Public art is any type of art intended for public spaces or the public realm. It is typically created by artists who "endeavor to generate dialogue with the community, at times about the issues central to their lives." (AFTA, 2016). Public art can be reflective of and responsive to social political, and historical issues, cultures, and human experiences. It energizes and activates people and places, and it can enhance a community’s vitality, social life, and livability.
Incorporating Public Art into Planning
At its best, public art fosters a sense of belonging to place. Public art can also create a sense of place that helps people make meaning from their surroundings, and the act of generating artwork can build relationships in a community. Planners in all fields may consider integrating public art into their projects both to generate community engagement and to enhance the final results of a project. Because planning processes often take years to enact, incorporating public art into the process can keep people engaged and help build momentum towards implementation.
Types of public art
When people think of public art, they often think of large, permanent sculptures, such as the stone and bronze statues that are often found in city and town centers and parks, or perhaps a modernist sculpture in an office building plaza. But public art is extremely diverse. Public art can be temporary or permanent and can include installations, performances, festivals, music, dance, theatre, paintings, text, chalk, graffiti, yarn bombs, functional art (like street furniture or signage) found materials in the natural environment, digitally mediated experiences, and dazzling displays of technology, color, and light.
The following examples are more illustrative of traditional notions of public art as a tangible intervention into the built environment or public space. Yet over the last several decades, the field of public art has expanded to encompass a variety of new artistic practices and media, as well as new institutional and political priorities. As municipal budgets shrink, funds for large-scale art projects—and routine maintenance of existing public art collections—have become scarcer. In response, many municipalities have looked for ways to align public art with other municipal and civic priorities. The lines between public art and emerging fields like socially engaged art and civic art [link out to page] are increasingly blurry—creating new opportunities and well as new challenges for planners who must balance competing municipal priorities. Some types of public art include:
- Site-specific projects: Projects that relate to physical, historical, and/or social aspects of a specific environment and which rely heavily on these aspects to inform the meaning of the work. This may include projects that mimic natural forms, colors, textures, and materials in the environment and commemorate something of social, political, or historical significance to that place. Site-specific project needn’t be rooted in a single location or take a singular form.
- Platform-based projects: Projects defined by specific parameters such as scale, duration, materials or placement, which support consecutive, temporary artworks. This may include projects that make use of video screens, billboards, and banners.
- Expanded-site projects: Projects that look beyond a specific location to include dispersed forms of communication and public space. This may include projects that utilize cell phones, the internet, vehicles, projection, print, and other mobile means of communication.
The Goals of Public Art
Local governments that invest in public art planning and programming do so because they see art and culture as intrinsically valuable to public life, and recognize its effectiveness in advancing planning and community development goals and objectives. These include:
- enhancing the human experience in the public realm;
- celebrating community identity and culture;
- promoting positive community and civic engagement;
- promoting economic development and tourism;
- advancing civic design objectives for parks, plazas, open spaces, streetscapes, trails, bus stops, light rail, and other public infrastructure; and
- creating jobs in creative industries -- for artists, fabricators, engineers, construction workers, architects, and others.
Who is involved in the creation of public art?
- Artists may create public art as gestures, investigations, interventions, or statements on a small or grand scale in relation to diverse audiences and in response to calls for art issued by the public or private sector.
- The public may seek public art as an opportunity to celebrate and express the identity and character of their neighborhoods, to beautify public spaces, to tell stories about and commemorate meaningful individuals, groups, or events, and to engage with each other and their city or town in playful and exciting ways. As social practice and civic art continue to infuse public art planning and cultural policymaking, the public will also find new roles in the conceptualization, development, and execution of public art projects.
- The private sector may be in favor of contributing funds toward a municipal public art program and/or embrace the inclusion of public art in public areas on private land because they believe it enhances their image, or it provides valued amenities for residents and/or employees.
See the Funding page for more general information about financing the creation of public art. And check out the Percent for Art page to learn about a local tax ordinance that can help finance public art at a municipal level.
Strategies for Promoting and Integrating Public Art
Some of the strongest examples of public art today are works that exist as an integrated part of public infrastructure, on public land including parks, squares, and parking spots, and on open space on private land. Visit the Percent for Art page to review the ways in which governments and planners can promote the integration of temporary and permanent public art into the public realm and infrastructure through policies and programs.
Examples of Public Art
Examples of public art exist for each of the frameworks discussed above for the various types, goals, and people who can be involved in the creation of public art. Public art can also be shaped by values which are agreed upon by a community during a public art planning process.
Click here to learn more for examples of public art projects that advance various goals and values. These case studies were identified during MAPC’s work as part of the development of the Watertown Public Arts Master Plan:
CCNC's Public Art Toolkit is intended as a guide when planning a public art program or evaluating an existing one, and contains resources for the management of public art projects. The Toolkit includes links to examples and resources from around the world; detailed case studies and project examples of varying scales; illustrative photos from public art projects; and links to web-based resources.
The Forecast Public Art Toolkit provides information on and examples of all aspects of public art, from contemporary ideas and resources, to a step by step guide to the entire process of creating public art.
- A Blade of Grass. 2016.
- Americans for the Arts Public Art Network. 2016.
- Creative City Network of Canada Public Art Toolkit. 2010.
- Art for (W)all: A guide to making murals in Nashville.
- Providence Art in City Life Plan. 2018.
- Metro Nashville Public Art Community Investment Plan. 2017.
- Municipal Artist Partnerships Guide. 2019.