Designed to Engage: The Promise (and Pitfalls) of the Public Art Boom

"the Gates" in Central park

"the Gates" in Central park

It's been a busy six months for the growing field of public art.

In early April, "Breathing Lights," a project bankrolled with roughly $1 million from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, held an all-day finale, ending a successful two-month installation that had filled hundreds of empty houses in Albany, Schenectady and Troy with pulsing LED lights.

Back in late January, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation announced that three new public art projects will receive a total of $400,000 in the inaugural round of its Open Spaces program grants.

Not to be outdone, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gone so far as to designate 2017 as “The Year of Public Art." The city is investing $1.5 million in artist-led community projects with support from Allstate Insurance Company and Terra Foundation for American Art.

Whenever we come across a hot funding area, we're bound to have some questions, and the ascendance of public art is no exception. Why are foundations drawn to public art? Which foundations are particularly active in this space? And what could possibly go wrong? 

So let's get right down to it.

What explains the surge in interest in public art? I can think of three factors.

First, the form's inherent ability to engage audiences. Second, its utility in progressive urban planning initiatives. And three, the fact that—to quote Brooke Kamin Rapaport, senior curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy—"as art education in public schools has diminished because of pinched budgets," public art should "stand as a resource and a beacon."

Let's start with factor number one. To understand why funders are increasingly bullish on public art, it's important to get a handle on the larger trends permeating the arts philanthropy landscape. Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, sums up the zeitgeist accordingly:

The pendulum has swung from the museum as a temple to the museum as active space, from a treasure box to a toolbox. Today's audiences are no longer looking for a cold, "white cube" museum experience. Instead, they crave warmer, shared experiences.

Audiences, in other words, want engagement—and so do foundations.

The Wallace Foundation famously pledged a whopping $52 million to help performing arts organizations expand audiences through its Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. (Earlier this year, it published two informative studies: Building Millennial Audiences: Barriers and Opportunities and Ballet Austin: Expanding Audiences for Unfamiliar Works.)

Then there's the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, whose support of the Theatre Communications Group's Audience (R)Evolution program identified eight organizations that rolled out effective audience engagement strategies.

But just as there are fifty Eskimo words for "snow"—and there really are, according to the Washington Post—"engagement" can be a subjective and relative thing. 

To a museum, it can simply mean a visitor walking through the doors, whereas to a dance company, it can mean a visitor who attends a performance and joins the mailing list. In other words, there are multiple layers of engagement. And the way in which organizations choose to refine their ideas of engagement can affect their interactions with data-hungry foundations.

Last year, I took a look at a report on audience engagement by the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University and came away with more questions than answers.

For example, NCAR's metric for engagement—dubbed "total touch points"—casts a wide net to capture all stakeholder interaction (e.g. staff, artists, volunteers, donors) as reported by arts nonprofits via the DataArts/Cultural Data Profile (CDP). However, the "total touch points" metric does not reveal the duration, depth, or quality of engagement each person has with the organization. As I noted at the time:

That's slightly problematic. After all, 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?

What does this have to do with public art? Glad you asked.

Let's engage in a fun (and quick) thought exercise. Let's imagine an "engagement spectrum" and place a given "touch point" across that spectrum. A touch point like sending a fundraising letter would fall on the "weak" side of the engagement spectrum. A visitor contemplating Edvard Munch's "The Scream" will register somewhere in the middle, closer to the "strong" side.

Now consider what the New York Times considers one of the best active public art installations

The Underline, a 10-mile park beneath the Miami's Metrorail, includes Nicolas Lobo’s "Brutal Workout," a 10-by-10-foot cube with steel bars that curve and straighten to resemble the lines of the Metrorail itself. The cube flips into different positions, letting people experiment with different workouts on the bars. 

Where on the "engagement spectrum" would "Brutal Workout" fall? Most people would agree: Very much on the "strong" side. 

I mention this thought exercise (and I do hope it was fun) to underscore a simple fact. Public art is, by definition, non-passive, immersive and engaging. The quality of the engagement may be debatable—that is, a participant may be nonplussed by "Brutal Workout"—but it's an "engaging" experience nonetheless.

I explored this theme back when the Kenneth Rainin Foundation launched its Open Spaces program last year. As I noted at the time, it wasn't a coincidence that the foundation said it would evaluate projects on whether they "significantly engage" visitors and residents.

One last point on the engagement piece.

One of things we do here at IP is study funder behavior with the goal of extracting larger patterns. Coverage of Bloomberg Philanthropies points to a trend that won't surprise many people, given the fact that its namesake is a wildly successful businessman: Bloomberg loves measuring stuff.

