Whether it’s a legally commissioned statue in a town square or a slap dash stencil spray-painted guerrilla-style on a storefront, public art engages with audiences outside of galleries and museums. This form of visual art often aims to affect social change or promote awareness by instigating conversation and debate, encouraging public participation, and using multisensory experiences to reach broad-based audiences. Public art is a specific art genre with its own professional and critical discourse, as well as unique challenges.
Generally, public art must be able to withstand the elements and human interaction, so the material needs to be durable. It may also need to fit a certain site, and many public art projects are built around existing features such as buildings, landscapes, and roads. In order to meet these requirements, many public art projects are designed by architects and engineers, but others can be conceived by artists with a vision of how they might transform a space.
Many public art projects receive funding and public sanction through a variety of government entities and arts organizations, including urban cultural policies like New York’s Public Art Fund and city or regional Percent for Art ordinances. These programs also encourage community participation in the planning process, and in many cases can include community input and involvement in the creation of the artwork.
Public art is often designed to inspire a sense of place, and to reflect the values and history of a particular community or region. It can be a means of civic protest, as in the case of propaganda posters or statues used by political regimes, or it can take on more abstract qualities, as with the work of artist Agnes Denes and Joseph Beuys that sought to reconnect humans with nature.
Contemporary innovations in public art are reflective of shifting social concerns, as the concept of “public” itself is rethought and redefined. The work of artist Suzanne Lacy, for example, exemplifies the “social turn” in which the social responsibility of an artwork becomes more important than its aesthetic characteristics.
As public awareness of ecological issues grows, so too does concern for the sustainability of existing pieces of public art. This has led to the development of new forms of public art that are designed to be eco-friendly. Some examples of sustainable public art are kinetic sculptures that use wind, sunlight, and other natural resources to create motion; artworks that recycle materials or otherwise utilize recycled components; and even artworks that allow for interactivity by incorporating water, music, or light.
While some public artworks are ephemeral or non-permanent, most are designed to last for years to come. This long-term placement reflects the fact that public art is intended to be part of a community’s identity, and to serve as a permanent landmark. This approach is supported by the existence of cities with permanent sculpture parks and outdoor installations, and the popularity of programs like New York’s and San Francisco’s Sculpture in the Parks.