A city needs public art in order to flourish. That’s an idea gaining traction among urban planners and other city-makers. But exactly where is that art supposed to come from?

The (mostly) dominant model for commissioning urban artworks—especially in cities with a percent-for-art development scheme—involves an administrator in city hall, often in the parks and rec department, collaborating with the public. But in the still-evolving field of public art nothing is, so to speak, written in stone, and some interesting counter-examples are worth exploring, not only for cities without percent-for-art, but also for communities and regions where the public enthusiasm for public art may not be matched in the halls of government.

 

Private Funding for Public Works

One such example is Greensboro, North Carolina. There, the commissioning and purchasing of public art falls under the auspices of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, a charitable foundation with nearly $200 million in assets distributed across about 650 individual funds—including one devoted to public art.

The fund was launched in 2008 and is maintained and managed by trustees, who are required to contribute cash. Commissioning operates like this: A selection committee, which includes art professionals, with help from a national advisory board, crafts RFPs for specific projects, explores a pool of artists, and narrows the pool to seven or eight semifinalists. “Endowed trustees,” those who contribute $25,000 or more to the fund, vote the seven down to three. Then the full group of donors ($5,000 minimum) chooses the winner.

Since the first artwork was installed in 2009 (a sculpture by Greensboro artist Billy Lee), the fund has commissioned a new work each year and hosted smaller, temporary projects as well. The latter have been especially designed to involve the community in what might otherwise be an exclusive club.

“We’ve really pushed to engage the broader community with the temporary pieces,” says Dabney Sanders, who chairs the public art endowment steering committee. In particular, she says, folks got on board with a project by Virginia-based artist Charlie Brouwer, who solicits ladders from community members and arranges them in a temporary sculpture that symbolizes civic cooperation. “We had everyone from homeless people to our highest donor donating a ladder,” says Sanders. “It was a real community engagement piece.”

The trust faces its largest project to date in the planning and construction of a four-mile downtown greenway, which will include artist-designed features like benches and bike racks, as well as sculptures and other traditional works.

Ultimately, Sanders says, the goal is to bring the city, which is the permanent owner of the trust’s commissions, into a deeper partnership in the creation of public works. “It happens like this a lot in our community,” she says. “The private sector will create a program that brings the city along by example. Long-term, the goal is definitely to get a percent-for-art plan, and we’d like to see the city hire someone to oversee its public art collection.”

 

Gambling Funds Placemaking

Halfway across the country in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a similar program has emerged to create a public art program surprisingly ambitious for a community that, with 62,000 people, is less than a quarter the size of Greensboro.

The Iowa West Foundation was formed in 1994. Legally speaking, it’s identical to a private charitable trust. But instead of coming from a wealthy individual, the money supporting Iowa West is contributed by a few local casinos. In 1984, the Iowa West Racing Association was formed to oversee three regional casinos, in compliance with new state laws requiring all gambling to be managed by nonprofit organizations. Three percent of the association’s gross sales go into the Iowa West Foundation’s endowment, which ended last year with more than $380 million.

A good chunk of the interest from that endowment is spent on grants to area nonprofits, but in 2013, the foundation branched out into sponsored initiatives in four categories it identified as critical to its primary mission of boosting the economy and quality of life in the Council Bluffs region. These four areas are economic development, healthy families, education, and placemaking.

“Part of creating a community where families want to live and businesses want to locate includes making it attractive and appealing,” explains Peter Tulipana, chief executive officer of the foundation. “And part of making our communities attractive is creating places where public art and the experience of the streetscape are built into the overall vision of the city.”

To that end, the foundation launched a public art master plan process in 2004 to guide the siting and commissioning of works, resulting in a list of about 50 potential places for them. Much as in Greensboro, the foundation committee charged with fulfilling the master plan has brought professional artists on board to help come up with criteria and recruit artists.

With recent widespread interest and innovation in the realm of creative placemaking, the foundation has begun to experiment with more creative ways of embedding artists in the process of fulfilling its mission. For instance, the need to replace and update old signs in several local parks has been repositioned as an opportunity for public art. “At these six parks, we had the new signs designed and created by artists,” explains Tulipana. “The artists submitted their creations, and neighborhood groups who live in the areas reviewed and tweaked the designs. We see that project as a beginning toward more integrated placemaking approaches.”

 

What About the Public?

Taken together, the programs in Greensboro and Council Bluffs suggest interesting avenues for building the public art infrastructure. The former program serves as a kind of reboot of noblesse oblige, in which more fortunate citizens take a lead in city-making; the latter, with its emphasis on economic and community development, makes a strong case for the tangible value of public art—an increasingly important factor in today’s city-making.

Purists may quibble with the very notion of private entities choosing and buying artwork for the public. In practice, though, administrators at these two foundations are engaged in a conversation about defining, including, and empowering the public that runs parallel to the discussions among their counterparts in city government. And in both the private and public commissioning models, local governments remain the owners of the works, and as such act as the public’s proxy.

At any rate, it’s hard to argue with the successful track record of these two programs: two lively and growing public art collections in cities that previously had none.