The idea that donors should get the most bang for their buck through rigorous performance measurement permeates the current philanthropy landscape, but that wasn't always the case, particularly in the arts field. Yet Bloomberg Philanthropies was doing precisely that back in 2015.

From 2011 to 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies supported 245 grantees through its Arts Innovation and Management program, an invitation-only initiative aimed at strengthening nearly 300 small- and mid-sized organizations in six cities. It then measured progress at recipient organizations during this period, looking at metrics like adding new board members and increasing board giving.

Bloomberg Philanthropies crunched the data and was pleased. So pleased, in fact, it decided to significantly expand the program.

Given the fact that metrics-loving Bloomberg actively measures the performance of its recipient arts organizations, it should come as no surprise that it's incredibly bullish on public art, a medium where the gold star of all performance metrics—audience engagement—is immediate and irrefutable.

Then there's the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Remember the Underline, the 10-mile park beneath the Miami's Metrorail? The installation blowing up the "engagement spectrum?" It was the winner of a Knight Cities Challenge.

Commenting on the project, Debi Wechsler, chair of the Underline Art Advisory Committee said, “We want the art to engage and be interactive." The art is not meant to be the basis of a traditional sculpture park, but “part of an environmentally friendly excursion,” she said, getting people outside and bringing art to the people.

Knight has also recently funded similar projects like the Akron Street Art Project and a public art project by Knight Arts Challenge Detroit winner Young Nation.

So foundations are drawn to public art because of its inherent ability to engage audiences. But public art can also be a strong entry point to environmental issues and urban planning issues. Consider another winner of the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge, "Current: L.A. Water." Installations, like one presenting water fountains as modern altars, convey the drought-stricken city's relationship to water through an artistic lens. Yet at the same time, these installations increase awareness of the city’s need for water conservation and public investments in water planning and infrastructure. 

Public art, in other words, can have a social and political message, which can appeal to foundations as the "artist as activist" trend continues to gain steam in the art philanthropy landscape.

At this point, a quick semantic tangent is in order. When researching this piece, I came across many outlets that equate "public art" with "creative placemaking." I consider this to be a mistake. Why? Because they're not the same.

According to Americans for the Arts, "Public art is exactly that, art in public spaces." Good luck getting a similar consensus on "creative placemaking." ArtPlace America defines it as an approach that uses the arts to "shape the social, physical, and economic futures of communities." The Kresge Foundation, another big creative placemaking proponent, is a bit cagier, noting, "many elements of creative placemaking are not well understood, and that lack of clarity inhibits more widespread adoption of the practice." 

So let me draw the lines of demarcation. Public art is a tangible work of art or experience. Creative placemaking is a far broader and more complex undertaking. It is a concept that seeks to revitalize neighborhoods, create jobs, and boost deep and sustainable community involvement. Public art is a physical structure that can be an input in a larger creative placemaking strategy.

With that out of the way, I'd now like to turn to the third factor contributing to public art's ascendance. We've been writing about the demise of arts education in public schools since 2014. Gauging its present-day health can be difficult since funding is generally a local issue. What's more, it would be an exercise in conjecture to say that foundations support public art because arts education funding in public schools is drying up.

All that being said, public art nonetheless provides an "arts experience" for kids who may be affected by budget cuts. It's an admittedly "soft" asset, but an asset nonetheless, and it again speaks to how funders can appreciate its inherent ability to engage with participants.

Which brings me to some of the other active funders in this space across the past year or so.

Late March, for instance, we saw the William Penn Foundation announcing $1.25 million gift toward a public art installation that celebrates Philadelphia's iconic fountains. The foundation's interest in public art dates back to 2008, when it commissioned PennPraxis, the outreach, practice, and professional arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, to study public art in Philadelphia. Its goals were two-fold. First, to gain a better understanding of the city's support for public art and where gaps in programs exist, and secondly, to identify how Philadelphia might better manage existing public art programs.

January also brought news that another Philadelphia-based funder, the Barnes Foundation, will celebrate more than 50 artists’ "engagement"—there's that word again!—with "different communities" in an expansive exhibit called “Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie,” which opened Feb. 25.

More than 50 American and international artists are featured in the exhibit, which takes place inside a museum and also reaches into the streets of Philadelphia via street performances, billboards, posters, themed walks, and public participation in the show's social media components.

"It's the Barnes' most ambitious project to date," said Thom Collins, the museum's executive director and president.

Barnes' initiative and, more specifically, the Penn Foundation's partnership with PennPraxis, suggests that Philadelphia's public art boom didn't occur overnight.

