Public art  

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The term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that has been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. The term is especially significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a particular working practice, often with implications of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. The term is sometimes also applied to include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings.


The scope of public art

Monuments, memorials and civic statuary are perhaps the oldest and most obvious form of officially sanctioned public art, although it could be said that architectural detail and even architecture itself is more widespread and fulfills the definition of public art. Increasingly most aspects of the built environment are seen as legitimate candidates for consideration as, or location for, public art, including, street furniture, lighting and graffiti. Public art is not confined to physical objects; dance, procession, street theatre even poetry have proponents that specialize in public art.

Sculpture intended as public art is often constructed of durable, easily cared-for material, to avoid the worst effects of the elements and vandalism; however, many works are intended to have only a temporary existence and are made of more ephemeral materials. Permanent works are sometimes integrated with architecture and landscaping in the creation or renovation of buildings and sites, an especially important example being the programme developed in the new city of Milton Keynes, England.

Some artists working in this discipline use the freedom afforded by an outdoor site to create very large works that would be unfeasible in a gallery, for instance Richard Long's three week walk, entitled "The Path Is the Place in the Line". Amongst the works of the last thirty years that have met greatest critical and popular acclaim are pieces by Christo, Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, and Anthony Gormley where the artwork reacts to or incorporates its environment.

Artists making Public art range from the greatest masters such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, to those who specialize in public art such as Claes Oldenburg and Pierre Granche, to anonymous artists who make surreptitious interventions.

Interactive public art

Some forms of public art are designed to encourage audience participation in a hands-on way. Examples include public art installed at hands-on science museums such as the main architectural centerpiece out in front of the Ontario Science Centre. This permanently installed artwork is a fountain that is also a musical instrument (hydraulophone) that members of the public can play at any time of the day or night. Members of the public interact with the work by blocking water jets to force water through various sound-producing mechanisms inside the sculpture.

Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr, Melbourne is also public art which works as a musical instrument.

Percent for art

Public art is usually installed with the authorization and collaboration of the government or company that owns or administers the space. Some governments actively encourage the creation of public art, for example, budgeting for artworks in new buildings by implementing a Percent for Art policy. 1% of the construction cost for art is a standard, but the amount varies widely from place to place. Administration and maintenance costs are sometimes withdrawn before the money is distributed for art (City of Los Angeles for example). Many locales have "general funds" that fund temporary programs and performances of a cultural nature rather than insisting on project-related commissions. The majority of European countries, Australia and many cities and states in the USA, have percent for art programs. This requirement is implemented in a variety of ways. The government of Quebec requires that the budget for all new publicly funded buildings set aside 1% for artwork. New York City has a law that requires that no less than 1% of the first twenty million dollars, plus no less than one half of 1% of the amount exceeding twenty million dollars be allocated for art work in any public building that is owned by the city. The maximum allocation for any commission in New York is $400,000.

In contrast, the city of Toronto requires that 1% all of construction costs be set aside for public art, with no set upper limit (although in some circumstances, the municipality and the developer might negotiate a maximum amount). In the United Kingdom percent for art is discretionary for local authorities, who implement it under the broader terms of a section 106 agreement otherwise known as 'planning gain', in practice it is negotiable, and seldom ever reaches a full 1%, where it is implemented at all. A percent for art scheme exists in Ireland and is widely implemented by many local authorities.

Arts Queensland, Australia supports a new policy (2008) for 'art + place' with a budget provided by state government and a curatorial advisory committee. It replaces the previous 'art built-in' 2005–2007.

Public art and politics

Public art has often been used for political ends. The most extreme and widely discussed manifestations of this remain the use of art as propaganda within totalitarian regimes coupled with simultaneous suppression of dissent. The approach to art seen in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Cultural Revolution in China stand as representative.

In more open societies artists often find public art useful in promoting their ideas or establishing a censorship-free means of contact with viewers. The art may be intentionally ephemeral, as in the case of temporary installations and performance pieces. Such art has a spontaneous quality. It is characteristically displayed in urban environments without the consent of authorities. In time, though, some art of this kind achieves official recognition. Examples include situations in which the line between graffiti and "guerilla" public art is blurred, such as the art of John Fekner placed on billboards, the early works of Keith Haring (executed without permission in advertising poster holders in the New York City Subway) and the current work of Banksy. The Northern Irish murals and those in Los Angeles were often responses to periods of conflict. The art provided an effective means of communication both within and beyond a distressed group within the larger society. In the long run the work proved useful in establishing dialogue and helping to bridge the social rifts that fuelled the original conflicts.


