Public art is a category of artwork that is intended to be displayed in a public space and accessed by the general public. It is designed and created by artists who “endeavor to generate dialogue with the public about the issues central to their lives.” Public art energizes the communities it serves, and can enhance a city’s social life, visibility, and livability.
Public artworks can take many forms. They can be sculptures or statues, monuments and memorials, murals, graffiti, architectural installations, land art, or even performance. Many cities and towns have a public arts program that commissions new works. Some private companies also have programs that incorporate art into the fabric of their workplaces.
The purpose of public artwork can be to beautify the environment, commemorate important people and events, or engender civic pride. Many of the oldest and most famous examples of public art are monumental statues or relief sculpture, such as Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Piazza Della Signoria or the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore in America. Other examples include the Sydney Opera House, the Angel of the North in Newcastle, and Park Guell in Barcelona.
While the idea of public art has a long history, its use as an advocacy tool blossomed during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1970s. Its role has since diversified to encompass a broad range of issues, including racial and sexual equality, environmental protection, economic justice, and the promotion of a community’s ethos and values.
Artists often dedicate their entire careers to producing public artwork, either by choice or on a commission basis. The sculptor Gustav Vigeland spent his life building more than 200 pieces at the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Norway, and the Mexican painter Diego Rivera dedicated much of his career to creating murals for public spaces. Graffiti and street artists such as Banksy also specialize in creating unsanctioned public art.
The creation of a public artwork can be a lengthy process, especially when it involves a large scale work. The artists and designers involved must work with the local government and community to design the work and secure funding. Once the work is completed, it must be maintained and protected. A major public artwork can attract crowds, so it must be able to stand up to the weather and potential vandalism.
In some cases, public artworks are controversial. For example, the British Museum has a controversial exhibit of the Parthenon Marbles that was originally a part of the ancient Greek temple of Athena. Many people believe the marbles should be returned to Athens and placed back in their original display.
Public artworks typically need to be long-lasting and withstand the elements, so they must be made of materials such as concrete or stainless steel that can endure a variety of climates and environments. The design of the piece must also be considered, so it can blend in with its surroundings without detracting from its message.