When thinking of public art, most people can visualize an iconic piece of art or place that had an immediate impact on them. The Cloud Gate also known as The Bean in Chicago, Los Angeles’ hundreds of towering street posts aptly titled Urban Light, the Charging Bull guarding the streets of the Financial District in New York City, all have become symbols of the communities where they reside. From these large-scale examples to a small mural on the exterior of a local restaurant, public art has become synonymous with community identity.
To this end, municipalities of all sizes are beginning to incorporate public art into their communities, transforming unassuming spaces into vibrant places that cultivate social cohesion, celebrate local history, and infuse the built environment with warmth. With no financial barrier to enjoying public art, these spaces are creating an equitable experience that every member of a community can enjoy.
Data strongly indicates that cities with public art have a more active and dynamic cultural scene, and thus are more attractive to individuals and businesses. In 2018, Americans for the Arts released a study that compiled public attitudes and opinions towards public art, finding that 70% of those polled indicated that “arts improve the image and identity” of their community. Additionally, 52% of millennials indicated that the richness of community art is a deciding factor when deciding where they will move for a job.
My experiences as a former municipal planner, recovering artist, and consumer of arts has mirrored these findings. Cities gain both economic and cultural value through public art, and its inclusion is paramount to the success of current and future planning endeavors. While this offers municipalities an exciting opportunity to strengthen their community and increase its vitality, it does not come without unique challenges.
The first challenge that any public art program will face is assuring the equitable distribution of these installations. It is common practice to marry public art with the locations of capital improvement projects. Though logical, this approach can leave historic and low-income areas devoid of art, and by extension, its benefits.
This is compounded by another related challenge. When embarking on these projects, it is imperative that the portfolio of artwork truly reflects the full spectrum of identities of an area, not just those with the means and access to influence decision-making. Without understanding, guidance, and thoughtful planning, teams run the risk of unintentionally excluding marginalized populations. Without fingerprints of the entire community on the canvas, the installed art cannot offer its full benefit.
A robust community engagement effort in conjunction with community development undertaking can help combat these challenges. This engagement needs to be nuanced, empathetic, and informed by experience with similar populations. The success of these projects can often be directly correlated with their engagement team and its approach.
While local leadership often has their fingers on the pulse of the community they serve, they can lack the tools and experience to mount a community engagement campaign of the necessary scope and scale to achieve their desired results. To remedy this, municipalities often forge a relationship with an experienced planning firm for guidance and partnership on project implementation.
Partnering with the right firm can have innumerable benefits. The consultants can offer local leadership insight into alternative funding mechanisms and equitable art distribution strategies. For example, implementing mobile collection or loan programs can help provide public art in areas without major capital projects. Additionally, the team can help leadership assess existing community engagement efforts, offer suggestions for improved breadth and depth of responses, and provide a plan to address any gaps in the diversity or inclusiveness of the proposed installation. Of all the aspects of plan development, community engagement activities have the greatest power to influence the outcome of a project.
Pond’s PLACE (Planning, Landscape Architecture, & Civil Engineering) team has a history of providing clients with award-winning, well-received plans. When evaluating our success, one of the key factors is our focus on strategically developing communities while honoring their unique histories and cultures. Our robust community engagement approach has shown itself to create citizen buy-in before the first brick of a new development is ever laid. While our approach covers a multitude of strategies to maintain a sense of “home” in rapidly growing areas, one of the most consistently effective is the incorporation of public art.
Recently, our team partnered with the City of Atlanta Public Works on their Art Sculptures Placement Program. The program’s mission states that “art enhances the quality of life for our citizens by encouraging a heightened sense of place, increasing our community’s prestige, and enlivening the visual quality of Atlanta’s built environment. The program promotes a public initiative of outreach and education while working to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.” To honor this mission, Pond is assisting the City with installing eight pieces from internationally renowned artists in six different parks and public plazas. Pond developed conceptual designs for each of the sites and worked with each artist, stakeholders, and multiple City departments for the refinement of each design. Four of these installations are detailed below:
Artist: Ugo Rondinone | The Foolish
Freedom Park on the hillside between Freedom Park Trail and E John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE near the Carter Center is the location of a reinforced concrete foundation for a 14-foot-tall rock sculpture made of bluestone in the shape of a human. The concrete platform includes two inground light fixtures pointing up to the sculpture.
Artist: Ryan Gander | Things Just Happen to Him
At the intersection of Peachtree Street NE and Ralph McGill is Mayor’s #1 Park, the proposed site for an art installation by Ryan Ganer. The park currently includes a grove of beech trees with a brick cut-through path. The proposed site includes the addition of a concrete plaza with granite curbing, benches, and plantings. Within the plaza will be three stainless-steel sculptures representing chess pieces, approximately 11 feet tall, part of a set that can be found at sites around the world.
Artist: Jaume Plensa | Self Portrait III
The intersection of North Highland Avenue NE and John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE off the Freedom Park Trail is the location for this stainless-steel globe sculpture. Three wide paths lead to the sculpture, measuring 122 x 129 x 229 inches, which sits upon a circular pad large enough to expose the intricate shadows it cast throughout the day. Viewing benches with spaces for strollers and wheelchair access surround the sculpture. Lighting bollards line the walkway, and in-ground lighting surrounds the sculpture.
Artist: Radcliffe Bailey | Name TBD
Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, at a clearing between Cascade Road and the NE corner of the asphalt parking lot, is the future location for this sculpture. The piece is constructed of concrete slabs and cut-outs that create unique shadows and different viewing areas. A gravel path leads to the sculpture from the Cascade Springs parking lot. There are two motion detector light poles and uplighting on the street side of the sculpture, as well as lockable receptacles inside the sculpture for community events.
About the author
Chris Barnum | Urban Planner
As an urban planner, Christopher works with municipalities, community stakeholders, and the public to create inviting built environments that improve quality of life. He is driven by the desire to make an impact through thoughtfully designed gathering places that are inclusive, sustainable, and safe. Christopher has a Master’s in Urban Design and a Master of City and Regional Planning (MCRP) from the Georgia Institute of Technology.