What is Public Art?
This introductory text provides a brief overview of Public Art. Terms associated with Public Art are indicated in CAPITALS and are elaborated on in
the glossary or by hovering the cursor over the term.
Public Art is a broad term which refers to artworks in any MEDIA
created for and sited either temporarily or permanently in public places.
Public places are generally associated with external spaces; however,
artworks can be situated outside in private spaces, such as shopping malls
and private housing developments, or inside in public spaces, such as
publically-funded ART MUSEUM and GALLERIES or hospitals and libraries.
Consequently a definition of what constitutes public space is problematic.
Situating artworks in public spaces enables the artwork to engage
with a broader public than an art museum or gallery; however, the context
in which an artwork is seen can affect audience expectations and responses.
The audience encounter with an artwork in an exterior space, such as a public
park or beside a motorway, or in an interior space, such as a hospital corridor,
may be fleeting and circumstantial. In contrast, the audience encounter with
an artwork in an art museum or gallery involves a decision to enter into a
space with the expectation of seeing the artwork.
Public Art involves an artist or artists creating artworks in response to
a place. This may involve consideration of the practical issues of situating,
performing or presenting an artwork in a public place, such as durability,
security, safety, access and visibility. But it may also encompass more complex
issues arising from the creation of an artwork informed by, and in response to,
the specific conditions of a public place, such as its use, meaning or history.
Public Art can take many forms and, in some cases, including Socially-engaged
or PARTICIPATORY ART initiatives, it may take no physical form at
all, such as a
conversation, a performance or an intervention. Public Art can use any medium
and may be permanent, temporary or transient. Public Art can be many things:
an aesthetic response to a place or context, a means of engaging audiences or
local communities, an enhancement of the designed environment, a critique, a
dialogue, a distraction or an ornamentation.
Public understanding and expectations of Public Art are shaped by
historical precedents for MONUMENTS, MEMORIALS and STATUES, which tend
to be large-scale, permanent and figurative. Traditionally made from stone or
bronze, these works are usually figurative, celebrating or commemorating key
historical military and cultural figures or events. Many of these works still exist
in their original sites, contributing to assumptions that Public Art should be
figurative, decorative, celebratory or commemorative. In the early twentieth
century, more austere and abstract forms of Public Art emerged, particularly
in the form of the memorial, replacing earlier figurative and triumphal forms.
These forms anticipated, and were informed by, emerging trends towards
ABSTRACTION in MODERNIST SCULPTURE, which
of the formal aspects of the artwork separate from its context. Developments in
MINIMALISM in the
1960s and '70s, which favoured sculptural forms, contributed
to an expanding field of Public Art practice which focused on the material
conditions of the artwork, shifting emphasis from representation to experience.
In keeping with the modernist tradition such artworks were situated in public
places, often in conjunction with modernist ARCHITECTURE, but
consideration of their context. This has been the dominant mode of Public Art
practice in Western art in the twentieth century.
During the 1960s and '70s, prompted by social, cultural and political
change, new forms of practice, such as ENVIRONMENTAL ART, LAND ART,
INSTALLATION ART and SITE-SPECIFIC ART, emerged to challenge the
dominance and orthodoxy of modernism. Emphasising a consideration of
the relationship of the art object to its context, these new forms of practice
presented ways to produce and display artworks outside the museum or gallery
space. In some instances, such as Land Art, the Site can be the artwork.
Similarly, developments across a range of theoretical disciplines, such
as FEMINISM, POSTCOLONIAL THEORY, PSYCHOANALYSIS and CRITICAL THEORY challenged modernist assumptions about audience engagement
with the artwork, suggesting audiences are shaped by their cultural, social,
political and psychological experiences and that these experiences inform
their encounter with the artwork. Influenced by this discourse, and drawing
on earlier forms of AVANT-GARDE practice, such as DADA, new forms of
socially-engaged and ACTIVIST ART practice emerged which subverted
the objectification of the artwork and shifted consideration from what the
artwork represents to what the artwork communicates. These developments
influenced the emergence of new forms of Public Art practice, such as NEW GENRE PUBLIC ART, which encompassed temporary, performative and participative practice.
Recognising the potential for Public Art to engage a broad audience
with issues of social cohesion and regeneration, a renewed urban
regeneration agenda in the 1970s and '80s resulted in the emergence of a
range of schemes and support agencies concerned with the commissioning
and installation of Public Art. Publically funded programmes, such as the
Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the USA in the 1930s, established
a precedent for such regenerative Public Art programmes. Established as
part of a larger Depression-era regeneration initiative, the WPA involved
the construction of buildings and roads and also the creation of artworks
for a broad audience, often involving public participation in the selection
and location of the work. Subsequent programmes, such as the Art in
Architecture programme, and the National Endowment for the Arts' Art
in Public Places programme, were the forerunners of the more common
Per Cent for Art scheme, which is now one of the main sources of
public funding for commissioning Public Art. Through such Per Cent for Art
schemes a percentage of government funding for capital projects can be
ringfenced for commissioning artworks.
Many Public Art projects, whether temporary or permanent, are
large in scale. This may relate to the physical size of the work, the concept,
the ambition, the audience engagement or the duration of the work. The
commissioning of Public Art may require substantial funding and resources to address matters relating to research, planning, consultation, materials,
construction, facilitation, documentation and maintenance. The level of
funding required can also influence expectations with regard to the final
outcome, where a permanent, large work made in traditional materials, such
as stone or bronze, can be understood to represent value for money. Under
such circumstances, it can be difficult to secure funding for temporary, nonobject
based, participatory or experimental work, especially where there
is no tangible outcome. Where there are many stakeholders, agencies and
public constituencies, the communication process around the commissioning,
development and siting or staging of Public Art is considered essential to
securing and sustaining support for innovative, experimental and challenging
practice. The role of intermediaries, such as Local Authority Public Art
Officers and independent Public Art agencies, can play an important part in
supporting the artistic autonomy of a Public Art commission and in promoting
experimentation and innovation.
Contemporary Public Art may be commissioned through the
PER CENT FOR THE ARTS SCHEME by a Government Department, a publically-funded
as an Arts Council, a Local Authority or a transport or healthcare provider or,
in some cases, in the context of a public-private partnership. Public Art is also
commissioned by privately-funded agencies, such as a business or housing
development. Similarly, there are a number of independent agencies, such
as Artangel in the UK, SKOR in the Netherlands and the Public Art Fund in
New York, which function as intermediaries, providing support and practical
input, in the form of administration, advocacy, mediation, public relations,
documentation and funding. These agencies seek funding from a range
of public and private sources and tend to prioritise support for the artist's
intentions and the artistic outcome.
In the twenty-first century, the art museum and gallery continue to play
an important role in the display and consideration of Contemporary Art, but
the expanded field of arts practice and the emergence of alternative fora, such
as BIENNIAL, ART FAIR, ARTIST-LED and COLLABORATIVE ART initiatives,
have contributed to an increasing volume and variety of art situated in internal
and external public places. Concepts of public and private continue to be
contested and debated and Public Art contributes to that debate by pushing
out the boundaries of what is possible in terms of arts practice and audience
experience. Facilitation, information provision and opportunities for reflection
are considered essential for further development and expansion of this area