If you were put in charge of spending a set amount of money that could only be used for art in a public space, what would you want the art to do? Create beauty? Controversy? Commemorate something or someone? Interpret, teach, or inspire curiosity about what goes on there? Make people laugh, sigh, ask questions?
Large-scale art in public places has been funded by the public throughout history. It's only recently (read: democratic societies) that the public has had any say in the art for which they've paid. Emperors, queens, pharaohs, popes and dictators derived their wealth through "divine right", taxes, and tithes from the public; in this sense, Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling and the Palace at Versailles were publicly funded. It's logical that, in a democracy -- whose power rests in the people -- the people must be involved in the public art process.
Public art often raises controversy -- and that's healthy, says Erika Doss in Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities. Passionate public debate is pure civic engagement -- citizens articulating what their community is, and what the art should express about them. The artist, argues Doss, facilitates the community's civic identity; such debates are "essential in order to sustain democratic public participation."
During the Depression, several federal programs were established providing funding for art in public buildings. Colorado Springs' Broadmoor Art Academy was a nationally significant art school at the time; many of the artists whose murals still grace post offices and other federal buildings throughout America studied here. These programs tended to favor realistic styles: optimistic art honoring ordinary working people might, it was hoped, help lift the despairing, angry spirits of the jobless Depression. And some influential artist/administrators, rebelling against European abstract styles, wanted "distinctly American art -- rooted in American history, culture and landscape."
Somehow, Colorado Springs' downtown post office murals ended up in Denver, but the Manitou post office mural is still there. Boardman Robinson, Broadmoor Art Academy and Fine Arts Center art school director during that period, guided many of his students through the public mural process; Robinson himself painted murals for Englewood's post office and for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. (His privately commissioned Pittsburgh murals, "History of Commerce," now hang in Colorado College's Gaylord Hall.)
Colorado's Art in Public Places program was established in 1977, a statute that sets aside one percent of capital construction costs of eligible state projects for the acquisition of artwork "to create a more humane environment of distinction, enjoyment and pride" for Colorado citizens. Artwork is located in publicly-accessible places -- in state armories, state patrol and office buildings, and college campuses. Each project's jurying committee includes representatives from the client institution and the community, an artist, the architect, the Colorado Council on the Arts, and a state senator and representative.
I've just been through the process of applying for several Colorado public art commissions. Calls-for-entry are sent out to those who are on the state artists' register. You send in slides of previous work and sometimes a paragraph describing your ideas. Your rejection letter tells you how many artists applied and the names of the two finalists. If you are a finalist, though, you must develop a detailed proposal: You visit the site, possibly way across the state, to get a sense of scale, light, existing materials, functions, limitations, surroundings; you talk with people who use the building, learning what they want from the artwork. You research the subject: an intelligent artistic evocation of, say, mining technology (Colorado School of Mines) or biohazards (Lowry Lab) requires knowing something about it. You make drawings or scale models of your ideas, prepare samples of the actual materials you'll use, develop a budget and timeline, and write a detailed description of what you propose to create. Then you present all this before the project committee, answering questions and responding to their concerns. It's great to see non-artists on the committee (who, if given a choice, might prefer to use the art money elsewhere) become intrigued, excited and enthusiastic about what the art will do for them.
A "good fit" results from the process: one artist's style or approach works best for one site, another's is better for a different project. According to the Colorado Council on the Arts, "client agencies report that artwork has a positive impact on morale, encourages employee creative problem-solving, helps create a sense of respect and pride, stimulates the donation of funds, assists recruitment efforts on college campuses, and contributes to student learning." Nationwide, percent-for-art ordinances are embraced not only at the state but also at the city level: from Philadelphia to Seattle, Miami to Denver, municipalities experience the economic, tourism, civic identity, and quality-of-life benefits of public art.
Like other publicly funded professionals (policemen, highway engineers, public buildings' architects), the artist producing public art uses his or her professional training, skills, judgement and vision in service to community. Having an investment in the beauty and expression of its public environment, the public solidifies its own identify, needs and heart. Art isn't passive -- especially public art.
So, what would you want public art to do for you?