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Thread: Questioning public art

  1. #1
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Questioning public art

    Most people would agree that art in public spaces has the potential to beautify or otherwise enhance an environment. Public art at its grandest scale can serve as an iconic landmark, as in the case of the Eiffel Tower or the Christ the Redeemer statue
    Why then is there a popular perception that public art seldom delivers what it promises? Why does it so often seem that if there’s, say, $50,000 dollars of public money to spend on a sculpture, it ends up in the form of, well….nothing. That is, no recognizable forms part of our normal sensory experiences.

    Since about the late-mid 20th century a popular form of public art has emerged that I will call ‘amorphism’ that can be found in cities all over the world. It’s difficult to describe, but much like pron, you know it when you see it.



    (maybe this last one bears enough resemblance to an endoplasmic reticulum to qualify as having some recognizable form.)

    Mind you, by no means is all public art formless. Here are a couple examples of very recognizable forms.




    Given that most people prefer their art to have form why have so many formless works been selected/commissioned? Do various governments have a desire to appear cutting edge/avant garde/futuristic and feel the art helps convey that impression? How are most selection committees formed?

    What are your impressions of public art?
    Last edited by Maister; 13 Mar 2008 at 11:02 AM.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Duke Of Dystopia's avatar
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    Love the Bear and the Head.

    We get stuck with crap because of:

    Idiots who think we should spend so little public money, all public structures/property/art should be modeled on Russian and East German Concrete Architecture
    Art types who are pretentious and don't want to be "quaint".
    lack of direction by steering committees.
    Lack of value in artesian practices.
    I can't deliver UTOPIA, but I can create a HELL for you to LIVE in :)DoD:(

  3. #3
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    More towers depicting christ like figures Is what I say. Being a huge proponent of public art I am often quite dismayed at the quality of the pieces that get displayed. Though I am sure the with the subjective nature of art who really qualified to say what is and what is not, good.
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian Flying Monkeys's avatar
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    The very nature of the thing you explore...Public + Art = Controversy. This is why you get the abstract pieces that create little controversy. I personally like to see art in public spaces that is also functional. Example: A fountain with sitting areas.
    What’s in a name? – Your reputation….:)

  5. #5
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by craines View post
    I am sure the with the subjective nature of art who really is qualified to say what is and what is not, good.
    See this is exactly what tears me. On the one hand there IS a certain subjective element to ALL art. The artist brings their own personal percpetions, impressions, and opinions to the 'canvas' whenever they create something. There is a whole lot of very good art that has a very subjective component. Trouble arises, though, when a certain invisible balance tips too far in the subjective direction as opposed to the objective ....public art should in my view, have at least some objective qualities - it is public, after all. It should speak to the public somehow and convey some message or impression that many/most people should 'get'.

    There is legitimacy behind the position of suggesting that one form or style of art may not be better than another, ultimately being a matter of personal preference, but surely there must exist some extremely broad standard that recognizes the Taj Mahal is a greater artistic/architectural achievement than the rusted out 8' x 10' metal garden shed in my back yard.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    There is claim that this is 'art' because it is a contrast to the stiff lines of City Hall.
    Link
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  7. #7

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    I heard a quote on the radio this morning talking about public art saying that typically it's nothing more than "building jewelry".

    Winnipeg's city council was recently in the news for saying that the city's public art budget would be better spent on snow removal.

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    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    Maister, I do understand what you are saying and to be honest I really do not know what too do as it seems as no matter what objective criteria you build into your program the subjective "artistic' aspect of it always seems to be met with objections which in some ways one of the subjective purposes of art. Currently I am trying to get some skateable art pieces in some plazas/parks that I am working on right now so at least the pieces are being driven with a strong objective in that they must be skateable and meet all of those requirements.
    Looking for Sanity
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  9. #9
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Flying Monkeys View post
    The very nature of the thing you explore...Public + Art = Controversy. This is why you get the abstract pieces that create little controversy. I personally like to see art in public spaces that is also functional. Example: A fountain with sitting areas.
    I agree that controversy is a big reason for the abstract stuff. However, as we all know, some of the most famous and loved pieces of art (or architecture) were very controversial when first proposed or built. I'm all for more pieces like this:

    http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=6992

    Creepy? A little bit, but it definitely gets noticed and can be used as a placefinder with an easy name. You're not going to run into this problem - "Meet my by that big spider. No, not that one, the other one."

    It's also a lot easier than saying "Meet my by that big block-looking thing"

  10. #10
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    CJC

    Love the spyder and I love art that has the power help defince and gives a sense of the space that it occupies.

    I hate stuff that elicits the "thats nice" comment.
    Looking for Sanity
    In this Crazy Land Of Ours

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    I'm an amateur at understanding public art, but it seems to me that the abstract forms were really features of the later part of 20th cent and that the trend is now back towards recognisable forms.

