Not everything is public art. We might want it to be, we might call it that as an 'excuse' or write it off because it is. We can often mistake something for public art or expect that it looks a certain way. I've heard people complain about public art in Hamilton many-a-time, (I won’t name names). They complain about various things…or maybe it’s not complaining so much as an attempt to figure out how everything ties together, or why there isn’t more (or less) public art. How are some things defined as public art and not others?
I don’t know that it's a simple answer, but I can’t really think of a more important word in this case than context. It’s more than an institution or a program defining something as public art, and I think it’s more than art in public space. If we are going to redefine public art as more than a traditional bronze historical statement, we need to ensure we protect the professionalism of public art while prioritizing context in every single case (no two projects are the same, so why are our processes, programs and evaluation systems rigid?). In public art, I think we lose the artist. They become removed by public process, public dollars, spectacle and numerous other factors that really turn ‘public art’ into ‘design additions’.
We cloud the value and potential of public art with goals to 'beautify' and 'decorate', and should be cautious to not embrace any creation in public as public art. It’s also not always a professional artist who undertakes the process either, which can be great in some ways, but detrimental in others (as trained artists are squeezed out by the likes of a fancy design firm….). When we remember that artists are creative thinkers with an approach unlike any other, and that the questioning and examination is critical to what public art is, we can shift what we call public art to be more than objects on corners.
This is also why I believe it’s critical we have multiple voices participating in public art – on all levels. In many cities across Canada, public art is produced almost solely within municipal programs, but I think the field and those of us involved with other outlets or organizations are richer with the alternative. But most importantly, artists working in a multitude of mediums and methods, need to be able to participate in defining public art while respecting the context of its history and theoretical parameters.
As a field, public art may be very young, but as a practice it’s ancient. And the role of the creator is arguably more vital than ever. Because if we lose public art’s history, its language and the theoretical foundation from which we have built, we will lose ourselves, our public artists and the collections we have spent so long creating, to fulfill a policy.