Praxis Dialogues: Public art in an age of urban renewal

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. To set the stage we’re sharing commentaries from the panelists. First, Ken Lum asked if truly public art is alive and well. This week, Paul Farber, co-curator of Monument Lab, explores the obligations and opportunities public art has in Philadelphia today.

What makes public art truly public?

It is an important question for our current historical moment. In Philadelphia, we are living in the throes of a new period of urban renewal, with large flows of capital investment fueling a fast-paced redevelopment of the city’s civic landscapes.

Previous eras of urban renewal produced widely uneven outcomes, relocating or removing entire communities in the name of progress. This latest round of urban renewal offers high-end housing, commercial ventures, and public/private investments in the cultural sector to fuel the idea of a city on the rise.

Such a revival may summon new energy and attention to the city’s neighborhoods. But the shift does not guarantee security and investment for all of its residents. Long-standing crises in education, violence, and inequality challenge our values and visions.

There remains a difference between upgrade and uplift.

How can the excitement over renewed investment and artistic energy be matched with a capacity to build access, equity, and empowerment more fully into the city’s public culture?

As we turn more and more to the private and philanthropic sectors to solve issues that affect the body politic, how do we invest social capital toward civic balance and expressions of collective identity?

For many artists and curators working in Philadelphia, the “public” functions of “public art” demand an ethical stance, even as it provides compelling opportunities and new venues to display work. This opens new possibilities for public art, with diverse cultural partners to reach new audience publics, and measuring successes against a backdrop of public crises in education, in health, in policing, in housing, in opportunity. More public art projects have the potential to stand out by responding to an urban landscape marked by injustice.

Almost half of all Philadelphians live in economically distressed neighborhoods, according to a recent study by the Economic Innovation Group. The Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO) self-reports a “crisis level” for poverty (especially among youth), under employment, and an achievement gap.

These are not bootstrap problems that can be solved by individual effort. We, as Philadelphians, live together in a divided city.

To make truly public art, its creators must in some way reflect on and elucidate power relations in the city. Otherwise, its “public” nature may serve merely as misdirection. In this case, public is a stylistic add-on, not a set of commitments.

As writer Rebecca Solnit suggests, “Democracy requires us to co-exist in public.”

Several years ago, I began collaborating on a long-term project focused on bridging Philadelphia’s past and future visions. Along with colleagues Ken Lum and A. Will Brown, we proposed Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia to share dialogue on the city’s transformation through public art and history.

The project asked a central guiding question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?

In Spring 2015, we initiated our inquiry at City Hall and reached out to a cohort of local artists, policy makers, educators, students, and residents to explore possible answers to this question through speculation – a mode routinely employed by city planners and real estate investors for developing sites for commercial gain – to produce knowledge through observation, and to generate proposals for monumental reflections that could bring Philadelphians together in dialogue.

Rather than asking for the feasible or practical feedback on monuments, we sought ideas that spoke to the emergent core values of a city founded on principles of freedom, justice, and tolerance.

We were galvanized by several recent standout art projects in Philadelphia that dig deep and shine in their public demonstrations including Zoe Strauss’ magisterial Under I-95; Temple Contemporary’s Funeral for a Home powered by the Dufala Brothers and neighborhood partners from Mantua; and Sonia Sanchez’s and Yolanda Wisher’s interdisciplinary poetic collaboration and mural, Peace is a Haiku Song.

These public projects, among a growing number of other Philadelphia works, function as effective, truly public art because they pursue artistic excellence through their respective medium’s histories of representation; approach coherence through expanded forums for public interaction and authorship; and mark historical wounds while proposing new pathways toward transformation.

In addition, they shed light on status quo power relations and business-as-usual logics in the city. They don’t isolate artwork as separate from public space or audiences – they instead animate municipal dividing lines and sites of meaningful exchange.

During Monument Lab’s pilot phase, we set up shop in the courtyard of City Hall for one month. We centered our daily activities around a research pavilion where a team of college students collected proposals from passersby and a temporary monumental sculpture designed by the late Terry Adkins.

Adkins envisioned a built monument for the current city that commemorated Philadelphia’s long history of educational innovation and the more recent devastating cutbacks and public school closures in the city, which continue to disproportionately affect students of color and working class communities.

Adkins called for a site-specific monument: an empty classroom in the courtyard of City Hall.

The sculpture consisted of rows of pew-like benches and an empty blackboard frame. Unlike traditional civic monuments, Adkins’ sculpture would not be fashioned from marble or bronze. Instead, he favored wood as its primary material and sought to invite passersby onto the sculpture to sit for moments of shared reflection. 

Sadly, Adkins passed away from heart failure two days after he submitted his proposal. But his vision was so precise, so poetic, so urgent, that we continued through with his idea. With the support of his family, colleagues, students, and artists at RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency), Adkins’ work was installed at this monumental central crossroads of the city.

During the month-long pilot phase, over 35,000 people engaged with Adkins’ sculpture, and 455 submitted monument proposals which have been shared online as free dataset through OpenDataPhilly. Collectively, the resulting proposals contain rich, varied, and imaginative accounts of Philadelphia’s histories and possible futures. (Click through the map below to explore these proposals.)


Monument Lab’s framework was guided through a participatory form of public inquiry – a process that was collaborative, transhistorical, and occurred mostly outside. The project was public not simply because of its prominent placement at City Hall; it was public because it was municipal in its fabric, its necessary permissions and permits, its official collaborative partnerships with the city and its institutions, and its imperative to locate elusive forms of knowledge within the city and make them legible.

At City Hall, with Adkins’ sculpture in close proximity, members of the public filled into the courtyard to describe imagined sites of memory across the city of Philadelphia. Many people conjured proposals that reflected neighborhood divisions, racial and gender injustice, and other underrepresented histories. Some respondents used the opportunity to offer suggestions and criticisms to improve their city.

We learned from our audiences and interlocutors, who ranged in age from 3–76 years old and reported coming from 62 out of 87 Philadelphia zip-codes. Daily noon dialogues at City Hall reflected the power of thinking together in public – for example, Philadelphia Police Captain Altovise Love-Craighead and Drexel Public Health Professor Jonathan Purtle presented an “iceberg” monument to the traumatic effects of gun violence alongside their strategies for healing.

Overall, participants in the project at City Hall proposed monuments as possible statues, sculptures, plaques, murals, benches, arches, archeological digs, performance pieces, community resource centers, protests, digital apps, light projections, and several dozen other creative platforms.

The pilot phase yielded insights into how the public imagines twenty-first century monuments – as well as the groundwork for future installations of monumental artworks in public spaces, civic data and dialogue, and the seeds of potential collaborative research projects. Many who participated identified themselves already as local advocates and practitioners of history, memory, and social change.

As project organizers, we must continue to read and reach toward public imagination. Public art can remain public if it practices a vision for co-creation and co-existence.

The public conversation Praxis Dialogues: Arts and Culture will take place on 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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