    Don't know if you're familiar with Antony Gormley, but it's worth a google. Two in particular; The Angel of the North is a fab statue in Gateshead which has become emblematic for a huge regeneration project. Another that urbanistas have enjoyed is the installation Event Horizon which featured dozens of life size statues (based on a cast of his own form) located in conspicuous but surprising places in London.

    Interesting though in my authority we have been told, based on public consultation, we spend our money delivering services - "we don't do art". Sigh.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I deal a good bit in public art. In fact, our organization is set to possibly be the manager of a public art/sculpture walk along a small, funky, emerging corridor in the northern part of downtown Albuquerque. This project would include 8-10 standardized bases on which would be displayed and rotated sculptures on a yearly or year and a half basis. Submissions would be voted on by a committee of representatives from the local neighborhood association and other vested groups and managed by...me. Certainly, I expect this process will not be without controversy.

    Albuquerque actually has one of the nation's oldest public art programs (40 years this coming fall) and it remains contentious to this day for a wide variety of reasons.

    I have noticed, over the years, that people often have an objection to public art projects for a variety of reasons, including:

    1) The prevailing perception that "art" is really frivolity - a pleasure to be enjoyed by those (including cities) with extra money to burn and not something essential to the human condition. Its the same reason art programs are the first ones cut when school budgets are tight. I also agree with Flying Monkeys that art which is not just "plop art" but actually serves a spatial function (its interactive, or creates and inhabitable "space" or provides places to sit or engage in other activities) is often better received by the public because it is more than a visual object. This is one of the big challenges for public artists, I think; to conceive of art in the public sphere as part of an ongoing dialogue with the community, rather than a static and protected gallery or museum-type experience.

    2) The attitude that if people don't like a particular piece, than they automatically think that it was wasted money. One of the powers of art and creative expression in general is that it can raise difficult issues, or provide a sounding board for people to react to. I think city officials and folks in public art programs sometimes forget that controversy and public complaint is actually often part of public art. It needs to be understood and embraced that not everyone will like it and that this is not a reason NOT to pursue it. The Eiffel Tower, afterall, was quite widely disliked by the Paris community when it first went up. But guess what the most iconic image of France around the world is?

    As a side note, I wanted also to respond to Maister's comments about public art being "readable" or more obviously understood by the public. I think there is a fine line here. If a piece of art is too obvious, there is a limited value to continuing to interact with the piece as it has already told you all it has to say. A more sophisticated and well-functioning piece, however, will reveal multiple layers of meaning over time (which may include a message that is immediately apparent). I have had experiences where, after being around a piece for years, it suddenly dawns on me that there is a whole additional layer of meaning and reference being expressed that I missed the first 111 times I interacted with it. Its just like a good novel and its why people come back to great literature again and again - because each read reveals connections and messages not seen in previous reads.

    Lastly, I wanted to get at some of Bear's specific Q's in the original post:

    I think you and others are correct that abstract art has emerged in part as a way to skirt controversy. This does not mean that artists did not submit or desire to deal in more recognizable forms, but rather that the selection committees took the safe route and chose the least contentious proposal.

    Yes, some programs do strive to create a particular "feel" to specific pieces (modernist, abstract, etc.) to "brand" the city and this information is usually spelled out in the RFP.

    In Albuquerque, selections for public art are made by an Arts Board, the members of which are appointed for limited terms by City Councilors so that each district has a voice. Most projects seek RFPs through which artists propose specific designs based on the info given by the city. A smaller number of projects seek to hire an artist to work with others (engineers, etc.) on more integrated approaches to art and this usually takes the form of an RFQ (request for qualifications.) Here, the board is less concerned with specific proposals for a project than with the past experience of the artists. These artists usually work collaboratively on team on a project.

    I also know that Phoenix - or maybe its all of Maricopa County, I can't remember - surprisingly has one of the most progressive and dynamic public art programs in the country. Some years back they created a requirement that all public works or capital improvement projects (again I forget which) have a public artist on the design team from the beginning to ensure that the artistic component is not just tacked on after the fact, but integrated in to the very essence of the piece. See the link to Michale Singer's site and his work on the waste transfer station as a great example.

    Check out these profiles of the work of just on public artist in the region, Laurie Lundquist. I think this is some great quality work: http://www.laurielundquist.com/public_art.html

    Michael Singer, another public artist who was involved in the design of the solid waste and recycling center in Phoenix, has similarly impressive work that integrates more heavily with site design and architecture. Check out his work and link to imags of the treatment facility here: http://www.michaelsinger.com/index.html

    There are many great public artists on my short list, but I'll leave it at that for the moment. As you can see, I could talk public art all day - its really my passion (I am working on a more long-range plan to incorporate public art into landscape design plans for the front of our property).

