This article also appears in the current issue of Public Art Review.

“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people; what is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” William H. (Holly) Whyte

During the past two or more decades, communities around the country have fallen victim to the relentless machinations of a group of people with an overdeveloped, overspecialized “creative function,” who see themselves as experts rather than collaborators or service providers. In the face of these experts and their implicit authority, communities have been intimidated and made to feel impotent. The public has been convinced to leave the creative function solely in the hands of the specially trained—namely architects, artists, and designers—and to abdicate its role in nurturing the creative life of the city. As a result, the communal psyche has atrophied and the public realm has suffered. Projects—whether public art, public parks, or public transportation—designed without the community in mind have provoked fierce criticism by host communities. That criticism is based on, among other things, a lack of trust in the motives of the professionals involved, who often serve something other than the public good and whose priorities are often different from those of the community.

Favela Painting collaborates with communities to use art for transformation. (Haas&Hahn for favelapainting.com)

That’s the bad news. At the same time, there is more happening in public art today to engage with the public space in which works are sited. More than ever before, public artworks are stimulating and inviting active dialogue rather than just passive observation, thereby fostering social interaction that can even lead to a sense of social cohesion among the viewers themselves. Maybe this is happening because some planners, artists, and architects are no longer afraid to see themselves as resources, facilitators, and collaborators, rather than as experts. In such cases, the design of art in public spaces moves away from reverence for textbook ideals and toward flexibility, changeability, evolution, and an appreciation for humanity.

“…planners, artists, and architects are no longer afraid to see themselves as resources, facilitators, and collaborators…”

We salute this new paradigm, one in which designers actually welcome the opportunity to work with communities to open up places for new interpretations, creating more room for public art—especially in parks, transforming them from ersatz cemeteries and static sculpture gardens into great multi-use public destinations.

The group Civic Center, in New Orleans, has lead many participatory public art projects. (CivicCenter.cc)

The success of a work of public art relies heavily upon the design of the public space in which it is located. Many elements come together to improve or make a good public space. If you have a work of public art, but the site is not well maintained, people do not feel safe there. If there are no design amenities or elements like seating or shade, if there’s nowhere to eat or nothing to do once you get there, if you can’t walk to the site or park your car due to heavy traffic or a poor pedestrian environment or because it’s not connected to other places or destinations, people will not take time out to visit the work of art, and the artwork will have failed as a placemaker and a community enhancement.

A good public space, on the other hand, is not only inviting, but builds a place for the community around an artwork, or culture venue, by growing and attracting activities that make it a multi-use destination. Alone, no designer, architect, or artist can create a great public space that generates and sustains stronger communities. Instead, such spaces arise from collaboration with the users of the place who articulate what they value about it and assist the artist in understanding its complexity.

“Public art projects will be most effective when they are part of a larger, holistic, multidisciplinary approach to enlivening a city or neighborhood.”

Public art projects that engage the community in aspects of the art-making process can provide communities with the means to improve their environment and the opportunity to develop a sense of pride and ownership over their parks, streets, and public institutions. Ultimately, however, public art projects will be most effective when they are part of a larger, holistic, multidisciplinary approach to enlivening a city or neighborhood. In this way, public art can contribute both to community life and to the service and vitality of public spaces. This is the promise of the emerging “Creative Placemaking” movement.

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