What's the Value of Public Art?
The term public art refers to a specific art genre with its own professional and critical discourse. It represents art in any media whose form, function and meaning are created for the general public through a public process. Public art is visually and physically accessible to the public - it is installed or staged in public space or the public realm, usually outside. Public art embodies public or universal concepts rather than commercial, partisan or personal concepts or interests, and it has clear aesthetic qualities in form or theme. Notably, public art is also the direct or indirect product of a public process of creation, procurement, and/or maintenance.
History of public art
United States, 20th century
In the 1930s, the production of national symbolism implied by 19th century monuments starts being regulated by long-term national programs with propaganda goals (Federal Art Project, United States; Cultural Office, Soviet Union). Programs like President Roosevelt's New Deal facilitated the development of public art during the Great Depression but was wrought with propaganda goals. New Deal art programs were intended to develop national pride in American culture while avoiding addressing the faltering economy. Although problematic, New Deal art programs such as FAP altered the relationship between the artist and society by making art accessible to all people. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today. This program allotted one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to the purchase of contemporary American art for them. A-i-A helped solidify the policy that public art in the United States should be truly owned by the public. It also promoted site-specific public art.
Public art is sometimes controversial. The following public art controversies have been notable:
- Detroit's Heidelberg Project was controversial for several decades since its inception in 1986 due to its garish appearance.
- Richard Serra's minimalist piece Tilted Arc was removed from Foley Square in New York City 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.
- Victor Pasmore's Apollo Pavilion in the English New Town of Peterlee has been a focus for local politicians and other groups complaining about the governance of the town and allocation of resources. Artists and cultural leaders mounted a campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of the work with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art commissioning artists Jane and Louise Wilson to make a video installation about the piece in 2003.
- Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light tree near Canary Wharf, also in East London, caused some confusion from motorists when constructed in 1998, some of whom believed them to be real traffic signals. However, once the piece became more famous, it was voted the favourite roundabout in the country by a survey of Britain's motorists.
- Maurice Agis' Dreamspace V, a huge inflatable maze erected in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, killed two women and seriously injured a three-year-old girl in 2006 when a strong wind broke its moorings and carried it 30 ft 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, a former jail in Buenos Aires. In order to gain authorization to carry out the project, Wulsin had to engage a network of local, city and national government agencies, as well as former prisoners of the jail, human rights groups, and the military.