Is Public Art Really for Everybody?

In Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently, Hilde Hein begins her introduction with a memory of Jean-Claude and Christo’s Gates project, a set of orange ‘gates’ placed along pathways in Central Park.  She remembers the gates fondly, speaking of them as “an unexpected antidote to September 11, 2001” (which is a pretty bold claim) and arguing that “there is no doubt that [the work] is public” (page 1).  Is it really though? Is a work of art really public just because it is physically accessible to average people?

Gates installed in Central Park

I have a different memory of the gates. When I visited as a high school senior living in Queens I remember wondering “who cares about these gates?” and “what do these gates have to do with anything?” I left pretty quickly and went to The Met, where I could find artworks that I could actually understand. The gates, though physically accessible to New Yorkers who walked the paths of Central Park, were nonetheless inaccessible to many residents who saw the project as esoteric and lacking in relevance.

Herein lies a problem with much of Public Art. Hein claims that Public Art has, “descended from the pedestal that separates art from the public” but in reality, it has served to move “the pedestal” from inside the Museum outside to the park or the plaza (page 17).  Projects such as Gates and Untitled (Lamp/Bear), which is currently on view at Brown, reflect the tastes of the art insiders and elites rather than those of publics who are served. Is an artwork “for the public” if members of the public have no voice?

Untitled (Lamp/Bear) by Urs Fischer

To me, murals are more successful and meaningful works of public art because they often reflect the input and the interests of community members, something which is lacking in many works of public sculpture.  Murals are often commissioned by community groups and local business owners and are sometimes created by children and community members.

A man sits in front of a mural depicting Hip-Hop artist Ol’ Dirty Bastard

How can we ensure that works of Public Art truly public?




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