Why Public Art Is Important


Susan Weiler, FASLA, OLIN, successfully made the case that “public art is important,” at a session on art and landscape architecture at the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting. In a review that ran from the early history of American public art, which began in Philadelphia, to evocative examples across the country, and then back to an exciting contemporary project in Philadelphia, Penny Balkin Bach, Fairmount Park Art Association; Marc Pally, a public arts consultant; Janet Echelman, one of the more exciting public artists working today; and Weiler walked the audience through where public art has been, where it may be headed, and why it will always be important.

For Bach, public art occupies a unique position within the art world. In comparison with big-name gallery shows, public art is often “under appreciated” much like landscape architecture is. But there’s lots to applaud: “It’s free. There are no tickets. People don’t have to dress up. You can view it alone or in groups. It’s open to everyone.”

Community art can also create attachment to one’s community. According to Bach, studies have looked at the economic development benefits of art, but only just recently have there been wider examinations of the effect of art on a community’s sense of place. The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative surveyed some 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place – its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.” Indeed, the same story may be playing out locally in Philly: a survey of local residents found that viewing public art was the 2nd most popular activity in the city, ranking above hiking and biking.

The Fairmount Parks Art Assocation — which has been renamed the Association for Public Art given its new broader, national purview — was formed in 1872. Back then, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, sculptor William Rush, perhaps the original American public artist, was the first to be commissioned to do art in public spaces in the U.S. Then, as now, “public art was viewed as the nexus for gathering,” while people promenaded. In this instance, that nexus was a decorative fountain designed for the public. And then, as now, Bach said, public art was controversial. The clinging clothes of the marble nymphs in the sculpture caused a bit of a “scandal.”

Bach had lots of kind words for Rush, who is now known as the “father of public art, the first artist as planner, and the negotiator of public spaces.” He understood that public spaces are the result of “collaborative effort between many design and artistic disciplines, anticipating the future direction of public art.”

The Art Association was formed prior to the big Philadelphia Centennial and undertook many artistic initiatives to make the event a hit. Bartholdi’s arm for the Statue of Liberty was featured, serving as one of the main draws. The group has always worked with some of the best artists of the era, making sure it’s contemporary in its commissions. Bach said “we take a leap of faith with artists and commission the art of our time.” In 1908, the group commissioned Remington’s largest bronze sculpture. Today, that site has a site-specific poem written for the Schuykill River. Another project called Pennypack by artist Ed Levine along the Pennsylvania Park Trail helps bring that trail to life.


Bach also made a point of discussing the “afterlife of public art,” what happens once it’s out there. As an example, she pointed a work by Pepon Osorio, a pavilion at a Latino community center that features historical photos of people from the community. Today, kids from the neighborhood take photos of themselves with photos of their ancestors. Another project called Common Ground in a footprint of a church that burnt down was hosting weddings just a week after it opened. While these works became part of their communities, Bach said the group still has to work hard to ensure that all works remain relevant to their communities and aren’t “orphaned.” “We have to keep the stories about these art works alive.” That involves conservation — making sure the work stays in good shape — and interpreting the art for a contemporary audience through signage, lighting, and public education programs, with volunteer public art ambassadors providing interpretive programs on the street. Works now have telephone numbers next to them people can call to hear “first person narratives” from people with some connection to the work. “We have both high tech and low tech ways to make connections.”

A new piece that just launched promises to upend what cities can do with art at night. Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Open Air just had its world premier (see image at top). Believing – like Marcel Duchamp – that art requires an audience to make it complete, Lozano-Zimmer has a set of 24 high-powered search lights coursing through the night. The lights are activated by the voice and GPS location of the crowd, who leave message via a Web site. Messages are converted into light arrays every night from 8-11.

Groups in cities beyond Philadelphia are also commissioning fascinating works. For Marc Pally, a public arts consultant, these new public art works can have “unanticipated” impacts on viewers. Public art can be “provocative, joyous, or annoying.” The art can be a “rupture in pedestrian life.” In fact, it’s designed to do this: as you view the art, “your progress through the space is slowed down.”

In Sony Studios in Culver City, a new four-year project on the 40-acre campus has transformed the day-to-day experience. A 94-foot rainbow by artist Tony Tasset now welcomes visitors. Where the art hits the ground plane, there’s an interesting “conversation between art and landscape.” Meanwhile, the actual rainbow is viewable from miles around. Pally said people were actually “giddy” during the rainbow’s opening ceremony, believing it “can’t be real,” which actually fits right in with how people experience real rainbows.



Another project Pally highlighted, a work in a small pocket park in Pittsburgh, offers a new bronze tree, with thousands of hand-painted flowers and leaves. For a short window of time, the piece actually synchs up with the natural trees in bloom. The rest of the year it’s a “layer of disruption, intellectually dissonant.” Pally said for those working with public artists, the “sheer terror of not knowing how these pieces will work out” actually make the works exciting.

In Santa Monica, a major arts festival called Glow, an all-night event on the beach, is a prime example of terror-inducing art. That’s because the organizers were expecting a few thousand people and 250,000 showed up. The Santa Monica event, which was modeled after the global version, aimed to “remake the coordinates of time and space.” The beach was “invaded with art.” In contrast to gallery works, much of the work took advantage of the open space, “creating interactions the exact opposite of individual experiences in museums.”

So what role do landscape architects play in helping public art work its wonders? According to Weiler, landscape architects help frame these creative experiences or even implement them. In the case of Sol LeWitt’s Lines in Four Directions on Flowers, a landscape work the artist created many years ago for the space in Fairmount Park in front of Philadelphia Museum of Art, it was OLIN who made the work actually happen. OLIN translated the conceptual work into plants, creating “an appropriate palette” for the site-specific work. For OLIN, Weiler said, the job is to “honor gems of another nature, not distract or add to the experience.” In fact, for their recent work updating the gorgeous Rodin museum in Philadelphia, they undertook a “subtraction of the landscape.”


