Checking In: A Major Public Art Funder Provides a Compelling Progress Report

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge is inextricably linked to one of the most pressing challenges in modern arts philanthropy—boosting audience engagement.

We write on this topic a lot, including coverage of how the Wallace Foundation is spending tens of millions to crack the riddle of audience engagement in the age of changing demographics and waning attention spans. Along the way, we've spotlighted many arts funders seeking to measure audience engagement and the tricky issues at play here. For example, back in April, we looked at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation's new public art program, Open Spaces, and how the foundation evaluates projects on whether they significantly engage visitors and residents. At the time, I ruminated:

Not all "engagement" is equal in terms of impact. Take something like engaging one's audience through e-mail—a frequently tracked metric. What's more meaningful? Knowing that 20 people were emailed about an upcoming program—never mind that the message was immediately deleted—or knowing that three people read a Facebook post about a performance and two decided to attend?

And therein lies the inherent beauty and promise of public art. Sometimes you don't need to measure what's patently obvious. Engagement occurs when people are, well, engaged. But even that kind of engagement is relative. How deep does it really go?

For some insights into that question, check out a short documentary series created by Bloomberg Philanthropies providing a behind-the-scenes look at how four cities' winning Public Art Challenge projects are playing out in the real world. Each of the three-minute shorts, which feature interviews with mayors, artists, and cultural leaders working together to develop risk-taking public art projects, showcases the unprecedented levels of contact and cooperation between the arts and civic leaders.

Here's one example: Spartanburg, South Carolina's very timely project uses public art to promote crime prevention and as a catalyst for building police-community relations. As interviews with police officers show in this documentary, the light-based project, designed by artist Erwin Redl, is already bringing together residents and law enforcement officials. Check out the clip here.

In short, the engagement rubber is officially meeting the road. As such, these clips provide useful guidance to other organizations exploring the possibilities of public art.