    I'm done for now...
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  13. #13
    Cyburbian natski's avatar
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    I think there are a number of issues at play here...

    1. Town planners or city officials do not understand art practise. They do not understand the costs involved in forming an idea and creating an artwork, and therefore balk at the price.

    2. Art is subjective. As town planners or built environment professionals, we can see our surroundings in a different way to what an artist may see it. Then add a hefty price tag to the artwork and people start to complain/get cynical/get scared about the whole process.

    And Maister to your original question "why does public art seldom delivers what it promises?"-well what does public art promise? I think that it can promise everything or nothing at all.

    I believe a good piece of public art should say something about a time and place, that is developed to make a statement. This may mean everything to people in the present (i.e Puppy by Jeff Koons) or something that has developed more meaning for people as time has moved on (i.e the more iconic an artwork becomes).

    I think we also forget the role of commisioning body and the artist. I do truely believe that there is probably too much intervention as to the outcomes of works- and the production of meaning pieces is detrimental to the publics perception of art.
    "Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good looking?" Zoolander

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Plus Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    My question is, where is the bear and where is the face??

    I know nothing about art, but that weird metal generic stuff does not appeal to me at all... because it's generic!

    Current public art: well, you've got your "art" peanuts all around Dothan AL and I think Gainesville FL had alligators and where I just moved from had lizards and someplace had cows, all decorated and displayed at different places around the towns. At least it generated some public interest. And presumably some public support. Nobody I know even notices the amorphous metal stuff. You walk past it thinking "Trash can, bench for smokers, ugly art..."

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Actually, I think the public would overwhelmingly welcome well-rendered, sympathetically placed, representational art; especially if endowed with symbolic/allegorical content.

    Unfortunately, decision-makers would face the scorn of the cult of modern 'art'.

    Very simple.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  16. #16
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Wahday raises some very good points. I would agree that a fine line exists between that which is artistically accessible and inaccessible and that the public should at times be ‘challenged’ when it comes to its appreciation of art. Public art should neither simply be about redoing what’s already been done nor appealing to the lowest artistic denominator – another equestrian statue in the park outside city hall, for example, would probably not be a particularly ambitious or edifying artistic endeavor in the year 2008 even though everyone would no doubt ‘get’ it. I’m far from convinced, however, that “Amorphous Metallic Blob #917” artistically elevates, enlivens, or enlightens the general public at this point and I stand by my earlier statement that because public funds are involved, more effort needs to made to select works that will appeal to a broader range of artistic sensibilities. As ZG noted, those amorphous metal figures found everywhere have in one sense become ‘generic’. In other words, we’ve seen these types of works being commissioned for nearly five decades and most folks have more or less given up on pondering the guile and enigmas that amorphous forms present. Instead of possessing a jarring Dada-esque quality, they end up being more or less ignored. So what if the Mona Lisa has a moustache.

    I also agree that good public art should have multiple layers of meaning and appeal. This can be achieved with both recognizable forms and the amorphous – speaking for many I think we’d like to see more of the former. The Big Blue Bear shown in the OP (BTW it’s located outside the Colorado Convention Center in Denver) is a pretty good example of this sort of thing. I know my two and half year old would take one look at that, get a big smile on his face, and say “big blue bear”. It has a certain whimsical quality – it’s really big (it’s four stories tall) and a curious shade of blue (a mythical Paul Bunyon/Babe the blue ox reference?)…, but upon further examination, notice how the bear is interacting with the environment. The bear is on the outside and he’s peering in to the interior of this box (the convention center) that those funny humans constructed. Is there honey inside the beehive of activity the convention center represents? My goodness, what business does a bear have in the middle of an urban environment? He’s certainly a long ways from his home in the woods. Oh, but then again most of the people in the convention center are a long ways from home…. And so on.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  17. #17
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    Those amorphous blogs have sort of sparked this thread and dialogue!!!!
    Looking for Sanity
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  18. #18
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Jus to push this discussion a little further, it is my personal opinion that good public art projects are not stand alone sculptures placed in the public sphere (representational or blob-like). A really good piece of work integrates with its surroundings and enhances the functionality or experience of a place rather than just cluttering it up.

    What's so intriguing about the bear to me is that it is not a stand alone sculpture that could have been plopped down just anywhere. It interacts with the convention center in a very compelling way. It is experienced in a variety of settings (from a distance on the street, in person in public, from within the building, etc.) and it tells some kind of story (or at the least, makes you wonder what kind of story it is telling). Really great public art work can traverse territory among landscape architecture, architecture and public space planning.

    Plop art largely sucks, IMO. Its history is in corporations that commissioned work to be placed in front of their headquarters buildings as an illustration/expression of their economic power. This history has very little to do with trying to create good places or work that engages in any kind of public dialogue.

