Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Importance of Public Art

Cloud Gate Sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago, IL

What comes to mind when you think of public art? The term public art is used to encompass a work of art in any media that has been planned and executed with the intention of being visible in the public sphere. Public art is usually outside, free, and accessible to all. In contrast with traditional artwork featured in fine and contemporary museums, public art is much less passive because it exists in the midst of our everyday lives- we move around it, it changes in the light and seasons, and it becomes an integral part of the community we live in.

With a shift toward tolerance and more liberal ideas, combined with an emphasis on the value of creativity, data suggests that public art has been growing in popularity within the last 15 years. More public art coalitions and organizations have sprung up in urban areas and college towns across the United States—but it’s not just art enthusiasts and private donors behind the push for more community art. Some people are surprised to learn that the federal government, state, and local governments have been allocating funds for public art projects too. Even smaller economic development organizations are getting involved in areas not traditionally known as art communities. For example, Lansing Economic Development Partnership (LEAP), a regional economic development organization in Michigan, recently announced that they would be designating $30,000 for a public art grant program in nearby townships.

The benefits of public art are numerous. First, because public art is typically installed in frequent and high-foot traffic areas, works can be enjoyed by people of all ages, backgrounds, professions, and walks of life. They don’t require dishing out extra cash, dressing up for a fancy gala, or going out of your way to appreciate them. Public art is free and accessible for all- allowing direct, ongoing encounters that stimulate thoughts about art, society, connectivity, and more. Public art makes people more aware of their surroundings in general by causing people to question what they know, and take a different perspective by trying to understand the meaning behind the art piece in the space it is found. The ability to think critically and abstractly about such works provides a useful tool that can be transferred into other areas of life, personally and professionally.

Aside from broadening people’s mind, making them more aware of their surroundings, and creating an understanding of different viewpoints, public art creates an attachment to one’s community. Consider a survey called Knight Soul of the Community (SOTC) conducted by Gallup over three years across the United States. The goal of the survey was to understand the factors that attach residents to their communities emotionally, and to discover the role community attachment plays in an area’s stability and economic growth. Gallup surveyed approximately 43,000 people in 43 cities and discovered that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place– its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than safety, education, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.” Some studies even suggest that public art can result in economic revitalization by making communities more attractive to live and work in.

Public art has the ability to make an area more interesting and vibrant. Just think of how many places have gained character and widespread recognition for their iconic artwork alone. Perhaps Anish Kapoor’s unusual sculpture Cloud Gate (otherwise known as the Bean) in Chicago comes to mind, or the Olympic Sculpture Park along the Seattle waterfront. Public artwork enriches communities by adding an off-beat, thought-provoking element to the spaces we live and move through. These works often become popular attractions, and prized icons, in the city they’re part of for visitors and residents alike. Regardless of where they’re placed, public artworks have short and long term advantages that everyone can enjoy. What public art do you love most? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!