Today we start a series of articles regarding the legal and social aspects of public art (street art, art located in public spaces, commissioned art, etc.).

Maria Boicova-Wynants,

Mediator, Business Writer, Trademark and Patent Attorney

Place. Space. Art. 

Recently a phrase of Chinese-US geographer Yi-Fu Tuan out of his book “Space and Place” caught my attention. He writes: “place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other”. In the context of art that reminded me of all the different terms used for artistic objects located outside the traditional gallery or museum location. Art in public space, art in public places, art in open spaces, the art of the city, art in the public domain and many more iterations of the term used for essentially the same phenomenon. In this article I would like to start sketching the field, identifying what various facets of art we might be referring to when different public stakeholders are involved, which forms can public art take, what are its main features, and how can it come to life. 

To begin with the definition of Prof. Malcolm Miles, public art refers to “the making, management and mediation of art outside its conventional location in museums and galleries” (Miles, M. “Art, Space, and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures”, 1997, p.2). Prof. Miles, however, largely focused on art located in city centers, but the concept of public space likewise includes places such as public hospitals, libraries, schools, universities, and even public transportation. All these places belong to the public sphere and all of them have public as the main stakeholder. Other stakeholders include artists, curators, administrative services, governments, funds, various companies, and organizations. In other words, public art concerns many public parties. As a concluding remark about “place vs. space”, it is generally agreed that “space” is more abstract and impersonal, while “place” has a meaning. Public art, in its turn, can (and, in fact, should) become a vehicle of turning public space into a public place.

Public art can take various forms. Historically, every city erected monuments and memorials to praise or commemorate certain people or events. Another obvious example is architecture, on many counts decorated with specific architectural elements, sculptures, and frescoes. Street art is yet another form of public art. Sometimes street art is commissioned, other times illegally created, however, it remains a form of engagement between the artist, the public and the community at large. Some communities even have policies, especially around street art. For example, the borough of Hackney (London) has “The Hackney Council Graffiti Policy”, which stresses that graffiti is regarded as street art and should not be removed unless the work caused public complaints. Finally, to note that public art is not limited to fixed forms, because street theatre, dance, happenings and other types of performance art can likewise qualify as public art. 

So what are the main traits of art that make us call it public? The unique quality of public art is in the fact that it must be site-specific. In other words, there should be some sort of a reference or connection with a particular space. This also distinguishes public art from just art exhibited in public. Public art by its definition is not meant to exist in a gallery space, nor does it belong in a museum. As mentioned already, public art essentially turns public space into a public place, it gives or highlights the meaning of it, and it engages in dialogue both with the public and with the location. Once again, ideally such a dialogue should only be possible in particular conditions of the particular location. Public art enables to see the space differently. Poetically speaking, public art breathes in the soul into space, where it belongs and awakens the place within. 

Proceeding to the more practical terms, how does public art come into being? Most of the time, public art is commissioned. There are budgets foreseen and funds available. For example, in many European countries (as well as in South Africa, Senegal, Australia, and several other countries) there are “percent for art” programs. Usually, such programs call for setting aside 1% of the budget for all new publicly-funded buildings to be used for artworks. Other sources of financing include: (1) particular regional programs, (2) public-private partnerships for projects (e.g. in Torino), as well as (3) private financing. The private financing is frequently available from banks and financial institutions but is definitely not limited to them. Also, various private funds are supporting public art initiatives. 

Nevertheless, having an artist willing to create public art and having funds for its realization is not enough. Public space is by definition public, so it should be up to the public to decide on the acceptability of this or that public art. And the public does decide. The frequently cited example of a public decision against public art was the taking down of Richard Serra’s avant-garde Tilted Arc designed for Federal Plaza in Manhattan. It was 36,5 meters long curving wall out of corten steel (a red, rusted-looking type of steel). The placement of the arc in the middle of the plaza was planned by the artist to trigger reflection on the place and on the movement across it. The public disagreed. Thus, after hundreds of complaints to the Regional administration of New York City and some subsequent deliberations, the sculpture was dismantled. Notable is that during the discussion the majority of those participating in it were actually advocating the preservation of the sculpture. Nonetheless, the minority’s disapproval was enough. On the contrary, the Bouquet of Tulips by Jeff Koons recently installed in Paris also provoked quite some opposition and yet, it is currently still standing next to the Grand Palais. Another classic historic example of the public disapproval of public art is the Eiffel Tower. The symbol of Paris after its construction was likewise met with ferocious opposition and was initially planned to be dismantled after the World Expo… This brings me to another important public art’s feature to mention, namely the duration of its existence. There are temporary public artworks and permanent ones. Different duration requires different types of authorizations and, logically, would need to involve different levels of consideration and public discussion. In practice, however, this is very much community-dependent. 


To conclude, public art is meant to enliven the space, turn into the place and engage with the public, who in the end should also be the ultimate beneficiary for the artwork. A community without art loses one of the great opportunities to connect, to engage in discussion and in a way to build its own identity. However, there are, of course, a lot of challenges and a lot of questions, related to something as basic as finding the right idea for the right space, but also to striking the balance of rights for all the parties involved. There are also different copyright issues at stake and many more things to consider around the creation, existence, and use of public art. In the subsequent articles I will come back to them in more detail.


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