The Attack on Public Art

With all the attention to Confederate Monuments, I was wondering about what the recent hostilities in Charlottesville might say about the state of public art in the United States.

For instance, Nicole Martinez wrote positively about public art displays as recently as May:

If you walked past one of the Garment District plazas in New York City last fall, you may have noticed those giant, vibrantly colored animal sculptures towering over sidewalk diners at café tables. Or perhaps you were running to catch a plane at Miami International Airport, and you glanced up to see an intricate web of etched glass on the roof of the bustling transportation center. If you’re an artist, you might be wondering how you might land an opportunity to showcase your work in a public space and land a public art commission – and while the process can be long and arduous, there are a variety of opportunities to participate in public art programs across the country.

Public art programs were first launched in the United States in the 1930s, when President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred the idea that Americans should take pride in their cultural treasures. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today. This program gave one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to purchase contemporary American art for that structure. Today, acquisitions also include specially commissioned art projects for public art spaces, and the percentage allocated from a new construction project typically varies from one-half to two percent.

You might think that public art is a positive aspect of American society.

The Association for Public Art admits that some pieces might receive support from the entire community but that should not stop funding and recognition:

In a diverse society, all art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so. Art attracts attention; that is what it is supposed to do. Is it any wonder, then, that public art causes controversy? Varied popular opinion is inevitable, and it is a healthy sign that the public environment is acknowledged rather than ignored. To some degree, every public art project is an interactive process involving artists, architects, design professionals, community residents, civic leaders, politicians, approval agencies, funding agencies, and construction teams. The challenge of this communal process is to enhance rather than limit the artist’s involvement.

For that reason, Martinez advises caution to artists:

Ultimately, artists interested in landing public art commissions should pay close attention to government agency websites in an effort to keep track of open calls for public art commissions. If you choose to apply, consider crafting a proposal that directly addresses the architectural components of the space, bearing in mind the agency’s budget constraints and your own ability to stick to the budget you’ve laid out. And while its true that a public art project may not be the most lucrative commission of your artistic career, its lasting influence will likely impact it for years to come.

Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about changing historical awareness.

Consequently, to keep up with the times, Americans for the Arts decided to create distance between their support for public art and the kinds of public displays that have drawn ire recently:

“For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts, with its member organizations, has been a fierce advocate for public art and how it can help transform, inspire, and educate communities. Americans for the Arts stands with community members who are coming together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully and honestly assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve today. Americans for the Arts stands in opposition to any form of violence, intimidation, or illegal activity that cuts short such community dialogue.

“We support ongoing community dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and removal and replacement of the various artistic and cultural vestiges of white supremacy and racism in the United States, and the installation of monuments commemorating narratives of emancipation, shared strength, and equity. We recommend that local arts agencies and other arts institutions join these dialogues in concert with affected communities.

“Americans for the Arts strongly supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, and stands against racism, bigotry, and hatred. To support a full creative life for all, we commit to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.”

Sixty years for public arts. Four days against white supremacy and racism. You do the math.

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3 thoughts on “The Attack on Public Art

  1. And somewhere in between the two, “graffiti” has apparently fallen into favor by some who consider it to be a form of public art, as well. I’ve never agreed with this and have always considered it to be vandalism. Yet those who endorse it as an art form are probably among the protesters who help tear down truly artistic statues of those who figured decisively in American history.

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  2. “Art attracts attention; that is what it is supposed to do.”

    Wrong. Art is supposed to glorify God. If it doesn’t do that, it isn’t art.

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