What's Next for Public Art? Bloomberg Philanthropies Provides Some Clues



In announcing the 14 finalists for its 2018 Public Art Challenge last month, Bloomberg Philanthropies has sketched out a roadmap outlining where the red-hot field of public art may be headed next.

Bloomberg launched its inaugural challenge in 2014, and since then, other funders have joined the fray, drawn to a medium that engages with community members on pressing local issues, drives economic growth, and fosters creative collaboration.

Upon announcing the 2018 challenge earlier this year, Kate D. Levin, the woman who oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies' Arts program, alluded to "a virtuous cycle that public art tends to trigger" by sparking "beneficial cross-sector dialogue and work that couldn’t happen in other ways."

I had the opportunity to speak with Levin recently, and asked her to further expound on this idea.

"Public art projects often reflect vision and aspiration that bring together people from different communities, interests and backgrounds," she said. "Because a successful public art project often gets people to see themselves or their city differently, along the way, it can shake up normal protocols a bit to get things done.

"Practically speaking, these kinds of projects tend to straddle a number of different areas, both physically and in terms of community engagement, so they drive the building of new collaborations."

Of course, not all 14 finalists will walk away with up to $1 million in funding this round—but that's not the point. Rather, the big takeaways here are how Bloomberg defines things like "community engagement" and what issues, if any, seem to be particularly resonant.

Broadly speaking, a handful of projects address the issue of social and cultural equity. Here are four examples:

  • Austin's "Right to the City" proposes filling public parks in underserved communities with artwork to "shine a light on cultural equity."
  • Camden's "A New View" proposes transforming lots currently used for illegal dumping along major transportation highways into spaces with arts programming.
  • Holyoke’s "The Heart of Holyoke" proposes developing visual art, performances, and cultural programming that celebrates the cultural identities of Latinx neighborhoods surrounding the Massachusetts city’s main street.
  • Seattle’s "Growing Home" proposes a series of public art installations that celebrate the cultural identities of the city’s Africatown to spark conversation about gentrification.

The fact that these projects seek to provide more equitable access to the arts while addressing issues like gentrification should come as no surprise to those attuned to the current state of arts philanthropy.

When the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust launched a $6 million engagement initiative to bring the arts to historically disenfranchised neighborhoods in New York City, Assistant Executive Director Dorian Burton articulated a growing view across the arts funding community: 

Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all.

I addressed this issue within the context of Bloomberg Philanthropies' giving after it launched the second Public Art Challenge in February.

"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)," I wrote. "It will be interesting to see if the Bloomberg 2018 Public Art Challenge winners drift deeper into activist waters."

Ultimately, these finalists find Bloomberg successfully threading the needle by addressing social and cultural equity through the lens of local experience without embracing the charged red-meat activism of a Ford Foundation.

Meanwhile, two finalist projects address climate change, an issue that's near and dear to Michael Bloomberg. The first, Anchorage's "SEED Community," proposes a partnership with the Anchorage Museum to address climate change; the second, Miami's "Climate Sync Miami," explores the urgent issue of rising seas and its impact on Miami through a series of site-specific temporary public art interventions.

Projects also address issues specific to the city's unique history.

Santa Rosa's "Home" proposes an artist residency program to explore concepts of home and resiliency in the aftermath of the recent wildfire disaster, while St. Louis's "Facing Mill Creek Valley" proposes a public art exhibition to address the displacement of residents living in Mill Creek Valley, a predominantly African-American neighborhood razed in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for the construction of a freeway.

Bloomberg Philanthropies will select at least three winners from among these 14 finalists in the fall 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 the total project costs.

"This year’s applications reflect a diversity of creativity and exciting experimentation for the public to experience, and the willingness of civic leaders to embrace artists in addressing complex urban challenges," said Bloomberg's Levin.

"We are grateful to the cities that applied to this year’s Public Art Challenge, and look forward to learning more about our finalist projects."