Whether it is a statue or memorial dedicated to a local hero, a contemporary sculpture in a park or plaza, an outdoor performance, or a piece of street art, public art exists in a distinct category beyond the usual presentation in museums and galleries. Its purpose is to evoke a particular atmosphere or message and to engage with the public in a different way than other art does.
The history of public art spans many cultures and times. Early epochs saw public art as a means to communicate and represent religious and civic ethos through architecture, like the circular form that composes many Roman temples and Christian cathedrals or the domes of the Pantheon in Rome, and also by the use of symbolism in building design. In the modern era, public art often serves multiple purposes such as to entice tourism, promote a city and culture, educate, inspire, or provoke thought. It can take on a distinctly political nature as witnessed by the many monuments and memorials built for historical figures or acts of war, or serve as a tool of social propaganda or activism as displayed in the posters and statues of the Soviet Union and Irish republican movements of Northern Ireland and Belfast.
Public art is a broad category that may incorporate many different forms and styles of artworks that can be either temporary or permanent. It can include sculptures and statues, murals, installations, performances, dance and theatre, music, text, chalk or graffiti, paintings, functional art (such as street furniture), land and environmental art, and digitally mediated experiences.
One of the unique characteristics of public art is that it can be created collaboratively in partnership with a range of stakeholders including artists, fabricators/construction workers, community residents and leaders, designers, funding organizations, and the general public. This collaborative process, known as Public Art in the Field, is a crucial part of the public art process and is what makes it truly public in nature.
Public Art in the Field is a dynamic and democratic process that can allow all members of a community to have a voice in what public art should look like, as well as its location. This practice has been linked to the development of equitable communities, as it ensures that historically marginalized and disinvested neighborhoods have a say in how their public space is designed.
The City of Durham’s Public Art Committee works in close collaboration with a wide variety of partners to commission and select public artwork projects. Artists interested in participating in this process are encouraged to visit the Durham’s Arts & Culture webpage regularly and sign up for the City’s communication about public art to learn more about opportunities. Additionally, the City’s Cultural Advisory Board has a designated Public Art subcommittee to carry out the two functions of providing advice on commissioned public artworks and advising the City on artworks offered as donations. If you are interested in contacting this committee, their membership and committee schedule can be found on the Cultural Advisory Board page.