Public art is any artwork displayed in a place open to the general public. While the term typically evokes thoughts of a historic bronze statue of a soldier in a park, public art takes many forms and can be temporary or permanent. It often interprets the history of a place, its people or perhaps addresses a social issue. It can also be applied to building facades, landscape architectural work or integrated into pavements and other structures. It is often created through a community process that involves artists, local residents, civic leaders, funding agencies, approval boards and construction teams.
A large part of the success or failure of a public artwork lies in its ability to connect with people and create a shared experience for its viewers. It is this communal dimension of public art that has become increasingly important to its practitioners, with the emergence of new styles and forms of public art, and the desire by artists for their works to have an impact beyond the gallery or museum.
Whether a legally-sanctioned monument to a town hero in a town square or a slap dash stencil spray painted guerrilla-style on a downtown storefront, public art has always sought to engage with audiences outside of the traditional confines of museums and galleries. Its roots extend back to officially sanctioned works to compel historical pride and connect communities through accessible culture, as well as to artistic expressions that challenge censorship and promote democratic access.
While sculptural pieces in parks and on city streets are the most common form of public art, the genre has expanded to include dance, theatre, poetry, music, posters and graffiti. As art has become less focused on the commodity status of objects and more about creating joy, public artists are seeking to activate and inspire a broad audience in ways that were unimaginable before.
The process of creating a piece of public art is complex and time-consuming. It requires a team that includes the artist, project manager/designer, site planner, architect or engineer, local residents and funding agencies. It may take years to get an approved piece of public art installed. It must be designed to withstand weather and the elements, as well as to withstand interaction by people.
The benefits of public art can be great for a community. It can turn blighted areas into lively gathering places, attract tourists and increase foot traffic to nearby businesses. It can make a neighborhood more colorful and softer, especially in urban environments with little nature and lots of dull concrete. In low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, thoughtful public art initiatives can have particularly positive effects. They can improve residents’ sense of stewardship for their built environment and increase community spirit. The removal of a piece of public art is highly controversial and can have long-lasting negative effects on a community. The debate around the Parthenon Marbles is a good example of this. The fact that a work of art that was created for a specific place and for the enjoyment of all citizens has been removed against its original intention is distressing to many.