Places With Potentially Unwelcome Intrusions

Arts and culture is one of the Sacred Pillars of Placemaking (along with walkability and coffee shops). The arts make our communities more desirable places to live or visit. From street art to opera, communities are trying to be more relevant by making the arts available (accessible is another discussion). Public art is a brick in this Sacred Pillar.

But as always there is the ancient debate over what constitutes art, with the contemporary twist of where it belongs. Over the summer, there was a debate in the New York Times over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” And so today we ponder: does art belong in public places?

Public art can start a conversation (or a debate), make a boring spot more interesting and appealing, add color and character, contribute to a neighborhood’s identity, and enhance the experience of being in a park or other public space. It can complement a city’s identity – think ArtPrize, the big jellybean at Millennium Park in Chicago, Philadelphia’s LOVE sculpture.

Public art may be on private property, but visible to the public, or it may be at public spaces like parks, downtowns, or city offices. When art is on private property (at an office building, for example), people don’t seem to get too cranky. It’s when public funds and parks are used for art, or when someone is inconvenienced by it, or when it doesn’t meet their definition of “art” that their britches get in a bunch.

Years ago, there was a wonderful installation called The Gates in Central Park (photos below) by Christo and Jeanne Claude (first name only artists). A documentary was made about the project because it took from 1979 to 2005 to secure approval from the city for the temporary installation. And look how cool it is!

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

There is a distinction between temporary public art (like The Gates and some of the other examples in the Links section below) and permanent installations. Temporary art is here and gone. Because it’s not going to be around forever, it’s more of an event, a destination. It shouldn’t take 26 years to get a permit for an art project that’s only up for a few weeks.

I am particularly a fan of temporary public art, for many reasons. Why not change it up? Temporary works can be more daring (permanent public pieces are frequently so safe or even cloying they could be on the wall of a Holiday Inn). Community members see a wider variety of art. Permanent pieces become invisible and irrelevant after a time (or worse; lots of Confederate war memorials are coming down since the shootings in Charleston in June).  When a permanent work becomes dated, it’s a lot harder to make it go away than one you only have for a month or two. They are less maintenance.

Earlier I referenced the New York Times debate over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” Obviously, my answer is welcome cultural amenity. If you read the Times piece, you’ll find a couple of commenters who are grumpy because their access to Central Park was limited during installation of The Gates, or one who thinks we should stick to memorials, fountains, and statutes (which are not public art because…??). This is one reason I like temporary works. You don’t like it, wait a month and it’ll be gone.

Some public art is crap, but I’d rather have crap that makes people look and think – make a judgment – than nothing at all. Museums are frequently built to intimidate people, or the art itself is intimidating, or people don’t think they’ll get it. The more art we can put into a comfortable setting, and the more fun it is, the less intimidating art is over time. Something like The Gates or Toledo’s red ball (below) is fun, interactive, and attracts people to a location. Not many people worry that they don’t “get” the big red ball. There will always be dissent. And because we live in a democracy, we all get to have an opinion, say it loud and proud, and either take action or move on.


Toledo hosted a giant red ball this past summer. The ball moved all around the city over a couple of weeks as part of a summer-long Playtime exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. People – especially adults – were invited to interact with playful and whimsical art.  Placemaking? Heck yeah. If you want to attract people to a place and make them smile, put a giant red ball there.

Red Ball, Toledo

Red Ball, Toledo

The installation below – the house with roots hanging from a crane – is a riff on the construction site. Intended to abate the eyesore that comes with construction, the roots suggest that the house was “violently yanked from the land” for the construction project.

Although I gave opera a shout out in the first paragraph, when I speak of public art in this email, I’m referring primarily to visual art. Music is certainly a form of public art / culture. One of my very favorite public arts initiatives was Random Acts of Culture, funded by the Knight Foundation, and other examples of flash mob arts. This one is my favorite. There are lots more on YouTube.

Taxi drivers in Mumbai are decorating their cabs with some fabulous art.

This two-minute video about an Indianapolis art center ties arts (including visual and music), neighborhood revitalization, economic development, and placemaking together.

Street art is getting more recognition as a legitimate art form. While insiders are giving it art world credibility, street art remains outside curators’ control.  The artists control the process from creation to exhibit. It’s not made for longevity – it is temporary by design. Viewers have to decide whether they like it without the blessing of an art bureaucracy. The art is seen in context. All of which I like. Here is an article about one community that embraces its street art, and has made it part of the city’s identity.

As always, you can sign up at to receive posts by email (signup is at the bottom of each page). Thanks for reading, and a happy and peaceful new year!