Public Art “healthy but menaced”?

Assessing the health of public art can be like approaching art itself: It’s all in how you look at it.

Two speakers at the upcoming Public Art 360 conference, to be held later this month in Asheville, offer markedly different takes on the state of public art today and what should be done to encourage it.

Hosted by the city of Asheville, the Sept. 23-25 conference is largely designed as a professional development opportunity for artists and administrators interested in public art. Sessions for artists include how to shift from studio work to public art, install artwork and deal with bureaucracies. For administrators, topics cover the basics of public-art administration as well as how to be more effective on the job. But the big questions of what’s happening in the field will get an airing, too.

In what could be called a glass-half-full argument, conference planning committee member Janet Kagan, a public-art consultant in Chapel Hill, sees hopeful signs for the future of public art in the two years since she helped stage the last Public Art 360 conference in Chapel Hill.

“The economy negatively influenced the arts in terms of spending; a lot of projects went on hold,” explains Kagan. “They have now become resurrected, and artists who have signed contracts have now become inundated.”

Meanwhile, conference keynote speaker Bill Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and current director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, considers public art in this country “healthy but menaced.”

He notes that over the past 25 years, many communities have created special funds for public art. Local governments have also set aside a percentage of the cost of public projects to be invested in public art.

Yet as the recession rolls along, Ivey sees significant threats to arts funding as cities reserve every penny to deliver basic services.

“So the challenge … is how do we establish value for public art in an era of reduced financial capacity?” he asks.

Kagan’s answer, in part, is one based on public art’s role in job creation, cultural tourism and sustainable economic vitality.

“People desire to live in communities that are changing, that are vibrant, whose streets are animated — and art and artists do that,” she offers. “We know that people go to places where there is more art than less.”

Ivey, on the other hand, views arguments for public art based on economic benefits as “ultimately dead ends.” He believes that reducing the value of public art to a tourist attraction means the arts have to compete with, say, spending public dollars to draw a professional sports team.

“So my argument is that it’s time for people who care passionately about the arts to think about new ways of establishing value,” Ivey says. “Not just a new set of arguments.”

In his view, the value of public art — that is, art that’s defined as a public good, much the way sidewalks are considered a public good — has to be taken out of the “amenity box.”

“We’ve sort of treated the arts as a high-level amenity,” offers Ivey. “Amenities we can dispense with when the going gets tough.”

For Kagan, the biggest challenge facing public art today is less about funding and more about ensuring the quality of art that’s placed in a public space.

“It should be extraordinary, not mediocre. We all appreciate great art,” says Kagan. “The quality of what we put in public art is more important than the funding, because if it’s great art, it will be funded.”

For more info about the conference, check out or call the Asheville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department at 259-5815.


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One thought on “Public Art “healthy but menaced”?

  1. newmechanic

    I completely agree with Ms. Kagan that public art… ” should be extraordinary, not mediocre.”

    Unfortunately, Asheville has it’s share of Mediocre public art and the people in charge of choosing this art have not been qualified to do so.

    Why in the world would you spend thousands of dollars on a piece of art and pick people who have no art education to choose
    it ???? It’s like getting a banker to pick the best traffic lights for the city…makes no sense.

    Asheville also has some beautiful works of art, but when spending public money, the art should be carefully chosen and local artists should be the first ones considered.

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