Public Art

by Mark Lawson

Perhaps no other genre of art provokes more controversy and strong emotional responses than public art. At the same time, it is a category little understood, even by many artists themselves. For most people, public art is art that is in public spaces. Since this is a democracy, it is generally assumed that we, the public, should have some voice about what is displayed in the public realm. This is where the situation becomes complicated. Many public projects are privately funded, such as the infamous “Blue Shirt” which was once destined for the airport. Others, such as the “millennium” projects, had funds raised by different community groups for the creation and installation of the art works. The bronze children walking on a brick wall on Wisconsin Avenue near 36th Street is an example of one of these projects. Other works, such as those paid for by the state or city percent for arts programs, are funded through our tax dollars. It is interesting that countless buildings and other public works have been constructed by tax dollars, but rarely do citizens feel that they have the need or right to criticize the decisions of architects or engineers. When it comes to art however, the population has very strong opinions of what’s appropriate. Many folks feel that it’s simply a waste of money to fund any art at all. Others feel that the only good art is “traditional” in appearance, which essentially means realistic and narrative work in mediums such as stone or bronze. The current philosophy of most of the decision making individuals on public art selection panels and in administrative positions is that effective public art is somewhat accessible and comprehensible to the general public, but is also thought provoking and challenging. In other words, its pushes the envelope of public acceptance and understanding of art. These are difficult values to quantify or codify and are often debated at every level of the public art decision making process. There are currently several public art projects about to get underway or recently installed in the general area of Riverwest. In Gordon Park, a sculpture will installed sometime in the near future by artist David Middlebrook. At the Urban Ecology Center across the river, the ambitious expansion project in Riverside Park includes a significant public art program which is well into the selection process. On East Capitol Boulevard, a Riverwest-based art and design firm, Flux Design, has been chosen to create a monumental public piece that runs along several stretches of the boulevard. On the western edge of the East North Avenue business district, artist Gail Simpson recently completed her roadsign-like waymarker of past businesses and other east side entities. All of these works are bound to generate significant dialogue about their quality and appropriateness. When considering these questions, it’s valuable to try to understand the purpose and meaning of the works. How do they affect the location where they are installed? What do they communicate? What is the visual language through which they communicate? Is it interesting, relevant, does the work challenge you to think differently about a place or some other subject? Public art works deserve more consideration than a quick “drive-by” opinion. That doesn’t mean that you have to like them, but they all warrant at least a bit of serious consideration. That is one of the primary functions of public art — to stimulate thinking, dialogue and perhaps, new perceptions. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003