Reality Check

“Public art exposes people to the ideas, energies, and talents of artists in a way that traditional and sequestered venues do not.”

Forecast founder
Jack Becker

With this issue on “Representation and Realism” it seems fitting to share some fundamental facts of life in the public art world, as I see it.

First of all, the zone between “art” and “public” is filled with contradictions and compromise, constantly challenging artists and audiences alike to question motivations and rethink assumptions. The entire notion of personal expression in public/communal spaces suggests a cause-and-effect scenario, where signals are sent and communication attempted on various levels—a great experiment in which we willingly apply enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources. But toward what end?

Public art exposes people to the ideas, energies, and talents of artists in a way that traditional and sequestered venues do not. In fact, it’s changing the whole equation by removing the traditional filtering systems between the art and the public. Art and people are facing each other very directly. So you have this incredible opportunity with that kind of interface to reach people, to affect change, to influence behavior and raise appreciation for who artists are and what they do and how they impact our culture. Yet how much do we really know about how our work affects others? There’s an enormous lack of research and hard evidence to back up the numerous claims about the positive impacts of public art—evidence that might gain us some respect and win us some support.

We could all use some support about now. If “the recession is over,” then we’re feeling one hell of an aftershock. Artists are working twice as hard for half as many opportunities. Program managers are an endangered species. Public officials are looking for pennies under rocks—where the foundations for approved sculptures have already been poured—or looking for rocks to hide under! The lack of political will to adopt stronger policies and establish adequate funding mechanisms is being felt in our neighborhoods, and in our pockets.

While public financing of public art is down, some attention has shifted to the private sector, or at least public/private partnerships. This could be a good thing, triggering more partnerships than ever before. More city councils and chambers of commerce have put public art on the agenda, in one form or another—even Cows on Parade are considered cash cows.

As creative problem solvers, some artists take to this downturned economy like fish to water (better than flopping around gasping for air). Artists working in the public realm need to be more savvy marketers of their creativity, willing to explore uncharted territory, think beyond commissions, and find alternative sources of support. Street artists, independent producers, and corporate sponsors are demonstrating that government-funded art is only a slice of the public art pie.

Needless to say, many nonprofits and government agencies are scrambling, cutting back and forging new alliances to stay alive, trying to maintain their relevance. Some are pursuing partnerships, mergers, or acquisitions or finding innovative solutions. Some are withdrawing and hunkering down for the storm. Some are focusing their attention on the fundamentals.

Here in Minnesota, a consortium of foundations joined together in 2008 to support ArtsLab, a program managed by Arts Midwest and designed to build capacity among small to mid-size nonprofit arts organizations. In addition to modest funding over a three-year period, the program provides periodic retreats and workshops, professional development and staff training, plus networking among peers in the field. As a participant, we at Forecast Public Art are reevaluating our strategies and laying a stronger foundation for future growth and development. We’re also working on transition plans, a new website, and building bridges with organizations and individuals to create valuable new resources for the field.

A bold step toward this bridge-building goal took place in June, just before the public art preconference hosted by the Public Art Network (PAN) as part of the Americans for the Arts’ annual conference in Baltimore. With the help of Liesel Fenner at PAN, we convened a gathering of some of the world’s leading providers of web-based public art resources, including, Art on File, Save Outdoor Sculpture!, ARTstor, Community Arts Network, and the International Sculpture Center, among many others. Attendees committed to a process of identifying needs and opportunities to advance public art by collective action. We plan to continue working with individuals and organizations dedicated to archiving, educating, advocating, and promoting public art in all its manifestations.

It is obviously still early in the process of developing a shared vocabulary about public art. We lack standards in the field, professional credentials that might help elevate the quality of work being produced, and sophistication in terms of the advocacy that is sorely needed. The field is still young, and quickly evolving, and we should recognize our limitations, but not give up the good fight.

If we pay closer attention to the interconnectedness inherent in public art as a practice, and recognize the courage and leadership that proponents develop merely to survive in this field, we should have nothing but optimism for a future in which everyone recognizes and values the role that art plays in our everyday lives.

Jack Becker is the founder of Forecast Public Art.

This piece appeared as the publisher’s note in the print issue of Public Art Review issue 43.

From Public Art Review #43.