Praxis Dialogues: Public art and urbanism

On April 11, PennPraxis and PlanPhilly will present Praxis Dialogues, a conversation about what the notion of “public good” means in terms of public arts and culture. We’re sharing commentaries from the panelists in advance. So far we’ve heard from Ken Lum on public art’s health, Paul Farber on the obligations and opportunities of public art in Philadelphia, Nancy Chen on Asian Arts Initiative’s social practice art, FringeArts’ Nick Stuccio on the tensions between space for culture and rapid development. Today Todd Bressi looks at past and future models for public art serving the public good.

The modern paradigm for public art was born more than a half century ago in Philadelphia, which passed the first “percent for art” requirements in the U.S., requiring one-percent of a public project’s budget to go toward public artwork. The field has evolved considerably since then, particularly in the last decade or so.

New waves of artists, arts organizations and projects have been thriving in recent years, in response to not only frustration with the inherited paradigms for public art, but also the new opportunities afforded by the resurgence in urbanism that is being experienced across the country.

Simmering beneath all of this is a vital, vibrant discussion about how public art serves the public good.

The “percent for art” model was based on the simple notion that a portion of the budget of a public construction project should be dedicated to the production of artwork. That artwork might be integrated into the design of the construction project, as in a relief or a mosaic wall, or co-located with the project, as in a sculpture in front of a building. Hundreds of cities, as well as the U.S. General Services Administration, still follow this approach.

This model was based on the notion that the aesthetic and cultural benefits of public art were in and of themselves a public good, an essential component of the overall integrated, comprehensive planning of modernized cities. This followed on a line of thinking that can be traced back to the late nineteenth-century City Beautiful movement, and that was supported by the 1954 Supreme Court Decision, Berman vs. Parker, which addressed the general redevelopment powers of municipalities.

This “art for beauty’s sake” approach was never completely satisfactory for artists. The creative constraints on public agency projects, from the practical difficulties of integrating with public construction processes to the limitations on expression that public clients often impose, made artists feel as if their voice was being marginalized, or that they could not shape city infrastructure to any meaningful degree. At the same time, a variety of artists found room for expression in environmental, land art, conceptual and political projects that were staged in the public realm, but funded independently.

In New York, organizations like Creative Time and the Public Art Fund emerged in the 1970s to support the work of artists interested in urbanism as a ground for creative and critical inquiry. In Philadelphia the Mural Arts Program and the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) began to develop alternative public art models that took the voices of both artists and city residents into account, in the determination of projects and the direction they would follow. This work in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere took root at a time when cities were in crisis, their economies, populations and social fabrics in decline. Artists saw a public good in exposing the forces that were eroding cities, and in planting the seeds of regeneration in communities of resilience.

Over the last two decades, the prospects for American urbanism have changed dramatically, and with that the desirability of cities as places to live, work and visit. The organizations driving this transformation – from public agencies to business improvement districts, from foundations to private developers – all found value in public art as a facilitator and signifier of this new urban territory. The connection between public art and the revitalization of public space and neighborhood vibrancy is now being explored through a genre of work called “creative placemaking.” But as this work started to flourish, critics began to wonder whose interests it was really serving, and whether artists were being instrumentalized to make cities safer for economic transformations that would hasten displacement and disrupt existing social networks.

On the other side of the coin, artists are also busy exploring the increasingly evident economic, social and cultural fissures in American cities, through a body of work that is loosely called social practice. This type of artistic practice proceeds from the philosophy that the public good is advanced by art that surfaces the unseen, provokes political dialogue, empowers individual voices and connects people through their interaction with each other. But this genre of work is often critiqued because its outputs are so hard to discern, compared to traditional public artworks, and its outcomes are not always easy to measure.

The projects I am working on now are reflecting on this last decade of public art practice and asking a new series of questions about how public art can better serve the public good.

In Nashville, I am leading a team that is working with the Metro Arts Commission on a “public art community investment” plan. Metro Arts has already staked out three areas of interest – giving everyone in Nashville access to the arts; creating a robust ecosystem of artists, organizations, intermediaries and others involved in the production of public art; and integrating art into neighborhood revitalization. We are asking, “What would a public art program look like if you directed all of its resources into projects that supported these three goals?”

In Philadelphia, where I work as a consultant to Mural Arts, we are experimenting with long-term projects in which a neighborhood storefront becomes a hub for creative activity. Rather than starting with a particular project in mind, the strategy is for the studio to be a long-term presence that supports the work of multiple artists who embed themselves in the community in different ways. The actual projects emerge from the interaction of the artists and the community. Mural Arts has worked so far in South Philly (Southeast by Southeast) and West Philly (Neighborhood Time Exchange), and has set up a new studio in Tacony. One thing we have learned is that communities take a level of ownership of these spaces, turning them into broader neighborhood assets that have supported everything from ESL classes to creative writing workshops; and from sari fashion shows to spoken word performances.

What these examples demonstrate is that the notion of “public good” in public art is often intertwined with organizational structures and funding models, and the values that are implicit in them, as much as it is by artistic practice. The evolution towards public art practice that embraces the full diversity and vitality of cities – more flexible about the kind of work that is done, extending in time beyond the horizon of a single project, focusing on the strengthening of creative networks, and exploring the diffusion of creative agency – is a positive sign that public art can become more responsive to the “public good” as it is understood by the communities in which artists find themselves working.

The public conversation Praxis Dialogues: Arts and Culture will take place on Monday, April 11, from 6:30-8pm at Fringe Arts, 140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd. The event is free and open to the public. Advance registration is requested, as space is limited.

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