In a New City, Thinking about Public Art

As she launches a series on public art, NAC editorial assistant (and new Philadelphia resident) Elizabeth Kerr muses on the power and the potential of art in the urban space.

Public art in Philadelphia. Flickr user pwbaker

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At the beginning of August, with both a heavy heart and spirit of adventure, I moved from my beloved city of Pittsburgh to the much larger metropolis of Philadelphia. Since that time I have joined Next American City as an Editorial Assistant, and have been given the opportunity to write about a passion that Pittsburgh inspired and Philadelphia will most certainly continue to support: public art. Starting now and continuing over the next few months I plan to explore the vast realm of public art across the country, identifying the good and the bad and showing how public art can always be better.

The importance of public art, both socially and economically, is by now a generally accepted fact. Public art programs thrive in cities across the nation, and yet its full potential remains unrealized. This is primarily because after more than half a century of history, development of new ideas has slowed, discussion has stagnated — and public art is now taken for granted.

The first public art program was established during the Great Depression in 1934. The Federal Art Project stemmed from the Works Progress Administration and provided support to unemployed artists. The government realized that the improvement and expansion of public art across the country could be of great social consequence.

Unfortunately the program was short-lived, canceled in 1943 due to a necessary reallocation of resources during World War II. It was not until the 1950’s that public art once again became an important focus of urban governance.

In 1959 the city of Philadelphia was the first in the nation to pass a “percent for art” ordinance. This required that for every new construction project in the city a percentage of the total cost be set aside for the purchase or commission of public art for the building. Now every major city in the nation has a public art program and a similar percent-for-art law. These programs have been shown to not only have a positive social and cultural impact on urban communities but a strong positive economic impact as well.

A 2008 PennPraxis study called Philadelphia Public Art: The Full Spectrum stated that the creative economy in Philadelphia represents a $60 billion industry, the fulcrum of which is the city’s exceptional public art program. But even though public art is now recognized as an important factor of urban planning and representative of good governance, it should not be boxed and serialized and cleanly stored in urbanism’s repertoire of issues. The importance of public art should not be taken for granted and left undiscussed.

Governments and organizations should still take care to plan thoughtfully, creatively and innovatively. It is not enough to simply install pieces of public art because data shows that public art is both economically and socially beneficial.

Public art still has the potential to be a greater wellspring of civic engagement and community building. It has the power to foster healthy debate and instill thoughtful creativity, not only within communities but also within individuals, creating better cities. But this potential will only be realized once the discussion surrounding public art moves beyond the empty complaints that this or that piece of art is not in fact art at all. Even unintelligible eyesores can be creatively functional, but only if we start talking about it.

And so with this column I will seek out the best and worst uses of public art and identify the most innovative and inspired projects. But most importantly, I hope to engage other art lovers and city dwellers in a conversation that will be constructive to the continued development of public art.

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Tags: philadelphiapittsburgh

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