There’s a lot of talk about public art these days. The term now seems to commonly refer to free projects that take over part of a city—and sometimes a large part, if you remember the CowParade that started in Chicago in 1999, invaded New York’s sidewalks in 2000, and has since traveled to cities as diverse as Las Vegas, Manchester, Stockholm, Istanbul and, er, West Hartford. Many other projects aim for higher artistic worth (sorry to drag such elitist concepts in this discussion): For several years, the Creative Time organization set up wildly diverse music and art shows in the Brooklyn Bridge’s Anchorage, until post-9/11 security measures closed off the space; New Yorkers also remember Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (2005) in Central Park.
In New York, the Public Art Fund is responsible for this summer’s headline-grabbing installation, Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls, in which four gigantic man-made waterfalls will dot the East River; meanwhile, the aforementioned Creative Time is bringing a project helmed by David Byrne, Playing the Building, in which visitors will be able to “play” the Battery Maritime Building via a jerry rigged organ.
But the bottom line for most such endeavors is just that: the displays may be free, but public art now means big revenues for the participating cities (sorry to drag such crass concepts in this discussion). Canny mayors are finally catching up to the fact that healthy cultural scenes are often linked to healthy economic returns. (The fact that this blog is hosted by a publicly funded entity is not coincidental either; after all, you could argue that aspects of PBS are a form of public art.)I’ll speak about New York, since this is where I live, but hopefully readers in other cities can contribute. Here, we have a city whose three main economic engines are finance, tourism and culture, and public art closely links the last two.
European governments and cities have long recognized the importance of nurturing the arts, hence their system of substantial subsidies. It’s simple, really: Beyond the basic fact that culture makes life worth living and is necessary to the soul (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you agree), it also makes economic sense. NYC made millions of dollars from The Gates—which, by the way, was privately financed, as is Waterfalls. Locals go to these events, along with tourists, whose dollars are propping up a crucial part of NYC’s economy.
America seems to be waking up to the fact that as an economic model, culture handily beats sports—most economists have found that new stadiums’ returns on the dollar are notoriously lower than estimated (by team owners, usually). In the long run, many people want to live in neighborhoods with a thriving culture; it’s a well-known truism that the imagination-deprived wealthy follow the cash-poor but trailblazing artists when it comes to pioneering/rehabilitating neighborhoods (said wealthy then smother the very thing that attracted them in the first place, but that’s another story). It makes more sense to spend taxpayers’ money on supporting museums, concert halls and the likes, which have more of a positive impact on a city’s overall health—do you know of any stadiums surrounded by a ring of creative, affordable restaurants rather than fast-food joints, for instance? Ask yourself: Would you prefer living next to art galleries or a stadium?
It can be argued that public art pushes for a certain blockbuster-ization since minimalist miniatures don’t get flocks of visitors (call it the Broadway syndrome)—in essence, it fosters a bigger is better mentality. But these massive works only represent a locomotive that drags behind it smaller, more subtle, more challenging artworks. And in that respect at least, they should be welcome with open arms.
Images: (top)Erwin Redl, MATRIX IV, 2001 at Brooklyn Bridge’s Anchorage. Photo by Charlie Samuels. (bottom) David Byrne, Playing the Building, 2008. Photo by Justin Ouellette, courtesy Creative Time.