When I think of public art, quite honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is the fading murals that pepper the sides of blank highway underpasses and vacant warehouses in my city. I'm sure your town has them too. They look like a half-assed effort to make oppressively ugly, over-sized empty spaces a little bit prettier. (Andrew Price details the problems of "coarse-grained" buildings and their blank facades in a 2015 article on our site.)

Maybe these murals would have more meaning for me if I'd been part of their creation. But I bet even then, I'd have the thought at some point, "Why can't I be painting a mural on a prominent building instead of this dusty, dark highway underbelly?" 

Is public art doomed to only be invited and placed in locations that are lacking and empty—a band-aid to cover up our cities' design failures?

Image from Google Earth (which has hilariously blurred the faces of every person featured in the mural)

Image from Google Earth (which has hilariously blurred the faces of every person featured in the mural)

There's a mural I pass by often on my bus rides to the southside of town (pictured above). It's a depiction of several prominent civil rights activists from around the world, splashed across the vast blank sidewalk-facing wall of a Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) building. It's a nice effort—certainly better than a plain blank wall—and I occasionally have time to admire one or two of these leaders if my bus gets stuck at the stoplight in front of it. But mostly, it looks like a bone thrown to this neighborhood (and you probably can guess what kind of neighborhood this is—on the poorer side of town) after people realized how unpleasant and unsafe it is to walk past the large empty wall, squeezed between cars zipping by. Here, have a mural, it seems to say. Happy now? 

I decided to do a little research on this mural in an attempt to quell my skepticism and found that it was created in the 1980s after the death of a local civil rights icon, Father James Groppi. It features him along with several other social justice leaders like Nelson Mandela, Miguel Hidalgo and Lolita Lebron and was painted by Milwaukee's NAACP Youth Council. The artists are included as the figures lining the bottom of the wall. Knowing this history, the mural has a lot more meaning and significance for me and, no doubt, much more significance for the young people who painted it (although, they're not so young any more and may not even live in the neighborhood now).

As Max Azzarello pointed out earlier this week, public art invites us to ask questions. I'll pass by this mural with newfound respect next time, after having my own questions about it answered. 

And yet, the mural is thirty years old by now and showing its wear. Today, the message it seems to communicate is, A couple decades ago, some people cared about making this place beautiful and sharing a story, but now no one cares. How much better off would our city be if this mural had been located in a lively, pedestrian-oriented area where people could admire it, learn from it and care for it? And how much better off would this neighborhood be if the blank facade of the MCTS building had never been constructed at all, but rather, designed to be more welcoming and accommodating to passersby?

Andrew Zitcer, an assistant professor of Arts Administration at Drexel University, outlines three key phases of public art throughout American history. The earliest forms of public art were typically bronze sculptures that memorialized a figure from history, often a general on horseback or the founder of the town. The second wave of public art came in the mid-20th century, especially spurred on by the birth of "percent for art" initiatives, which require that public agencies devote 1% of construction costs on new buildings toward public art.

A large public sculpture adorns Daley Plaza in Chicago. (Source: JeremyA)

Both of these types of public art seem fairly meaningless to me. Maybe its because I'm a millennial and this all happened before my time, but here's how I see it: The historic sculptures are easily ignored and forgotten, especially as time moves farther and farther away from these figures. (In an open Slack chat with other Strong Towns members on this subject, most people seemed to agree with me that the guy-on-a-horse statues don't add much to our communities.) Meanwhile, the percent for art sculptures seem like a completely band-aid solution. You're inserting a big disruptive building into a neighborhood? It's ok as long as you placate residents with a little public art. How about a meaningless, over-sized statue? Ok, good. You've checked the box.

However, in his public art timeline, Zitcer also shared what he sees as the new era of "Public Art 3.0" which is much more about community engagement, interactivity, and performance, and less about historic remembrance or impenetrable, large-scale sculptures. That holds promise and it's something we tried to showcase this week on our site.

An interactive art piece at the Northern Spark festival in St. Paul, 2013. (Source: Northern Spark) 

We showed how art can be interactive, playful, and low-cost, and how it spans into creative districts, interdisciplinary spaces, and unique residency programs, not just sculptures and murals. (And when we did talk about murals, it was some pretty fabulous, transformative ones by Pasqualina Azzarello that are far different from your typical paint on a blank wall).

What's clear to me is that public art cannot be used to cover up failures in urban design. A neglected, unproductive street with a sculpture on the corner, is still a neglected, unproductive street. On the other hand, a neighborhood full of people who care, who are taking small steps to make the streets better every day? Well, that neighborhood could benefit tremendously from a dose of public art. It doesn't take a million dollar grant or a famous artist. It just takes some strong citizens with creative vision who want something better for their place.

If I learned anything this week from seeing so much conversation on the topic of public art and its value for our towns, it's that public art can be successful a myriad of ways, as long as it is intentionally planned and community-driven.

(Top photo source: Simon Speed)

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