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Public Art: A Primer

Publicly placed works of art that delight, stimulate, challenge, or entertain those who encounter them are important contributions to culture.

By Curtis Green

What is public art? Typically, public art is defined as works of art whose form, function, and meaning are created for the public, usually through a civic process. These works typically occupy public spaces. They can be of any allowable media, and their display can be temporary or permanent.

An excellent example of a temporary public artwork is nearly any installation by environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Ephemeral slide projections by Polish-born artist Krzystof Wodiczco serve as another example.

A permanent example of public art with which most Americans are familiar is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, designed by Maya Lin. While that artwork is, from the most basic perspective, simply a wall with names on it, its meaning and significance are profound.

Not all art in public is, by definition, public art. For instance, so-called “street art” was born from “graffiti culture” and guerilla art tactics. The term graffiti originated in Italy to describe etchings of words or images found on existing art pieces, and graffiti itself was never meant originally to be its own legitimate art form exhibited within a museum—but it has evolved from its beginnings. While examples of graffiti from as far back as the Middle Ages are still visible in some places; more recently, Cornbread, Basquiat, and Banksy are some contemporary street artists who have become famous for making work that is in the public space but is not always officially commissioned.

Public art, in contrast to street art, are works that have come about by a process typically initiated by a city or organization, such as El Segundo’s new Cultural Development Program and its Art & Culture Advisory Committee. These types of planned public artworks are various and generally fall under one of three categories: monument, memorial, or waypoint.

Monument has become a controversial term recently. The debate has centered on those monuments that include historical figures and whether they currently represent our shared values. A monument does not always depict a known person from history, however. A monument may appeal to the larger significance of something in the abstract, such as common belief or vision. It can also commemorate where a significant moment occurred that is important to the collective memory within the public sphere. A monument may be a statue of someone or be architectural in nature, for instance.

A memorial is like a monument, but the main purpose is to honor the memory of something, such as a person or an event. Consider the memorial to United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. An entire park was created, and a sound sculpture was erected, to memorialize the tragedy of that downed flight on September 11, 2001. Memorials such as this one demonstrate public art serving its highest calling.

Most of us are exposed to public art frequently but may not realize it. Public artworks that serve as waypoints and decoration are abundant. One of the most significant of these is the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Another more local example is the Towers of Sabato Rodia (known informally as “the Watts Towers”) in nearby Watts, California. These artworks typically draw attention to a place, create a sense of community within it, and add identity to that particular place. The “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, for instance, and perhaps by accident, has become a kind of waypoint public-art icon in its own right.

How Public Art Comes To Be

Now that we have discussed what public art is and how it functions, let’s look at how public-art projects are conceived and identify the stakeholders.

A public art project can come into being via community desire or civil ordinance. For example, when a new, large commercial development is proposed within a community, the developer may be required to spend a percentage of development costs on art elements, such as with El Segundo’s Cultural Development Program. This means an artist will be hired to work in concert with or independently of the development project to provide artwork in designated areas. Often, the artwork relates to the community somehow. It can reference the area’s history, celebrate an idea, or point to a vision that supports or inspires. It may be an obvious and unique feature of the development project and of the city overall.

A public art project is usually commissioned after a selection is made from a list of qualified applicants. This process can involve input from various city departments or from the agency that requested submissions by artists or design teams. The artist or team of artists is usually the “idea person” or “idea team” that is rigorously selected by one or more committees. Various experts are called in for consults, and many business entities become invested in making the artwork into a reality. The art project can generate employment of several engineers, draftspersons, architects, consultants, fabricators, construction contractors, and other entities or individuals. This is one of many ways that the artwork gives back to the community: by generating income for local businesses and individuals. It may even be that the artist is the least paid among those involved. Budgets need to be carefully considered regarding the design and implementation of the finished project.

Another type of public art project is those that invite the artist and non-artist community members to participate. Community murals have put certain places on the map as go-to destinations, such as Santa Paula here in California. A number of thematic murals are found right here in El Segundo as well, and a small subset of those have involved non-artist community members. Many of El Segundo’s murals speak to the history, industry, and culture of the city.

Elsewhere, community-minded public-art projects have beautified their cities or towns by inviting members of the public to submit their own ideas for painting traffic-light service boxes, bus benches, sidewalks, wall tiles, and more. This is a great way for citizens to make a hands-on impact in their community and express pride in where they live.

It is easy to wonder how or why funds are spent on something as seemingly frivolous as public art. The hope is that after exploring what goes into the process and the reasons for it, we can better understand why public art matters so much to a community, its economy, and its identity of place, and that we can appreciate its common purpose for all people to contemplate or simply enjoy.

Curtis Green is a fine artist and graduate of Otis Art Institute. He has worked as an art consultant and CAD draftsman on several large-scale public art projects throughout the United States, primarily with lead artist Michael Davis.

Photos, clockwise from top left: Public mural in Recreation Park in El Segundo photographed by Sarah Ainsworth; the Eiffel Tower photographed by Alex Azabache for Pexels; the California Street Bridge Improvement Project in Ventura, CA, Michael Davis, completed 2019 (photo provided by Michael Davis); detail from John van Hamersveld's water-tank mural along Grand Avenue in El Segundo (photo by John van Hamersveld); detail from HATS by Michael Davis (in collaboration with Eugene Daub) in Lincoln Park, Burbank. HATS photo provided by Michael Davis.

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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