How Cities and Communities Can Develop a Criteria for Successful Public Art

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Cloud Gate in Chicago — better known by many as “the Bean” — creates an interactive photographic experience, making it one of the most popular public sculptures in the United States. Image: Flickr User: Giuseppe Milo

We often think of monuments in generic terms — a spire, perhaps, or a bust of a public figure with an inscription. Sculptures like these are vital and important in the effort to preserve our cultural memory, but they also can easily be passed up by the average pedestrian not interested in art history. So what makes for a successful, contemporary public sculpture? The value of a public work of art is subjective, so it can be difficult for cities and arts organizations to develop concrete criteria for commissioning public works.

The success of a public art piece will always hinge on the strength of the artist’s vision and the effective execution of the piece, but there are traits across art history and geopolitical lines that make for consistently successful works of public art. Chicago’s “the Bean,” as well as Chris Burden’s light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) are two stand-out examples of public artworks that use theatricality and photography to engage the public for a memorable experience. Even on a smaller scale, cities and communities can borrow lessons from these public art installations when considering commissioning a piece of art for their home town.

The Magic of the Bean — Why It’s So Thrilling to See Yourself in Cloud Gate

As a newly-settled resident in Chicagoland, I have to admit that the Bean has played a not-insignificant role in my romance with Chicago. It piqued my interest the first time I was in town, and as I snapped a photo of myself refracted in its wondrous curves, I couldn’t help but think alright, this city’s got something going on. When I came back a year later to move into my apartment, I immediately revisited the Bean and was hit with the same wave of sheer delight — the deal was done.

That sense of the personal is what gives the Bean its unique allure — the Bean is my Bean when I’m in it, the Bean is me-in-Chicago. It welcomes you into a space larger than yourself while intimately capturing your figure. And isn’t that the point of public sculpture — to invite the individual into a collective wonder at our human achievements?

LACMA’s light installation by Chris Burden has become a beloved public sculpture and a popular destination for photographs. Image: Flickr User Michael
LACMA’s light installation by Chris Burden has become a beloved public sculpture and a popular destination for photographs. Image: Flickr User Michael

The Importance of Theatricality in Public Art

A touch of theatrical flair can turn a work of public art into an immersive experience. Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation on the steps of LACMA intrigues visitors with a flair of mystery and showmanship. At night, the lights truly illuminate the steps of the museum into a ghostly, stage-like setting, where the lamps of past and future co-mingle in a surreal environment that tourists flock to like moths.

Today, the act of seeing something is hardly complete without documenting it on Instagram so your friends can see you seeing it. That means that a monument exists as much (or more) through personal photography as it does in physical space. Public art that can capitalize on its own photographability is more likely to become a cultural asset in your city and attract a consistent stream of visitors. Like it or not, the selfie is a way of making public space personal. And like the surface of the Bean, the selfie is the intersection of the personal and the public — it’s a way to exercise collective ownership over public space and public art.

How to Make Your Town’s Public Art a Beacon, Not a Stump

Where public art fails, it becomes what I like to call a “stump.” When you’re walking through your neighborhood and you pass an old tree stump, you may jump up on it for a second as you walk by, or notice it without really thinking about why it’s there. It becomes this non-descript relic, something you may vaguely consider as you pass by but don’t necessarily feel connected to. When cities commission generic and unapproachable public works, the public reacts to it much like a stump.

In contrast, truly great public art becomes a beacon for your city. Even if your city or town cannot endeavor public art on the scale of the Bean or Urban Lights, a public art installation can be your vision of your community manifested in material, an affirmation of the possibilities in a place. For long-time natives and new resident alike, it says — this is your town and you will find what you seek here. By taking lessons from these successful public works and incorporating a touch of interactive theatricality into their public space, cities can avoid building “stumps.” When it comes to public art, people want to feel that they belong and that they’re part of a larger picture — it’s what being a community is all about.

The McLeods are Australian bronze sculptors whose work brings a whimsical and theatrical flair to figurative sculpture and public artwork. If you’re interested in commissioning a piece, feel free to contact us today to talk over the possibilities.

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