In a similar vein, Chicago is clearly all-in on public art, but the roots of this love affair can be traced all the way back to 1971 when the Chicago Public Art Group opened its doors. The group receives funding from MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the very same foundation that made a $300,000 public art give in 2015 to Sing London, an organization tasked with "bringing Chicago’s statutes to life."

When it comes to public art, Philadelphia and Chicago have become leaders. But in Boston, we find a city playing public art catch-up. In March, the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation awarded 60 grants to performing artists and arts groups in Greater Boston as part of a program called Live Arts Boston.

The gift was heavy on public art, which was music to Lucas Cowan's ears. "Boston is a marvelous city full of history,” said Cowan, the public art curator of the city's scenic Rose Kennedy Greenway, a linear park located in several Downtown Boston neighborhoods. "But it’s been about 30 years behind a number of other cities, like Philadelphia and Chicago, when it comes to contemporary public art."

Indeed, developments in Boston point to yet another public art selling point. Funders can leverage it as a means to quickly "ramp up" a city's art profile.

By this point, public art may sound like a kind of arts panacea. But its ascendance has also revealed some of its shortcomings. Take the fact that public art's inherent benefit—its ability to instantly engage with viewers—can also be its greatest liability.

"Public art should remain private when it interferes with the citizens’ right to enjoy public spaces as they are," claimed Brian Camp, a reader commenting on a New York Times piece on public art. For example, when artists installed a piece called "The Gates" in Central Park in 2005, "it diminished the park experience for those of us who prefer the place unadorned. We couldn’t escape those things."

There's a fine line between "immersive" and "intrusive." Cognizant of this dilemma, some planners prefer to install public art far off the beaten path. The Cleveland Foundation, for example, allocated $150,000 for a plan to install art along the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's Red Line. The goal is to expose commuters to public art while traversing the city's abandoned, post-industrial transit routes. I doubt many commuters complained about this subtle and noninvasive approach.

Other far-flung installations, however, can demand a bit too much from the average resident.

Take the Bloomberg-funded "Current: L.A." According to a 2016 Los Angeles Times piece by art critic Christopher Knight, the full exhibition was on view for just a month. This wouldn't be a problem if the project was called "Current: Milwaukee" or "Current: Charleston." But instead, it takes place in the world capital of urban sprawl. "Geography defies all but the most intrepid souls from seeing everything during such a narrow window of time," Knight said.

Throw in the fact that the project's "unwieldy website is poorly designed and not user-friendly," and you can't help but wonder: What good is public art if no one actually sees it? 

Then there are socio-political considerations. "Current: L.A." calls attention to the city's water crisis, and to some, boosting awareness around this issue is a good thing. But not everyone is keen on mixing art and politics. Here's Knight again: "Thematic commissions are often problematic. Do we really need public art to call attention to pressing water issues? And is that what these works really do?"

Which brings me to my final point. Art, of course, is subjective. When it's hung in a museum, it gives people a choice to walk in the door, take a closer look, or bypass a work entirely. But when a piece of art—something with an inherently relative aesthetic value—is placed in public, foundations should brace for blowback.

There are countless examples of this phenomenon. 

"It seems clear that many in the community are not all that enthused about" a proposed cluster of street lights, said Maine's Portland Press Herald last year. A couple of years ago, three outsize lanterns installed in front of a Denver jail were decried as a misappropriation of public funds. And a "bright pink figurative sculpture" planned for Long Island City, Queens, elicited controversy over color, form, scale and cost.

Foundations may read these news items and wonder if it's best to sit on the sidelines. Their budgets are finite. Why rock the boat? And anecdotal evidence suggests that despite major commitments from outfits like Bloomberg Philanthropies, Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, other major arts funders have remained on the sidelines.

We have yet to see large public art commitments from foundations like the Walton Family Foundation, the Getty Foundation, or the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation over the last year or so. Instead, public art is but one component of broader arts programs for these funders. For example, public art has been a consistent component of the Getty Foundation's sprawling Pacific Standard Time exhibition.

And so, at long last, I'd like to end on a positive note, and let the one funder probably most responsible for this post (indirectly) have the last word.

We first looked at ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, a public art project based in Gary and funded by Knight back in 2015. We thought it was a pretty cool idea at the time, and as it turned out, so did Bloomberg Philanthropies. It was one of the four winners of the 2015 Public Art Challenge.

Last November, the formerly underutilized building became a fully operational cultural hub showcasing visual and culinary arts. Commenting on the project, Arthouse Project Manager Michele L. Larimer succinctly homed in on public art's primary benefit—its ability to engage the community.

"I think it’s going to be fun," she said. "We want to show what happens when the residents of Gary get together and do something."