The Powerful Role of Art in City Environment Funding

The projects backed by Bloomberg’s Public Art Challenge, including a 16-site meditation on L.A.’s water, are just the latest demonstration of the compelling combo of art and environmental work.  

Urban environmental issues seem like pretty left-brain concerns, whether you’re talking about emissions, energy efficiency, resilience, public health, water, or just availability of green space.

But browsing the art installations mounted across Los Angeles this summer, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ first Public Art Challenge, I was reminded of how artistic representation can be a strong entry point to environmental issues. 

Funders seem to agree. We’ve written a lot about how scorchingly hot creative placemaking is in arts funding right now, but not as much about the draw of marrying art with efforts to green cities.

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Bloomberg didn’t invent the concept, as we noted before, but boy, the winning art projects themed around the L.A. River and the drought-stricken city’s relationship to water just distill the idea perfectly. 

Current:LA Water was one of four winners out of the 237 proposals submitted by city mayors’ offices across the country. The brief was mainly to attract people, but also to show how the arts can address urban issues. 

In the case of L.A., the installations include projecting images of aquifers deep underground, obtained by USGS geologists, onto the concrete banks of the L.A. River. Another entry presents water fountains as modern altars, giving a mythic interpretation of city water management. In one park, life-sized fiberglass horses gather in a trench that reminds visitors of a dry fountain. 

There’s a giant ship’s mast emerging from dry land, offering a gathering place and shade structure. Another artist created eight landscaped models in eight literal backyards, envisioning a potential stretch of green space that’s in the planning and funding stage. 

Even if viewers have zero familiarity with the city’s art scene, they’re the kinds of projects that will certainly attract people and likely make them think a bit about the city’s past and future. Some of them even weave in elements of the L.A.’s fraught relationship with violence, racism and colonialism. 

Other cities that won this challenge are also connected to the environment and shared spaces—light installations in Spartanburg’s city parks, a community space themed around food, and a temporary illumination of vacant properties.

It’s that additional layer of attraction, thought, and interaction with a city and its spaces that makes such projects so appealing to funders. 

As we pointed out before, this is a popular idea right now. The Knight Foundation has embraced public art and placemaking, translating to many grants for creative use of public spaces and trails. ArtPlace is a similar funding project that’s drawn a lot of attention. We wrote not long ago about a project that connects sustainable food to art and creative placemaking. 

There’s also an organization in Cleveland, resulting from the merger of a parks nonprofit and a public art nonprofit, that’s been a huge hit in Cleveland for its skillful combination the two.

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Similar to observations we’ve made about funding for bike projects, a main reason the combo of arts and the environment is so compelling is that it ties together threads of complex city issues—public spaces, community economic development, city pride, and even urban water (green infrastructure can be beautiful, if not actual objects of art).

It’s not only place-based in its appeal. We’ve also written about the Compton Foundation’s embrace of art as a way to engage the public around global climate change. 

None of this is to say that public art is some magical cure for environmental woes. For every hit creative installation in a park, who knows how many dilapidated green spaces needing basic maintenance, or community groups struggling for operational funds, are out there. A lot of these projects admittedly do fall more on the art and city improvement side than the environment side.

Related:The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

But what these projects have in common is the fact that they give residents of a city—who spend the bulk of their lives grappling with their own problems, hopes, and fears—a fresh way to interface with their surroundings. The problems of the environment are very often on such a massive scale, seeming so distant in time and space that it’s hard to confront them. 

The artist’s contribution can close that gap. And at the very least, it gives us a reason to gather outdoors, look, and think, if even for a few minutes.