How We Respond To Public Art

Posted filed under Discussions, Public Art.


In the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Public Art Review, Jack Becker writes, “There is a dearth of research efforts focusing on public art and its impact. The evidence is mostly anecdotal. Some attempts have focused specifically on economic impact, but this doesn’t tell the whole story, or even the most important stories.”

Katherine Gressel continues the thought at Createquity : “Becker’s statement gets at some of the main challenges in measuring the “impact” of a work of public art—a task which more often than not provokes grumbling from public art administrators. When asked how they know their work is successful, most organizations and artists that create art in the public realm are quick to cite things like people’s positive comments, or the fact that the artwork doesn’t get covered with graffiti or cause controversy.

We are much less likely to hear about systematic data gathered over a long time period—largely due to the seemingly complex, time-consuming, or futile nature of such a task. Unlike museums or performance spaces, public art traditionally doesn’t sell tickets, or attract “audiences” who can easily be counted, surveyed, or educated. A public artwork’s role in economic revitalization is difficult to separate from that of its overall surroundings. And as Becker suggests, economic indicators of success may leave out important factors like the intrinsic benefits of experiencing art in one’s everyday life.

However, public art administrators generally agree that some type of evaluation is key in not only making a case for support from funders, but in building a successful program. In the words of Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG) executive director Jon Pounds, evaluations can at the very least “help artists strengthen their skills…and address any problems that come up in programming.” Is there a reliable framework that can be the basis of all good public art evaluation? And what are some simple yet effective evaluation methods that most organizations can implement?


Visitors crowd Chriso and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” (2005) in Central Park. Photo by Eric Carvin.

This article will explore some of the main challenges with public art evaluation, and then provide an overview of what has been done in this area so far with varying degrees of success. It builds upon my 2007 Columbia University Teachers College Arts Administration thesis, And Then What…? Measuring the Audience Impact of Community-Based Public Art. That study specifically dealt with the issue of measuring audience response to permanent community-based public art, and included interviews with a wide range of public artists and administrators.

This article will discuss evaluation more broadly—moving beyond audience response—and incorporate more recent interviews with leaders in the public art field. My goal was not to generate quantitative data on what people are doing in the field as a whole with evaluation (according to Liesel Fenner, director of Americans for the Arts’s Public Art Network, such data is not yet available, though it is a goal). Instead, I have reviewed recent literature on public art assessment, and interviewed a range of different types of organizations, from government-run “percent for art” and transit programs to grassroots community-based art organizations in New York City (where I am based) and other parts of the United States. I sought to find out whether evaluation is considered important, how much time is devoted to it, and the details of particularly innovative efforts.”

Continue reading at Createquity