Katie on Public Art

Happy Holidays!

When I started this blog, I stated my goal of posting weekly. Apparently that hasn’t been happening, and it seems that a post around every 2-3 weeks is more realistic. It’s not due to laziness, but moreso the time it takes to answer the question ‘what do I write about this time?’ I’m only a second year student who admittedly only knows so much about planning to support enough content to write a full and worthwhile post, so I take this question very seriously! However, the answer finally hit me in the face on Christmas eve: write about the role of public art in communities.

The way I think about and perceive communities today was initiated by a walk in my grade 10 art class, where a public art activist brought our class downtown to see where public art could make the downtown space more friendly. I specifically remember standing on the Century Place concrete thinking what landscaping could be done to remove the gray that permiated through the downtown. Below you can see just how bland the space is with a lack of a particular focal point or even seating which could encourage people to stay and converse.

When you hear the words ‘public art,’ a lot of things might come into your mind. And, with how vast visual expression as a concept and as a realization is, your mind should be full with a bunch of things when you hear those words. Public art is a focal-point sculpture; a fountain; a paid-for graffiti artist or muralist who passionately draws life into a once-boring red brick wall. Public art is not limited to what you can see: buskers and street performers are also a valuable form of public art. Anything that appeals to your senses and enhances a public space through creative expression is my definition of ‘public art.’ (See this page for more information on the definition of public art.)

With that said, you can begin to understand the role public art plays in cities and their communities, neighbourhoods, and downtowns. Self expression is a natural response to experiences that we have in our every day lives, and is what drives humans to manifest their self expressions into what we deem ‘art.’ It can be asked, then, that if art is created from personal experiences, then how is public art created and expressed? Public art attempts to capture the attention and, consequentially, the emotions from passersby at a general level. There is something for everyone within a public art piece, whether that be the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the positioning, or their interpretation of the piece.

With all of these interpretations and opinions of the piece invisibly floating around a community, the passersby are engaged in the space even when they don’t fully realize it. This engagement (if the public art was a success) attracts people to the space again and again, which is good for a downtown, for example, where people would revisit and the local economy would consequentially grow. Successful art peices promote conversation between friends — and, with an even greater deal of success, strangers — which makes the space a more interesting place to be.

It is okay to question why public art is so important to spaces. At face-value, it can seem like a question that can only be faced with circular reasoning: ‘public art makes places interesting, okay, but why is that important?’ ‘Well, you know, because it makes places interesting!‘ We initially resort to this quick answer because it is natural for us to want to be in a place that isn’t boring. Boring places make us unenthused, make us want to be elsewhere, and actively change our emotions while being in that boring space. We as people constantly want something to entertain ourselves with, whether that leaves us looking at news feeds on our tiny handhelds or stopping to look in storewindows or people-watching. We live off of our opinions of things, events, and people, and our short attention span reflects that. You may notice that when you are in a boring place (vaguely self-defined as containing what you personally perceive as ‘boring’) you may be annoyed, agitated, or just plain bummed out. This can be compared to an exciting and interesting place with conversation-pieces and entertaining events in which you might notice you are happy, engaged, and interested. Public art is important to spaces because of its effect on that space and on the people who visit that space. This, in turn, makes the space more vibrant, which could very well have a positive effect on the space’s performance economically, socially and environmentally.

To better describe what public art can do to improve a space, we will go back to Century Place in Belleville, Ontario. Let’s look at that picture again:

Ahh, yes, a drab concrete slab right at the major intersection of Belleville’s downtown core. This area is actually a major hub for pedestrians and drivers, either passing through, working, or spending leisure time within the downtown core. Perhaps you have walked through here and noticed how empty this space is – or perhaps you haven’t even really thought about it at all. It really is an empty canvas just waiting for something – anything – even planters to bring a little life to the space. Having been there myself, I can tell you the only thing for people to sit on in this space is one small and lonely concrete bench which is often taken up by a smoker not many people want to sit beside.

As someone who has a huge passion for downtown Belleville’s history, I almost take offense to the lack of public art here. Public art can and often does take on a civil service of historic commemoration, and I touched upon this in my last post. Belleville’s downtown has an intricate and interesting history and in the most traffic-heavy space in the downtown core there isn’t even anything that offers passersby a connection to it.

Take a look at some of the many projects that cities and communities around the world are doing to enhance public spaces for the passersby there, in hopes of making the space more engaging, interesting, and vibrant and, in turn, lifting passersbys spirits if even just a little bit.

An example of sustainable and purposeful public art can be found in Sherbourne Common, Toronto, where stormwater is cleaned and runs through the park in a visually engaging structure:

A very simple yet functional and effective design in Baltimore, Maryland encourages creativity and playfulness while waiting for the bus:

Even something like creative paving and lines on a space like what was done in Copenhagen by the Bjarke Ingels Group can offer a sense of creativity and engagement to people of all ages while just walking through a space:

Public art is more than just creating an engaging space for people and encouraging them to look, listen, converse, stay a while, then come back later. Public art offers a sense of identity to cities, communities, and most importantly their people: shoppers, residents, workers; all classes, all ages, all races and speakers of all languages. What is more cool than a free art show in your community? Consider what public art there is to experience in your community, and how it makes you feel. If your city spaces are boring, what can be done to create interest in that space? Maybe you’re not an artist, but you are the one who’s looking at and experiencing the art when it is installed — what do you want to see and experience in your public spaces?

Here are some links to consider as 2016 comes to an end:

The pros of graffiti

The case for temporary public art

Paying for public art (Ottawa)

Popular and controversial street artist: Banksy

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