Transforming our Future with Public Art
Leaders in public art and creative placemaking on how their disciplines will help shape—and even transform—our future
What is the transformational potential of public art and public artists for our future?
That’s the broad question Public Art Review posed to public art administrators, directors, artists, critics, curators, academics, and researchers before they met up in Honolulu for The Future History of Public Art, the 17th symposium organized by the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). This year’s symposium was organized in collaboration with Forecast Public Art and the Hawai’i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and held just after we went to press: November 5 to 7, 2017.
The goals of the symposium? For participants to consider the future of the field, survey growing trends and challenges, and propose ways the field might develop to create a richer and more sustainable long-term presence.
In the next few pages you’ll read the freewheeling responses of this group of deeply talented professionals to our question about public art’s transformative potential. We were moved by all the ways they talked about how public art can help create a more humane world.
“Public art has the ability to completely transform the fabric of communities. The simple act of putting paint on walls can brighten up public spaces and change negative perceptions.”
—JASPER WONG, Honolulu–based artist, illustrator, curator, art director, and founder and lead director of the POW! WOW! street-art festival
“Public art and the people who make it are translators of community needs, visions, and futures. If there’s a possibility that the public can participate in art-making alongside an artist, that deepens the connection among art, people, and place, and that connectivity is transformational.”
—MAILE MEYER, principal of Ho‘omaika‘i, a contemporary art curation and management organization based in Honolulu, and executive director of Pu‘uhonua Society, a nonprofit that supports Native Hawaiian and Hawai‘i-based artists and cultural practitioners.
What Transformation Really Means
“Transformation is a process that comes from within (whether that’s within an individual or within a complex municipality)—and we shouldn’t confuse it with simple change. Public art can change the view of a landscape/cityscape and open up the possibility of seeing a different perspective on it, but transformation only comes when people are willing to see differently what they may have been looking at every day. So, whether we’re talking about our present or our future, that willingness to be transformed must be present for public art and/or public artists to have any impact.”
—CAMERON CARTIERE, co-editor, Public Art Dialogue and associate professor, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver, British Columbia
Creating Emotional Connections
“Public art and artists play a transformative role in revealing the invisible and unseen systems within our city and creating an emotional connection between people and their environment. Embedding artists and their creative processes within the city allows for deep and meaningful collaboration and an ongoing exchange of ideas and perspectives.”
—HEATHER AITKEN, manager of the Public Art Program in Calgary, Alberta
“Among the many factors that determine our overall health, emotional wellness is often neglected; discussing it is taboo. Public art can play a transformative role in emotional communion—not only to cultivate our mental health, but to foster the sense of kinship that’s necessary for civic collaboration. As fewer people belong to a particular faith, the opportunity is big to expand what secular spirituality can look like, and how communities can better serve the psychological well-being of their citizens.”
—CANDY CHANG, New Orleans–based artist, designer, and urban planner
If Creativity Was Nurtured…
“To meet the increasingly complex challenges facing humanity and our planet, our value system in America needs an overhaul. Our educational system doesn’t prioritize creativity, innovation, empathy, or compassion. We each have the innate ability to create, from the moment we’re born. If this ability was nurtured at an early age, and valued through our adulthood, just imagine how different the world would be! And just imagine if young people seeking training as artists were given opportunities to learn firsthand about the broad and impactful, empowering world of public art—beyond the making of objects to sell—what wondrous, awe-inspiring, and transformative work they would create, and how much better off we’d be!”
—JACK BECKER, founder, lead consultant, and director of community services at Forecast Public Art, St. Paul, Minnesota
Artists Shaping the Public Realm
“Public artists were at the forefront of what is now considered standard operating procedure or best practice: soliciting the input of the current or potential beneficiaries of investment in the public realm, at all phases of a project’s development. This approach has already transformed environmental and transportation planning, public space design, private mixed-use development, and the creation of new public facilities. Commitment to hosting an ongoing dialogue between artist and audience; the consideration of projects in the context of the places they occupy; adopting inventive platforms for participation and knowledge exchange; and educating the public and private stakeholders who profoundly impact the development of the policies, regulations, and legal frameworks that impact public art initiatives—all these practices speak to the transformative power and potential of public art and artists.”
