Notes from a panel on public art
Last week, I participated in a webinar called “Public Art: The Way Forward.” It was hosted by the Armory Show and moderated by the Armory Show Executive Director Nicole Berry. The guests were Jean Cooney from Times Square Arts, Michelle Woo from For Freedoms, and two artists in Messages for the City—Nekisha Durrett and myself.
Here are some of my recent thoughts about sentences on public art—some things I said during the panel, and things I wanted to say but didn’t fit in.
On the purpose of public art, and public art during COVID and the current racial justice movement
It’s interesting to reflect on public art in this moment, as monuments to white supremacists and colonialists are being toppled. Some people think those monuments represent history; I think they represent re-writing history with certain people as victors.
Public art is cross-sector. It is where visual form, storytelling, and civic dialogue intersect. Public art is a way we, as a society, discuss what we value and who we are. It asks us to think about participation, engagement, and representation.
I like to think about artwork as more than the object and the artist’s intent. People leaving a mark or toppling a statue is also part of the life of an artwork. So are people discussing what statues mean, what should replace it, and whose stories should be represented.
Truly public art is democratic. The purpose of democratic public art is to serve the public with representations, stories, and voices that reflect them.
In contrast with historic bronze statues, there’s the murals on boarded up storefronts in downtown Oakland, CA, which have sprung up in the people’s uprising for justice for Black lives. There, public art is the voice of the people, where you see emotions like anger and grief, calls for action, and—what artists can do best—transformative visions of society.
For artists, public art is an opportunity to bypass art-world gate keepers and connect with more democratic and diverse audiences.
About freedom of expression in public art
[In response to: “Do you feel more of a responsibility to have a message in public art? Is there less freedom of expression?”]
I don’t feel more responsibility to have a certain message, ideally. I do feel more responsibility to be ethical and diligent working in partnership with a community.
There is less freedom of expression in public art, but that’s OK, because that’s what studio practice is for. It’s not always about you. I value creative freedom and artistic autonomy as an artist. But that might be in the same way that someone else may value liberty above all and think it’s a good idea not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic. There’s more to life than doing whatever you want whenever you want.
Public art can be complicated and require compromises. But shouldn’t just be a sacrifice—there is a tradeoff. There are gifts that you can’t gain alone, which come from being in relationship with others, and those relationships are nurtured by listening, mutuality, understanding, and sharing.
There is a phrase that comes up a lot in different things I think about, as well as in current events, and in Messages for the City. I come across it in studying psychology and how people find purpose or meaning. I hear in when people talk about belonging. It’s why people participate in movements for social justice, and why they sign up to be public servants, and run towards danger, like the FDNY paramedics, rather than running away. It’s the idea of “becoming part of something bigger than yourself.” Public art is a way that artists make art that is bigger than their individual studio practice (and often, but not always, utilizing larger capacities and platforms).
About how the art community can promote public art and public artists
Every art opportunity is an opportunity for more equity, diversity, and inclusion.
I have to thank For Freedoms and Times Square Arts, because the artists and designers included in Messages for the City include legends whose work I’ve admired for years and sometimes over a decade. So I’m very grateful to be included. I also say this as someone who’s mostly experienced The Armory Show from the perspective of an art handler, installing art at the fair.
I think there are a lot of amazing public art organizations in NYC. I think sometimes they are comfortable following the lead of major galleries and museums. It would be nice to see them take more risks with artists—especially women, Black, indigenous and POC, queer, trans, and disabled artists—whose work is not validated by the market.
I think if institutions are serious about equity, the have to:
- Pay artists.
- Don’t ask artists to work for free or on spec.
- Change the culture that undervalues artist’s labor, where artists compete against each other by submitting budgets where everybody else gets paid for materials and labor, but artists get paid for only a portion of their studio time and even less of their admin time.
- Think about the resources, support, and mentorship it offers to artists—that translation and accessibility are not afterthoughts.
- Have strong, genuine relationships with communities, and connect artists with those communities with enough time, outreach support, and accountability.
Since public art is inherently cross-sector, it encompasses social practice, community art, crafts, outsider art, etc. There’s so much attention, resources, scholarship, documentation, archiving, support, and platforms in the art world, there’s no reason a disproportionate amount should go to the top 5% of artists being collected by the top 1% of people in the art world.
Note: The webinar had many great questions asked in the Q&A function. Unfortunately we were only able to answer a few questions. I asked the moderator if it’s possible to capture the questions, and she sent a spreadsheet with emails, so I emailed my answers to some of the questions. It was nice to learn that this is an option.
Huge thanks to everyone who attended the panel, the Armory, For Freedoms, and TSQ Arts, and the fellow panelists. I felt honored to be part of such a lively and timely discussion.