Public art can be anything from a historic bronze statue in a park to a multi-acre installation on the side of an office building. It often interprets the history or culture of a place, speaks to a local issue or simply adds beauty and interest to a city’s landscape. It can take the form of sculpture, murals, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art and digital new media. And it’s often commissioned by government agencies or nonprofit arts organizations, though many cities and towns also rely on grassroots funding.
The term “public art” isn’t as well defined as “art,” but it generally refers to artworks that are exhibited in spaces that are accessible by the general public, and outside of a traditional museum or gallery setting. Art in the public sphere dates back to classical antiquity and has been part of a range of civil societies and urbanisation processes worldwide (Lacey 1995; Kwon 2004).
As cities have sought to revitalize their downtown areas, they’ve turned to public art to encourage interaction and boost their civic identity. Whether it’s an iconic sculpture that adorns a city hall or a project that brings people together for an art walk, there’s no denying that these projects have a big impact on our daily lives.
These works of art can be controversial, and not just because they might spark a conversation over social issues or political viewpoints. Rather, controversy is a central element in the public art landscape, as artists are often seeking to start dialogues with viewers and don’t want their work to be too safe or easy.
In a city like Chicago, one of the most famous public artworks is Roberto Burle Marx’s Picasso-inspired bronze statue of The Alamo, which stands on the west side of the Loop. The statue, which depicts a soldier defending the Texan city, is an enduring symbol of the American Civil War and the Texas Revolution.
Another great example is New York’s Crack Is Wack mural by Keith Haring, which was created in a single night without permission on the side of a warehouse in the South Bronx. The piece was a catalyst for fearless, large scale public art in the early 21st century and helped spark a dialogue about urban inequality.
And in Austin, a city that celebrates its diversity, public artist Brian Joseph installed a series of murals on the sides of recreational buildings throughout Springwoods Park, depicting the various backgrounds and ages of people enjoying different park activities together. These works of art are a powerful representation of the city’s current culture and future goals for promoting equity in its communities.
While public art can be a powerful tool for city governments and private entities, it is also a great way for the public to become involved in designing their own shared spaces. The public art that is selected and placed based on community input can help to represent the culture, history and personality of a city and create desirable destinations for meetings and tourism, as it contributes to cultural representation, urban functionality and beautifies the overall experience of visitors.