    When I visited Seattle's new sculpture park, I was similarly disappointed because I did not feel the work integrated very well with the landscape (though I must say that the design of the space itself is rather masterful and, perhaps, is the best piece of public art in the space). The one exception is the Serra piece placed down in the amphiteater at the eastern edge of the park. When the sun sets, a shadow slowly moves up from the bottom of the piece until it feels like a dark canyon (the piece itself being a series of smaller canyons, so you get this sort of timeless layered feeling like you just descended into some cavern eroded by time. On a good day, you can also look out and see the Olympics backlit by the final rays of the setting sun. Pretty spectacular, partly because someone put some thought into how the landscape, the view and the movement of light would play out in this setting.

    So, I would be curious to see images (or links to examples) of public art that people like and perhaps (if willing) some info on why they like it.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    Hero's Square in Budapest. It tells the story of the first 1,000 years of the Magyars. It's big, but is the entrance to a very large city park (central park size) and flanked on two sides by museums. This should take you to a blog with good photos and description.

    http://bettsy1927.blogspot.com/2006/...819555266.html

  20. #20
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    We may not always think of them as art, but war (and other) memorials serve as public art medium. The folks in Washington DC seem for the most part to have exercised good discretion throughout the years in its public art selection and is home to a number of monuments done quite well and very tasteful IMO.

    Here’s the World War 2 memorial



    The Korean War memorial



    And the Vietnam memorial (the ‘wall’)




    I think it’s interesting to note that the monuments appear to have been designed with the intended generation’s prevailing aesthetics taken into account. The WW2 memorial contains more classical elements (fountain, symmetry, and columns) and the progression towards the Vietnam memorial has a decidedly post-modernist feel to it. The Vietnam memorial is integrated seamlessly with the landscape.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  21. #21
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Maister makes a great point with the role monuments/memorials play in public art. Some of my favorite pieces of public art are also memorials or monuments.

    For example, I've always liked the Torch of Friendship in San Antonio: http://picasaweb.google.com/arpitpat...98293514833794

    I often use it for giving directions to people. My memorable name for it is "the giant red gumby".

    I've been lucky that the university in my fare city is home to a fairly large and respected art program. We have a deal with the university department to display student work throughout the City on a rotating basis. It gets us public art, and gets the students exposure and resume fodder.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  22. #22
    Here's a 'blob" bit of public art that the public can't keep away from. Is it because the public can interact with it?

    http://www.millenniumpark.org/artand...loud_gate.html

    Having visited it personally this past summer, I can attest it is pretty cool.

    The WWII monument is abhorrent, both in terms of design and location, but especially location. Interupting the vistas of the Mall was wrong, wrong, wrong.

  23. #23
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    In surveys I've conducted in exurban communities, there seemed to be much resistance to even the concept of public art. Nobody said "why", but based on the attitudes I've seen at public meetings and in local blogs, I'm presuming it's because:

    * It's seen as something frivolous -- "Why are they spending their money on sculptures, and not more important things?"

    * They are all too familiar with the abstract public art that became so popular in the 1960s, and it just doesn't sit right with them.

    * The community has almost no creative class-types that better appreciates public art. The "arts" to those living in middle-class blue-collar exurbs more often means Thomas Kinkade prints, Amish quilts, and community dinner theater rather than the pretentious dress-in-black gallery openings and avant-garde works that are more favored among those most active in the arts community. Those promoting public art usually are part of what is seen as "that snooty art crowd".

  24. #24
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Zoning Goddess View post
    My question is, where is the bear and where is the face??
    The bear is peeking into the Colorado Convention Center in Downtown Denver. I don't know where the head is.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Signature's avatar
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    Endoplasmic reticulum rofl How about a mitosis vs. meiosis life size diarama? Or a fountain dedicated to osmosis? No wait, mitochondria street lamps!

    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post

    * The community has almost no creative class-types that better appreciates public art. The "arts" to those living in middle-class blue-collar exurbs more often means Thomas Kinkade prints, Amish quilts, and community dinner theater rather than the pretentious dress-in-black gallery openings and avant-garde works that are more favored among those most active in the arts community. Those promoting public art usually are part of what is seen as "that snooty art crowd".

    Kinkade and quilts? Fantastic, they know what they like ! For SF, the gigantic spider may be gothic, dark, and nature-worshipping, and that's perfectly appropriate for their personality and tastes. For Dan's community, quilt-inspired star-bursts and Kinkade reminiscent colorful gardens with wrought-iron gates. I think public art needs to be accessible, not necessarily high-brow, and it needs to be aesthetic, even if we have to sacrifice modernity. Most of all, it should be something that reflects the community in taste, history, or values.
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 08 Apr 2008 at 9:47 AM. Reason: double reply

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