Pay Attention to Public Art

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Public art is often in the news – and it’s not surprising. With some cities looking for ways to publicize their unique appeal and brighten up public spaces in difficult times, and others looking for things to sell to help make up for budget cuts, there are good reasons to both install and sell public art. One way and another, it’s a regular feature of our lives – so much so, in fact, that it can be easy to ignore. Yet there are benefits you can gain from paying attention to public art; so don’t just walk on by.

Angela DiBello November 2013
Agora Gallery Director Angela Di Bello visited Banksy’s temporary exhibition space on West 24th Street – November 2013

Public art is often seen as relatively innocuous, something attractive that helps an area to look smarter and more up-to-date, to decorate public space. Yet there have been plenty of examples that indicate that this is not the case.

From the lengthy controversy surrounding Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum to the range of opinions regarding the ‘Fourth Plinth Project’ in London’s Trafalgar Square, to the rage surrounding reports that sculpture by famous artists such as Henry Moore had been stolen for the metal, to the passionate discussions that arise when it is suggested that a piece be removed from its place, it’s clear that whatever else it might be, public art can touch people in meaningful ways.

Even when there’s no question of lively debate, as arises in these cases, public art is still generally far from dull. As much thought and effort goes into these works as into any other work of art – and, because the pieces are generally site-specific, they often convey a message about the place they’re in or illuminate an aspect of the area that usually goes unnoticed.

They can also draw attention to an issue that may be connected to their location – as with many of the works by Banksy, who is famous for his ability to convey a message and criticize societal problems all through his eye-catching images.

Agora Gallery is near the High Line, the old elevated railway of New York which has been converted into a carefully crafted and constructed public space which seems like a cross between a park and an avenue. The feel of the railway has not been entirely lost, with sleepers and other reminders of what used to be there providing an appealing counterpoint to the plants and walkways that make the High Line feel green and alive.

Among its other attractions, the High Line has regularly changing installations of public art, from a spooky ghost room that intrigued visitors one Halloween, to vocal messages that surprised people getting a drink of water from a public fountain, or using the elevators, and much more.

Getting out to the High Line is a favorite lunchtime activity of our gallery staff, and visitors to the gallery often enthuse about Chelsea’s elevated ‘park’. There’s no doubt that the artwork adds something special to the experience – and often leave visitors with a memory that is all the stronger because it happened there, where they were open to new impressions and the energy of Chelsea and New York.

Yet it’s also true that those who go along the High Line more regularly are less likely to be alive to its art. Even if the first day or week or a new installation was exciting, after a week or two it ceases to stand out.

High Line New York
Catherine Manchester Visited the High Line in New York

The reason that people often simply walk by public art is obvious – after all, we’ve all done it. Public art is, by definition, part of the public space. That means that very often, when we come into contact with it, it’s en route to somewhere else, merely a part of the scenery as we hurry from one place to another.

It’s not like going to a museum or gallery, where you’re in an environment that is specifically arranged to encourage you to take a good look at the art that’s there. You’re out in the world, absorbed in everyday affairs, not trying to be aware of what’s around you more than is necessary to navigate the streets safely. There are even times when you’re specifically trying not to be too ‘turned on’ to your environment – in case a stranger starts talking to you!

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In addition, although it’s likely that there’s plenty of public art in your own town or city, it’s probable that you don’t even notice it anymore, because you’re so used to seeing it that it has become part of the background, much like the streetlights or fire hydrants.

You probably pay even less attention to it than to plants or public benches – after all, at least you can sit down on a bench, and the flowers and trees you pass by change with the seasons, reminding you of the coming of spring, the lushness of summer, or the bright colors of fall.

There are many stories of visitors to a town commenting on some piece of public art that has struck them and asking their hosts for more information about it – and meeting with blank surprise and puzzlement from people who have lived there all their lives and become so used to the sight that they no longer really recognize its existence!

Yet in many ways, this is a great shame. Imagine if you were able to walk through one of the rooms of an art gallery or museum on the way to work, or if you could see the latest creation of a famous artist as you went to meet a friend for coffee. You’d think it was a great privilege. Yet that’s just what you can do with public art – it’s there, just waiting to be noticed and appreciated.

With this shift in perspective, you can start to add a whole new level of awareness to the times when you are out and about. Who knows what there might be out there to see – or what train of thought it might start off for you, as an artist? Artists are often sensitive to place, when they’re paying attention to it.

Public art presents a challenge, in a sense, because it offers a source of interest and inspiration but exists in a place where you’re less likely to be paying attention to it. Readers of Agora Gallery’s fine art magazine ARTisSpectrum were encouraged people to be more attentive to public art, pointing to just a small selection of the memorable works that can be seen around New York City.

public art
Take an Interest In Public Art

The benefits of being more aware are obvious. To start with, while you’re on the look out for art, you might also become more attuned to the other things around you – meaning that you have more sights, sounds and scents that can feed into your art, enriching it and your memories.

As well, taking time to appreciate the sculptures or installations around you will encourage you to use your critical and analytic facilities in a way that might be more commonly associated with a museum visit. Why is this curve here? Why was joint placed like that? Why were these colors used?

This kind of exercise is valuable for developing your critical faculties generally – something that will be of use in evaluating both your own art and other people’s. You’ll also continue to train your eye to note both the details and the wholeness of what you’re seeing. And you’ll get something that you will rarely be able to experience in a museum – because you can consider why this piece was designed for this place, and why this place seemed to call out for something like what you see.

Inevitably, you won’t like everything you see. Why should public art be any different from other kinds of art? But a negative reaction is interesting to. Why don’t you like it? What is it about the sculpture that jars with you? What can you learn about your own preferences and creative ideas from the fact that you didn’t like what you saw? And, of course – how would you have done it? What kind of creation do you think would have been most suitable here?

You might not have any interest in creating public art yourself – it presents its own challenges, which do not appeal to every artist. You may not like the thought of being confined to site-specific work, or resent the necessity to consider practical elements such as rust or erosion.

You may not be comfortable with the idea of creating something that should mean something to everyone, rather than only having to appeal to those who are attracted by your work. But even if it has no practical impact, thinking about what you would have created for a particular space is a worthwhile thought experiment.

It will help you to broaden your conception of your work, and the space or spaces that it could suit. Broadening your mind – and your understanding of your creative process – in this way can only help as you continue your search for inspiration and the elusive ‘perfect’ execution.

There are hundreds of hidden gems holding varying stories and years of history just waiting to be discovered.
Find out where the public art is in your area, and go have an adventure. Really look at it – at different times of the year and the day, in different lights, and see how it changes and ages. Start being aware of your surroundings, and the art that is a part of them. Become aware of what’s out there, enjoy it, and be inspired.

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