Public art plays a crucial role in shaping vibrant and sustainable communities. From mosaics and sculptures to performance art and interventions, public art gives voice to artists across disciplines, while beautifying public spaces and acting as an agent for social change and community revitalization.
Cities such as San Francisco, Cambridge, and Chicago recognize the importance of public art in their planning codes and public outreach campaigns. San Francisco’s “1%-for-art program” requires that large projects in the downtown district and nearby neighborhoods provide public art that equals at least 1% of the total construction cost. The Cambridge program has similar requirements for municipal construction projects. A 2017 Chicago initiative known as “The Year of Public Art” includes a matching fund program of up to $1 million for permanent art installations, the creation of a Public Art Youth Corps, and a new Public Arts Festival. Each of these efforts aims at increasing the quality and quantity of art in public spaces.
Public art thrives in communities with a tradition of public and corporate support for the arts, municipal planning guidelines that drive investment, and a robust non-profit sector. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are a place where these threads intersect particularly well. Through the work of the Airport Foundation MSP, Minneapolis–St. Paul is the first airport in the United States to have a film screening room (in addition to tile art, paintings, sculptures, and performances) and an arts program affiliated with the foundation plans to create an art park in 2018 in collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ), a non-profit that does placemaking and arts-community building, hosted a grand opening event for a letterpress printing studio, and is now involved in a proposal for a water tower that sits on top of a new indoor mini-golf course building.
Reframing the narrative of communities often ascribed by mainstream media as deficient, forbidden, or unsafe is an area of growing interest in the realm of public art. Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), doing such pioneering work in North Minneapolis, has helped secure commissions for a bus stop with bike racks that say “North Minneapolis,” and a pocket park with benches that light up—all installed with the help of neighborhood young people. A 20-foot sculpture called North Arrow helps convey the idea that the North Side, an area challenged by poverty and lack of investment, is connected to Minneapolis, not a separate community.
Public art also has the potential to bring community residents together and raise awareness of issues of concern through events that activate public spaces. This past summer in Cambridge, Common Exchange, a series of art installations, performances, and exhibitions in and around the Cambridge Common transformed the historic green into a gathering place for music and civic reflection. An eyes-closed tour of the park gave residents a new perspective on the accessibility of shared spaces. Fife and drum musicians played protest songs, and banners hung around the park let residents share personal recollections of memorable moments they had spent there.
Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an ambitious program to restore and build homes in Indianapolis’ struggling Near Eastside neighborhood will explore how art and placemaking can deter crime and raise morale in the Near Eastside. The Indy East Art Peace project will bring local artists together with law-enforcement professionals and community members to learn techniques of creative placemaking and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). CPTED is a design philosophy that began by maximizing “eyes on the street”—adjusting lighting, removing visual barriers, and increasing foot traffic so potential criminals sense that they will be observed—and has since come to incorporate public art and other amenities aimed at boosting neighborhood pride and the sense of ownership of public spaces.
Similar placemaking events that celebrate public art and honor its role as an agent for community beautification and social change are happening across the nation. This year’s Year of Public Art in Chicago features public events ranging from freestyle dance workshops, recreations of historic installations such as the Chicago Picasso, and public tours of Bronzeville’s King Drive Walk of Fame, where 91 plaques recognize literary icons and social reformers such as Richard Wright, Dinah Washington, and Gwendolyn Brooks. In Philadelphia’s citywide exhibition Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Space, curated by Pedro Alonzo and organized by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, large-scale temporary public artworks by 14 renowned international and local artists to multiple sites, a central venue, a variety of tours, and months of programming.
Some of the best examples of public art occur though agreements between cities and private property owners. San Francisco’s StreetSmARTS program between the San Francisco Arts Commission and Public Works pairs artists with private property owners who have received violation notices for the removal of graffiti on their buildings. Instead of repeatedly having to remove graffiti or pay associated fines, private property owners may opt into the StreetSmARTS program and have a mural painted on their property. StreetSmARTS murals deter ongoing vandalism that many private property owners face, while also beautifying neighborhoods.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at a few outstanding examples from across the country. Stay tuned.