces.
For a work to qualify as public art it must be accessible by the public, and this accessibility should be free of charge. It is important for public works of art to be relevant and address the city’s civic issues, but it is equally important that they be sensitive to the communities they serve. For example, a memorial or statue should be respectful of the ancestors and heritage of the city, while a contemporary art installation should challenge society’s assumptions about its future.
For example, the interactive installation ‘Between the Door and the Street’ by Brooklyn-based artist Lacy in 2013 saw thousands of women (and some men) gather on the stoops of a single New York City block to engage in unscripted conversations about gender politics in our society.