Art & Culture

Wild About Public Art

Public art can take many forms, from murals to sculptures to land art and even ephemeral light and video displays. Public art brings our cities and communities to life, adding vibrancy and reflecting the character of the places we live.

Like many people, I’m fortunate to live in a city that contains numerous pieces of public art. Unlike other cities, my community has largely avoided public backlash over its public art installations, which might mean that our public art committee is in tune with the community or is playing it safe, depending on your perspective. Or perhaps it’s simply a case of waiting because our turn will come.

A winter landscape. Two large metal wheels rest in the foreground, partially buried in the ground. In the background, a high level train trestle spans the river valley.
A Departure by Ilan Sandler (Lethbridge, 2009). Photo by This Wild Curiosity.

Other places haven’t been so lucky.

In Toronto, Stuart Reid’s Zones of Immersion was described as depressing and dreary. In Calgary, the Wishing Well sculpture was temporarily removed from public display after claims the polished steel was accidentally setting visitor’s clothing on fire. Meanwhile, also in Calgary, the Bowfort Towers installation inspired intense conversation after viewers felt it appropriated Blackfoot culture. 

An art installation runs the length of the Toronto subway station. The installation is made of multiple panels of glass, some have black and white sketches of people, while others feature text on yellow and blue panels.
Zones of Immersion by Stuart Reid (Toronto, 2015). Photo by Stuart Reid.

Whether people love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion about public art. Why does it generate such strong feelings?

The first, I think, is proximity. Most people aren’t going to art galleries every day, but public art is right there in our faces, whether we paid for an admission ticket or not. We’re forced to see it, and in many cases, we see it without context or curation.

The second aspect, particularly for contemporary art installations, is a strong feeling of “I could do that.” We want art, and particularly public art which comes with a large price tag, to be technically complex. When something looks simple, our tendency is to dismiss the artistic process behind it. After all, if it looks simple, then anyone can do it. And if anyone can do it, then why did we pay that person all that money?

Text art on a blue background that reads: 
Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn't
Modern Art by Craig Damrauer image via Design/Milk

What is the purpose of public art and who gets to decide? The artist who has the vision? Whoever is paying the fee? Or the public, who has to experience the art on a daily basis?

The answer to these questions probably lies somewhere in the middle. When the artist fails to understand the community, backlash ensues. If the purse-strings control the art, the piece may be flat and lifeless. And, if public opinion drives the vision, the community may miss out on the opportunity to have art be a catalyst for change. 

No piece of art will appeal to everyone. Even the most innocuous painting or sculpture is bound to have its detractors. But part of the purpose of art is to expand the conversation, to invite people into a space and change their perceptions. Even, or perhaps especially, if you don’t like a piece of public art, it still fulfills this purpose. 

The value of public art goes beyond adding curb appeal to our cities. Public art has positive psychological effects and helps to alleviate social isolation. Economically, it increases tourism and social ties within communities. 

Modern public art has enhanced our communities for decades, bringing home the point that art is not only aesthetic, it’s about who we are and who we want to be.

A close up of an abstract mural down in glass mosaic. The mural features geometric shapes in black, blue, red, yellow and beige.
Bank of Commerce mosaic mural by BC Binning (Vancouver, 1958). Photo by Robert B. Moffatt, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Liking (or disliking) a piece of public art doesn’t make it good. What matters most is how that art reflects and interacts with the community. Art should challenge us, it should make us think. Whether we like it or hate it should be a secondary consideration.

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