In the Bronx General Post Office, a giant 13-panel painting called Resources of America celebrates the hard work and industrialism of America in the first half of the twentieth century. And in Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center just over the Brooklyn Bridge, several installations of art are on view at any given time—from an iron lasso resembling a giant charm bracelet to a series of wagons that play recordings of great American poems to a life-sized seeing eye dog that looks so real people are constantly stopping to pet it. There exists in every city a symbiotic relationship between the city and its art. When we hear the term art, we tend to think of private art—the kind displayed in private spaces such as museums, concert halls, and galleries. But there is a growing interest in, and respect for, public art: the kind of art created for and displayed in public spaces such as parks, building lobbies, and sidewalks.
Although all art is inherently public—created in order to convey an idea or emotion to others—“public art,” as opposed to art that is sequestered in museums and galleries, is art specifically designed for a public arena where the art will be encountered by people in their normal day-to-day activities. Public art can be purely ornamental or highly functional; it can be as subtle as a decorative door knob or as conspicuous as the Chicago Picasso. It is also an essential element of effective urban design.
The more obvious forms of public art include monuments, sculptures, fountains, murals, and gardens. But public art also takes the form of ornamental benches or street lights, decorative manhole covers, and mosaics on trash bins. Many city dwellers would be surprised to discover just how much public art is really around them and how much art they have passed by without noticing, and how much impact public art has on their day-to-day lives.
Public art fulfills several functions essential to the health of a city and its citizens. It educates about history and culture—of the artist, the neighborhood, the city, the nation. Public art is also a “place-making device” that instantly creates memorable, experiential landmarks, fashioning a unique identity for a public place, personalizing it and giving it a specific character. It stimulates the public, challenging viewers to interpret the art and arousing their emotions, and it promotes community by stimulating interaction among viewers. In serving these multiple and important functions, public art beautifies the area and regenerates both the place and the viewer.
One question often debated in public art forums is whether public art should be created with or by the public rather than for the public. Increasingly, cities and artists are recognizing the importance of creating works with meaning for the intended audience, and this generally requires direct input from the community or from an artist entrenched in that community. At the same time, however, art created for the community by an “outsider” often adds fresh perspective. Thus, cities and their citizens are best served by a combination of public art created by members of the community, art created with input from members of the community, and art created by others for the community.