The Value of Art in Public Places


Much the way architects have reshaped our skylines, artists are changing the street-level views of our cities.

Airports, libraries, commuter train stations, parks, government office buildings, all have become home to displays of public art that we see every day.

More than museums or trusts, more than all but the richest of the rich, government is spending millions of dollars every year on works of art.

Government has become one of the largest collectors of art in the United States.

According to Jennifer McGregor of the Public Art Network, more than 300 government entities or public institutions across the country set aside a small percent of all capitol improvement budgets for the purchase of art.

In San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it amounts to 2% of a project budget. Typically in most places the percentage is 1 or 1.5%, but collectively the amount spent each year is astonishing.

Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, and Denver each routinely spend $1-million and more on public art each year. A 1995 survey of 12 cities found they spent between $40-thousand and $2.7-million on art acquisitions that year.

The popularity of public art is fueled by the booming economy and explosive urban growth experienced over the past two decades.

“It makes for a lively public environment,” says Ms. McGregor, whose organization serves as an unofficial national clearinghouse for public art projects.

“Artists bring a new dimension and a new perspective to a project.  Collectively public art adds vitality to a community, and helps attract interest and new business.”

Denver’s director of Art, Culture and Film, Cara Roberts, sees it as a critical element in becoming a world-class city.

“We have had a public art master plan since 1996.  We want it to be a world renowned collection because we believe cultural improvements are what truly elevate a city to world class.”

Denver sets aside 1% of all capitol improvement projects over $1-million for public art, plus adds funding through the creation of a non-profit foundation, which raises private donations for the Arts.

“We see this as a necessary way to have money for the Arts when there aren’t as many capitol projects,” says Roberts.  “Plus it creates a way for the private sector to chip in and get involved.”

Public art was originally recognized in the 70’s as cities began to look for ways to revitalize deteriorating urban centers and public buildings.

There weren’t any formal sources of funding, and no real strategies.

“We had what they called ‘Plop Art’, not ‘Pop Art’.  There was no idea what to do, they just plopped it down”, says Miami’s Public Art program spokesperson Lea Nickless-Verrcchia.

“People weren’t feeling connected to the art.  They weren’t involved.”

Today Miami, like most communities, uses citizen advisory committees to review every public art project. Committees include residents from the neighborhoods where the art will be located.  Local residents bring local tastes and sensitivities to the selection process.

Denver learned early on about sensitivities.

A privately funded statue depicting a violent battle between Indians and cowboys was placed along a major downtown highway.  The negative response was immediate from the Native American community, followed by a wider outcry from many citizens.

The statue was quickly removed.

Most communities will not confess to having guidelines for public art, saying the choices are left to the advisory committees.  But, in fact, many cities have ordinances that give either the Mayor or City Council the final say on projects, and that means there are rules, albeit unwritten in some cases.

Some of the more common “No No’s”:

No political commentary…no controversial social subjects such as abortion and homosexuality…no blatant nudity…no religious themes…no violence.

Some might argue this leads to dull and drab art, leaving little room for artistic expression.

But communities aren’t looking for artists to use the city landscape to make a personal statement. They want the art to say something about the community.

“We want art that uplifts the community”, says Ms. Nickless-Verrcchia.

“We want it to reflect national and local talent, to reflect Denver’s diversity. We want it to resonate throughout the city,” says Ms. Roberts.

Not all artists can work well in that environment.  But public art has given birth to a new type of artist who see the rules as creative challenges leading to new levels of artistic expression.

Stanton Sears and Andrea Myklebust design and create outdoor sculptures in St. Paul, Minnesota for public art projects across the country.

Each piece they make is unique to the community in which it is located.

“They are all designed for a very particular place,” says Mr. Sears.

“We try to listen to people, to understand the physical aspects of each site, to understand the history of an area.  We aren’t out there by ourselves.  There are many layers of committees and people involved in each project.”

“Public art is different from other art,” according to Lee Modica, Florida’s director of Art in Public Buildings program.

“Artists must work with a team.  They have to collaborate with local committees, the bureaucracy of government, with architects and planners.  Every state is different, every project is different.  It takes real patience in addition to art skills.”

But through this gauntlet, Ms. Modica and others argue that public art has a timelessness and richness that gives it greater strength.


Miami Public Art program

Denver Public Art program

Florida Public Art program

Americans for the Arts

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