For a new project with Janet Echelman, whose giant jellyfish-like sculptures woven of high-performance fishing wire dot many cities, landscape architects can play a leadership role in creating space for art. She said Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (PFS), who was in charge of the landscape architecture for the Vancouver convention center, which is capped with a 6-acre green roof, was central to creating the space for her work, and even integrated her ideas and concepts into the landscape. With PFS, Echelman redrew the plan for the water garden so that her art forms became “aerating, remediating.”

Working with EDAW (now AECOM) and Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, in Phoenix, she found the landscape architects were once again in her court. Her Name is Patience, which is set in a plaza next to the main light-rail transit center and the downtown Arizona State University campus, was initially cancelled due to the economy. The public “protested in favor of this art” to such an extent that it ended up being financed. It’s now the highlight in the downtown walking experience, a destination in a downtown that doesn’t have many. At night, the work really seems to come alive.



And now, returning to Philadelphia, Echelman has begun work with Weiler at OLIN on Pulse, a new $50 million project that will add a welcome contemporary element to Dilworth Plaza, at Philadelphia’s historic City Hall, with its glowing yellow clock. Echelman and OLIN are adding to the “beloved work of historic architecture” by creating a “physical Rothko painting in the landscape.” Layers of colored lighting, glowing in water mist that will amazingly leave no water trace on people who walk through it, will illuminate the path of the green, orange, and blue subway lines running under the city, tracing the path of the trains in real time. An exciting hybrid space will appear, with public art, transportation, and landscape combined.



Read more on the value of public art and see Echelman’s TED talk.

Image credits: (1) Open Air / Space Between the Page, (2) Remington’s The Cowboy / Panaramio, (3-4) Rainbow / Marc Pally, (5) Lines in Four Directions in Flowers / Tumblr, (6-7) Her Name is Patience / Jared Green, (8) Philadelphia Project / OLIN, Janet Echelman

7 thoughts on “Why Public Art Is Important

  1. Downtown Voices Coalition 10/21/2012 / 11:13 pm

    It is incorrect to place the blame on “the economy” for why “Her Secret is Patience” in downtown Phoenix was almost NOT installed. Here’s the public statement made by the Downtown Voices Coalition Steering Committee, an ardent supporter of the artist and her artwork, on December 8, 2007:

    Mayor Gordon and Members of Council:

    Downtown Voices Coalition continues to support the City of Phoenix partnership with the artist Janet Echelman for installation of her work in the downtown Civic Space, and it urges City leaders to do the same. As City leaders and residents both know, Echelman and her work were selected for the site through an extensive public process called for by City ordinance.

    If evolution of Echelman’s design, necessitated by the City’s changed specifications (avoiding First Avenue, for instance) or for any other reason, causes a delay, Downtown Voices Coalition maintains that the delay is a worthwhile investment to bring this park and the City’s promise of world-class art and a world-class park to completion. As such, we urge the City to continue working with this artist for the Civic Space installation, despite any delays it might engender.

    Steve Weiss, Chair, Downtown Voices Coalition

  2. Anonymous 10/22/2012 / 5:47 am

    I personally believe that community art can work together and create a revolution. It’s just a matter of more people joining this creative field.

  3. E.D. 10/28/2012 / 2:25 pm

    In many quarters the title “public art” is used as a derogatory term for mediocre art that is a waste of money and an eyesore, foisted on the public. The rainbow at Sony Studios continues this sad legacy. It should be obvious to even the visually unsophisticated observer that to create a physical rainbow is an invitation for kitsch of the highest order. The actual completed work is worse. Thankfully it is not viewable to the “public” as it resides completely inside the Sony compound, but this fact also renders it technically not “public.” The colors are tepid, and it will certainly begin to look dirty within a few months. Many of the points in the article about public art are good ones, but the citation of this terrible work coming from a person who is not well regarded within the public art community is unfortunate.

    • sam 01/07/2016 / 7:20 pm

      very well said.

  4. amy marie adams (@amyincluj) 11/05/2015 / 2:43 am

    Thanks for an informative article. Unfortunately there is this ridiculous and old school idea that 1 artist and thousands and thousands of dollars must be spent on a single public artwork. That might work for a monument or maybe even a unique project. I would like to see this model disappear or change radically. Visual arts are lacking in many places and brutalized by budget cuts more so than performing arts. Visual art doesn’t need to be conserved for eternity. I would rather see a community that implements many smaller public art projects to not only give the multitude of talented artists an opportunity to keep current with the way the world works now. I am currently working with a team of talented designers and artists to create such projects. We are interested in creating sustainable models that can be implemented most anywhere in the world. I actually think the old school model hurts artists and has less impact. Anyone interested in contacting me regarding the Progressive Arts project, please feel free to contact me

  5. Sinopsis Film 11/15/2016 / 10:27 pm

    What we don’t think about is, that cities gain value through public art displays – social, cultural and economic value. ART is setting a growing trend by being an important and recognized part of our public history and our evolving culture. It adds meaning to our cities and create uniqueness to our communities and neighborhoods, it reflects who we are and what we like to surround ourselves with . Public ART is accessible for everyone , it provides a bridge between the past, present and the near future, it is the mirror image of its community , an intersection between discipline and ideas. Public ART is truly for everyone , even if some don’t pay any attention to it , it is embedded in their way they think, feel and act.

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