Public art sometimes proves controversial. A number of factors contribute to this: the desire of the artist to provoke; the diverse nature of the viewing public, with widely varying degrees of familiarity with art and its syntax; issues of appropriates uses of public funds, spaces, and resources; issues of public safety and civic oversight.

  • Richard Serra's minimalist piece Tilted Arc was removed from a New York City plaza in 1989 after office workers complained their work routine was disrupted by the piece. A public court hearing ruled against continued display of the work.

  • House, a large 1993–94 work by Rachel Whiteread in East London, was destroyed by the local council after a few months. In this case the artist and her agent had only secured temporary permission for the work.

  • Maurice Agis' Dreamscape V, a huge inflatable maze erected in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, killed two women and seriously injured a three-year-old girl when a strong wind broke its moorings and carried it 30ft into the air, with thirty people trapped inside.
  • 16 Tons, Seth Wulsin's vast 2006 work includes the demolition of the raw material it works with, namely a former skyscraper jail, Caseros Prison, located in the middle of Buenos Aires. The prison is guarded by the Argentine military 24 hours a day, so that, in order to gain authorization to carry out the project, Wulsin had to engage a huge network of local, city and national government agencies, as well as groups of former prisoners of the jail, former political prisoners, human rights groups, and the military.

In any given controversy, complexities are involved. Though press reports often present community debates as contests between two rival camps, a variety of views exist among both art specialists and lay public. Neither subset of the population is a monolithic group. Art is challenged and defended in a variety of ways by a number of individuals.

Recent developments in public art now demonstrate an appeal to a friendlier notion of the public in the form of "community" art. Artists accept the many contexts brought to public art by its diverse audience, along with their own standing as members of the communities they address. They design pieces that generally curb avant-garde tendencies in favour of work that celebrates shared experiences. This approach validates the concerns of most public arts administrators and granting agencies. The approach encourages community involvement and critique of art works in the planning stages. It can head off controversies before large expenditures of public resources are involved.

This approach tends to alienate those who wish to see art take a more confrontational approach to social issues. Work that emphasizes common experiences within a community, they charge, plays down unpleasant conditions that persist within that community. Art groups like the Viennese Wochen Klausur (Weeks of Enclosure) aim to offer an alternative by working with expert agencies and using contemporary art idioms to explore possible solutions to pressing social problems.

Sustainability of Public Art

Public art faces a design challenge by its very nature: how best to activate the images in its surroundings. The concept of “sustainability” arises in response to the perceived environmental deficiencies of a city. Sustainable development, promoted by the United Nations since the 1980s, includes economical, social, and ecological aspects. A sustainable public art work would include plans for urban regeneration and disassembly. Sustainability has been widely adopted in many environmental planning and engineering projects. Sustainable art is a challenge to respond the needs of an opening space in public.


  • "One Place After Another", Miwon Kwon. MIT Press, 2003.
  • Public Art by the Book, edited by Barbara Goldstein. 2005.
  • "Dialogues in Public Art", edited by Tom Finkelpearl. MIT Press, 2000.
  • "The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life", edited by Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette. MASS MoCA, 2004.
  • "Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art", Grant Kester. University of California Press, 2004.
  • Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, edited by Suzanne Lacy. Bay Press, 1995.
  • "Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics", Rosalyn Deutsche. MIT Press, 1998.
  • "In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture", Victor Burgin. University of California Press, 1996.
  • Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, Malcolm Miles. 1997.
  • Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities, Erika Lee Doss. 1995
  • Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy, Harriet Senie and Sally Webster. 1993.
  • Public Art Review, Forecast Public Art. Bi-Annual publication
  • On the Museum's Ruins, Douglas Crimp. MIT Press, 1993.
  • Art For Public Places: Critical Essays, by Malcolm Miles et al. 1989.
  • "Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health", Critical Art Ensemble. Autonomedia, 2006.
  • The Lansing Area Arts Attitude Survey, by Suzanne Love and Kim Dammers. Michigan State University Center for Urban Affairs, 1978?
  • Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, by Dianne Durante. New York University Press, 2007

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Public art" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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