—CYNTHIA NIKITIN, senior vice president and director of the public art and creative placemaking programs for the Project for Public Spaces, New York, New York
Spectacle and Platform
“Public art can rise to its transformative potential when it functions as both spectacle and a platform for expression. An appropriate piece of public art must register ambivalences about the self in society and mark the lines of division embedded within cities.”
—PAUL FARBER, artistic director of Monument Lab, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Artivism in the Streets
“As public art becomes increasingly connected with our streets and entrenched in important social issues, we will have a massive transformational weapon. We need more public artivism!”
—MUNDANO, Brazilian street artist and activist
Private Enclosure and Public Good
“More than the members of any other profession, it is artists, particularly public or socially engaged artists, who may be found working to counter this erosion of the public sphere and commons in our neoliberal world, whether through the critical urbanism of Lab.Pro.Fab in Caracas, the feminist activism of Blank Noise in Bangalore or New Delhi, or the social work and sustainability advocacy of Thiago Mundano in São Paulo (three winners of the International Award for Public Art).
“The transformative potential of public art and public artists lies in realizing a future in which we strike a new balance between private enclosure and public good, favorable to the preservation and protection of all that is common for the world’s publics.”
—DR. LEON TAN, art and culture historian, critic, artist, educator, psychotherapist, and research leader in Creative Industries at the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand, and member of the International Association of Art Critics and Auckland Council’s Advisory Panel for Art in Public Places
Life As Collaboration
“All public art is a conversation. Great public art generates and sustains a stronger community through sharing creative visions. I am constantly inspired, motivated, and challenged by what emerging and established artists, people from industry, patrons, supporters, school students, and the interested public bring to the planning table. Life is not a solo act—it’s a huge collaboration in which we can all participate and make a difference.”
—DEBORAH MCCORMICK, executive director, SCAPE Public Art, Christchurch, New Zealand
Active Participation in the Built World
“I believe that public art, like so much of our built world (including our changing infrastructure, politics, communication, and technology), has the potential to directly engage and inspire interaction and participation. In doing so, public art can enable and inspire future generations who will believe that taking an active part in the built world is an important part of living and participating in the wider world. This is ultimately about the democratization of art: the community having a direct, participatory voice within the art itself.”
—JEN LEWIN, New York–based light and interactive sculptor
A Shifting Future
“Public art provides access to the arts and gives voice to artists who bring social issues to the forefront. Public interest in the arts, as we know it today, will shift and change. So how the field of public art engages in education and embraces technology will determine its future relevance/impact.”
—JONATHAN JOHNSON, executive director of the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts
Collective Quality of Life
“I see the greatest opportunity for public art and artists, moving forward, to be in engaging artists in cross-sector conversations about our collective quality of life. Projects and initiatives popping up across the country that embed artists in civic and bureaucratic structures represent a critical way to have more thoughtful and innovative conversations about our public spaces, services, and shared experiences. We should value how artists ask different kinds of questions and approach problems differently—and how they can positively impact solutions and opportunities in our cities.”
—LAUREN KENNEDY, executive director, UrbanArt Commission, Memphis, Tennessee
To Tell City Stories—and Provide Delight
“One of the things I love about public art is that it tells the story of a city; through it we express our dreams and aspirations; it challenges where we are going and why we’re going there. And sometimes it just provides visual or physical delight. The future of public art will be a lot like its past, except that it will look, sound, feel, and probably smell different—just as tomorrow we will be different from who we are today.”
—RICHARD MCCOY, director of Landmark Columbus in Columbus, Indiana
The Humanization of Communal Spaces
“I believe that the transformative potential of public art for our future in the United States is tremendous. The established and rapidly growing appreciation that Americans have for the humanization of communal spaces which integrate public art supports an incredibly wide range of public art programs and strategies throughout the country.
“The creation of public art projects specifically informed by, and designed to meet and address, local needs and local cultures and aspirations will, I hope, prevail—along with the right of our fellow citizens, ‘the public,’ to participate in the development of their environment. Of course, none of this is possible without the knowledge, vision, and creativity of public artists and public art administrators working with elected officials, bureaucrats, business leaders, and our ‘public.’”
—LARRY BAZA, chair of the city of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture and member of the California Arts Council
Compiled by the editors of Public Art Review