On Public Art

During the busy summer travel months, your Facebook feeds and shared slideshows are likely filled with photos of friends on vacation. Odds are those photos included public art: faces reflected in Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” (affectionately known as “The Bean”) by Anish Kapoor, beautiful nighttime shots of a Leo Villareal’s “Bay Lights” on the illuminated San Francisco Bay Bridge, or silly poses with Wall Street’s “Charging Bull” by Arturo Di Modica. We often photograph these pieces because they help us remember a space, because they make that trip unique and because we are moved, inspired or maybe even upset by their presence. Art plays an important part in our tourism experiences and public art especially helps us interact and converse with places throughout the world.

The term “public art” may conjure images of bronze statues of soldiers or busts of presidents. I still stop and learn from these works. But today, public art takes on a wide range of forms, sizes as well as scales and can be temporary or permanent. Public art includes murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media and even performances as well as festivals. Nationally popular pieces include Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005,” 7,503 panels of saffron-colored fabric that hung in New York’s Central Park in February 2005; the 2-acre swirling park “Connections” in Philadelphia; more than 150 painted murals showing the history and heritage of Joliet, Il. and pulsing LED portraits installed in Boston and its Harbor Islands.

Public art is more than just an attractive decoration — it is a conversation with the public, revealing a place’s or a people’s history, values and stories. The work serves as a way for communities to announce themselves as a unique place. Think of the Eiffel Tower or St. Louis Arch. Public art can serve as a tool for governments to dialogue and partner with citizens, showcasing creative uses of space and the spirit of communities. To preserve this conversation, 27 states and at least 300 municipalities annually allocate a percentage of all capital and building costs to acquire and maintain public art.

The Gates
CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, public art is a substantial tourism boon. “The Gates” were estimated to have an economic benefit for New York City of $254 million, attracting over 4 million visitors to Central Park during what is usually its slowest tourism month. “The Bay Lights” installation is estimated to have a $97 million impact on the Oakland Bay area’s local economy through 2015. The dollars come in through tourism and job creation, as workers are hired for design, fabrication, engineering, lighting, insurance, security and installation.