What Is a Public Art Work?
Unlike traditional art gallery sculptures or murals, public artwork is accessible to all. It can be anything from a temporary chalk drawing to an ephemeral digital projection.
Many government agencies commission public art through programs like percent for art. Their selection process should be equitable and transparent to ensure a diverse group of stakeholders are included.
Public art works are often designed for a specific setting, and may be commissioned by a local municipality. These projects involve a wide range of people, including artists, architects, engineers, designers, local residents, civic leaders, politicians, approval and funding agencies, and construction teams.
When a public artwork is installed in a city, it becomes part of the daily landscape and can be seen by many people. This can make it a source of pride for the community and can help to create a sense of identity.
For example, in a busy pedestrian crossing in London, artist Yinka Ilori used vibrant patterns to transform 18 of the city’s crosswalks into artworks. Not only does this work add beauty to the urban landscape, but it also helps drivers notice the crossings and increases safety. Public art can also be a tool for social change, and many of the nominated works in the 2022 UAP list use this power to address the tumultuous geopolitics of our time.
Public art works are created in a wide range of mediums. They can be applied to a surface or integrated into a built environment. Applied artworks can include commissioned paintings, tapestries and murals. Integrated artworks can include sculptural pieces, light installations and digital projections. They may also include landscape elements such as trees and plants.
Many public art pieces are designed to encourage direct hands-on interaction. For example, a water feature by artist Steve Mann is also a musical instrument that can be played with water jets. Other interactive public artworks include a light installation that responds to sound and movement, and a mandala of lights commissioned for an event in Detroit.
Increasingly, public art is being influenced by the geopolitical realities of our tumultuous times. From large bronze statues to graffiti stencils, artists are using public spaces to engage with their communities through visuals that speak to current issues and concerns. Inspiring public engagement with a work can cultivate a cultural identity, making a community more attractive to locals and visitors alike.
When commissioning public art, communities need to be involved throughout the process. This can include reviewing and responding to conceptual work, maquettes, or renderings, as well as meeting with the artist(s) to discuss what the project will mean for them.
Public art can offer an opportunity for historically marginalized or disinvested neighborhoods to develop and express local culture and artistic voice. However, research suggests that for these benefits to be realized, public art programs need to be implemented with a commitment to racial equity.
A successful public artwork must not only be engaging, but also address a social or environmental issue. For example, Yinka Ilori’s vibrantly patterned crosswalks, inspired by traditional Nigerian textiles and stories, inject color and energy into the urban landscape while addressing pedestrian safety. The installation also serves as a reminder of the urgency of climate change. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch, which consists of 12 massive blocks of glacial ice in prominent urban sites that are arranged into a clock formation, confronts the public with the reality of melting arctic ice.
Public art is a valuable contribution to the city or town, elevating culture and history, providing beauty, enrichment and enjoyment while encouraging tourism and supporting economic vitality. It creates what urban planner Mitchell Reardon calls “community fingerprints,” spaces that make residents feel represented and strengthen community ties.
Public engagement is the key to understanding and appreciating public artworks, fostering a collective appreciation of these works in their community context. To support this, consider offering guided experiences and educational materials geared to public art themes and spaces. On-site signage, maps and apps that link to additional online content can also be helpful.
The process by which public art is selected and commissioned can vary but should reflect the values and interests of the local community. Consider appointing a selection committee that includes both experts and community members with a balance of skills and experience. This ensures that the process is equitable and responsive to the site, location and audience of the public artwork.