"New Perspectives and New Solutions." Bloomberg's Latest Move on Public Art

photo:  Thomas Barrat/shutterstock

photo:  Thomas Barrat/shutterstock

The unofficial opening salvo in the public art boom came in 2014 with the launch of Bloomberg Philanthropies' Public Art Challenge.

The initiative represented a big commitment to a historically underappreciated medium from a billionaire philanthropist concerned with urban issues, economic development and performance measurement. And in a philanthropic climate in which the Wallace Foundation allocated $52 million to study "engagement," public art promised to spark "beneficial cross-sector dialogue and work that wouldn’t happen in other ways," according to Bloomberg's Kate D. Levin.

A year later, Bloomberg announced its inaugural winners, and since then, other funders, including the William Penn Foundation, the Barr Foundation and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation have made their own investments in public art. Even Mike Bloomberg's fellow mayors joined the fray. Chicago's Rahm Emanuel dubbed 2017 the "Year of Public Art."

Now comes word that Bloomberg Philanthropies has launched its 2018 Public Art Challenge.

The news provides a good opportunity not only to revisit one of public art's most influential proponents, but also to take a closer look at where the medium may be heading.

Let's start with Bloomberg's 2018 Public Art Challenge.

Just like its inaugural round, mayors in cities with populations of 30,000 or more—not arts organizations, it should be noted—are invited to apply for up to $1 million in funding for temporary public art projects that address important civic issues. Proposed projects will be evaluated on their ability to "generate public-private collaborations, celebrate creativity and urban identity, and strengthen local economies."

The Public Art Challenge is a part of Mike Bloomberg’s American Cities Initiative, an effort to help U.S. cities generate innovation and advance policy. 

The inaugural challenge received submissions from more than 230 cities. Proposals covered a range of issues and social themes including neighborhood safety, environmental sustainability and promoting city identity.

The four winning projects included "Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light," which placed temporary installations in the South Carolina city's public spaces as part of a crime prevention effort, and "Current: L.A. River," which included commissions for artworks and public programs focused on environmental concerns, as part of the city’s first Public Art Biennial.

Ms. Levin, who oversees the arts program for Bloomberg Philanthropies, expounded on public art's innate ability to drive engagement, telling ARTnews, "there’s a virtuous cycle that public art tends to trigger. It’s not always acknowledged, because people tend to focus on the art—which is appropriate—but part of the reason Michael Bloomberg is funding this initiative is because he wants to help catalyze a greater appreciation of the impact that art can have in cities and the ways in which projects, however different they may be, tend to spark beneficial cross-sector dialogue and work that wouldn’t happen in other ways."

What's more, this kind of engagement can be measured. This is music to Mike Bloomberg's ears.

As the New York Times' Bill Keller noted, Bloomberg's primary business and governing legacy was a refreshing openness to experimentation matched by an "obsessive attention to metrics."

This strain of rigorous performance measurement runs through Bloomberg's major philanthropic efforts, including his C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which has adopted a "new emphasis on accountability by using outcome-driven performance metrics," as well as his foundation's work in arts management and combatting non-communicable diseases.

In its announcement of its 2018 Public Art Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies was quick to promote the measurable benefits of its inaugural challenge.

According to a national impact study, the Public Art Challenge generated $13 million for local economies. It employed 820 individuals, created 490 programs and activities like tours, workshops, and lectures, and worked with 245 partners to help implement projects.

This isn't to say Bloomberg's inaugural Public Art Challenge wasn't without its detractors.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, art critic Christopher Knight noted that the "Current: L.A." exhibition was on view for just a month. This proved problematic for residents in the notoriously sprawling city. "Geography defies all but the most intrepid souls from seeing everything during such a narrow window of time," Knight said.

Knight was also concerned with the project's messaging. "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?"

I imagine Bloomberg would reply to Knight's question by saying, "Actually, yes, public art, by definition, should call attention to pressing local issues, water-related or otherwise."

That being said, even though winners focused on local issues, Bloomberg's workmanlike approach is comparatively less "political" than other activist art proponents that have recently linked initiatives to causes like immigrant rights (Ford) and criminal justice reform (the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation).

This isn't to say there aren't other funders out there using public art as a springboard to drive social change.

The Oakland-based Kenneth Rainin Foundation launched its Open Spaces initiative in 2016 to support temporary place-based public art projects in Oakland and San Francisco that "engage communities, showcase artistic experimentation, and energize public spaces."

Earlier this year, it announced its winners, allotting a total of $500,000 to four temporary public art projects based in Oakland and San Francisco.

Though I have no doubt that Rainin can readily articulate the economic impact of its Open Spaces program, a read of its overview of the winners finds the foundation eschewing metrics and instead focusing on how the projects addressed "timely social issues," including immigration, transgender activism, women's rights, and gentrification.

It will be interesting to see if the Bloomberg 2018 Public Art Challenge winners drift deeper into activist waters. I'm not holding my breath. Given Bloomberg's brand of technocratic centrism, a Ford-like pivot toward strident red-meat activism is highly unlikely. 

Looking ahead, at least three Public Art Challenge winners will be chosen in 2018 to execute their projects over a maximum of 24 months. Grants will cover project-related expenditures including development, execution, and marketing, but will not fund 100 percent of project costs.

The application for the challenge, as well as more information on criteria, deadlines and process, can be found here.

"The Public Art Challenge brings people together to look at issues from new perspectives and uncover new solutions. The winning projects from the first competition all made a real and lasting impact in their cities," Bloomberg said upon announcing the latest iteration.

"We’re looking forward to seeing what ideas emerge from this year’s competition and how they can help to build a strong future for communities around the country."