A couple weeks ago, Kelly Bennett sparked a late-afternoon twitter discussion, asking what the point is of public art. She compiled some of the responses here, including a few of mine. It was sparked by the recent declaration from the Mayor’s office that the city should stop funding public art, which is a deceptively complex issue. But I wanted to (and promised to) expand beyond 140-character fragments on what public art is (or could be) for.
The easiest level is to say that art beautifies an area, provides and reflects the character of a city or neighborhood, and helps create welcoming public space for residents and tourists. The more appealing the shared spaces are in a given place, the more foot traffic you generate, and the more your community interacts with each other and the more they wander into the stores and other fronts that might share the space. People like each other and they spend their money in your local small businesses. Good for everyone.
Plus, when communities join together to create shared spaces with public art, it also gives a community a vested interest in the maintenance of that space. It gives the community members a reason to stand up against negative graffiti. It gives them a reason to defend those shared spaces as family-friendly, safe areas. And it connects neighbors and local business owners in a collaborative effort to build a cooperative community that seeks out solutions that are mutually beneficial. It’s the difference between an actual community and just a bunch of people who are near each other.
But it also plays a deeper role with long-term ramifications. The government’s role in the creation and promotion of public art is a piece of the broader effort to engage communities and provide the tools and the motivation for them to self-organize and take ownership of their neighborhoods. It may be de facto inevitable that most people will only interact with the local government in negative situations (courts, police, fighting for infrastructure repairs or school funding), but there are other opportunities.
In this particular example, government support could take the form of securing meeting space, scheduling meetings, and recruiting community members to share ideas. It could mean providing examples of what other communities have tried, perspectives from professionals who have worked on public art or community-organized projects in the past, or providing resources to seek out and recruit artists.
But most importantly, it can use the process of recruiting community involvement for art projects as part of a larger model of soliciting community feedback and involvement in addressing other challenges. Better models for police and fire protection, community health issues, transportation improvement and redevelopment plans. It’s all part of the same fundamental issue of structuring a government that not only welcomes, but meaningfully recruits, community input beyond just seeing who shows up in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday for a council meeting.
It’s about putting people ahead of things.