Including an art component in new or renovated civic buildings is a win-win strategy. It makes the facility more welcoming and pleasurable for those who use it, gives the public greater access to works of art—often substantial ones—and helps support local arts communities. But there is more to it than simply commissioning a mural or plopping a sculpture in a courtyard. Time-tested strategies for selecting the artists, integrating art with architecture, and incorporating public input can make all the difference between something enduring that engages the community and something the public barely notices—or worse, loathes.
Success in Selection
The selection process is key. Large cities tend to have a committee that invites artists to submit applications and portfolios for initial consideration. Clear guidelines should inform the review process: ideally, artists should demonstrate aesthetic excellence and have successful experience or at least a strong interest in collaborating and welcoming public input.
Smaller cities may rely on a private art consultant who has expertise in the selection of public art. “My methodology for the selection of art for public spaces involves developing a dialogue between the client and the process itself,” says Lynne Baer, a public art advisor based in San Francisco. “This dialogue starts with establishing goals and concepts and understanding the culture of the institution where the art will be placed. It continues through the research and selection of artists and artworks.”
With public art, high quality alone is no guarantee of success. “Every site-specific public art project presents its own unique set of challenges, be it engineering, logistics, or simply the particular physical limitations of the space,” says Philadelphia-based artist Ray King. “And the work must be tailored to address the characteristics of each specific location. It’s critical that an artist’s ideas and aesthetics fit the space.”
While almost all artists selected for public projects are highly collaborative, some have a distinctive style they employ in most of their projects, while others produce works that look very different from each other with each engagement. This second approach carries the risks of unpredictability but can end up providing a better fit for projects with heavy community input. “I often enter into a project without any preconceived vision and gradually shape, clarify, and define a specific notion in response to the input from the architects, engineers, and the community, as well as the site,” says Seyed Alavi, an artist based in Oakland. For the new George Sim Community Center in Sacramento (shown right, photo by Jay Graham), Alavi’s painted steel sculpture “Room of Hope” reflects the community members’ wish for a facility that reflected their perception of the spirit of their neighborhood.
Collaboration Is Crucial
Involving an artist as soon as the schematic design phase is complete helps create a greater synergy between architecture and art. By engaging the artist early in the process, the architect and artist can work together to identify potential locations for the art and opportunities for integrating it into the building. “The earlier you get an artist involved in a project, the better the chance they will establish a great working relationship with the community and the other consultants,” says Fernanda D’Agostino, an artist based in Portland, Ore. “In the best relationship with architects, landscape architects, and project engineers, everyone drops their egos at the door, and the collaboration can be extremely stimulating, with art ideas coming from the architects, architectural ideas coming from the artists.”
Active, early involvement with architects also can save money. For the Vineland Library in San Jose, Seattle artist Deborah Mersky and the Paoli Field design team worked together early on and decided to create dual-paned insulated window walls with an etched and leafed glass treatment at the main entry and rear windows, in addition to a laser-cut steel mural inside the children’s room. This strategy allowed the surface of the artwork to be sandwiched on the inside of the insulating panes, protecting it from damage, and also provided additional funding for the art budget by shifting the cost of the glazing from the construction budget.
The architect often serves as a liaison between the artists and city officials, especially if the artist is not local. Knowing the client and the project well, the architect can provide feedback and information about the particular client’s needs.
Handling Input from the Community
While public involvement is crucial, if the process is not managed well, the result can be a dilution of artistic vision, resulting in a piece that does not stand the test of time. The goal should not be to avoid controversy—art is inherently controversial. It should generate dialogue. However, managing controversy requires a careful balance of advocacy and listening. “Sometimes controversy is good,” says Shelly Willis, administrator for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. “It may be that the artwork is a strong and important public work because the community is listening and responding to it. I pay more attention when a piece is installed, and there is no reaction from the public. However, once immersed in a controversy, communication, communication, and communication is the best policy. Be direct, respond quickly to requests, and be out in front of the controversy.”
For the new Mayfair Community Center in San Jose (shown right, photo by David Wakely), there was a great deal of community input on the artwork created by Fernanda D’Agostino, who crafted the piece in collaboration with a group of local artisans. “Garden of Strength” consists of three elements: an art glass window installation, mixed-media nichos—Latin American folk art shrines—in the center’s tower, and stone sculptures depicting squash, beans, and corn. Controversy arose in the community over which photographs, quotes, and videos to incorporate into the art, as different groups sought to ensure equal representation. The arts department staff worked with the artist and met with community leaders to address everyone’s concerns, and the work has been well received since its completion; kids climb on the sculptures—exactly the kind of interactivity the city hoped for.
What Works in Public Art?
For all that public art must balance the needs of the community, civic leaders, and the architect, it must still work as art, maintaining that ineffable quality that gives a piece lasting resonance. For Elizabeth Devereaux, an artist based in Chico, Calif., the hallmarks of a successful public art project include “understanding of the client and the use of the space; understanding of the architectural intent; understanding of the light; and awareness of the sense of place. Permanence is also very important. The work should artistically express something that either has special meaning for this unique place, makes the viewer ponder, creates wonder, or is playful or humorous.”
Or as King puts it, “The work must embody a higher and more mysterious vision that elevates it beyond mere decoration. It should embody a vision or metaphor that elevates the human spirit.”