The Responsibility of Public Art

The concept of public art involves artists creating works of art in response to a locality in which they reside. Considerations being put into account include practical issues, access, security, durability, safety, visibility and the presentation of their artwork in a public space. Public art may also encompass complex issues that often arise from the chosen manner of presentation, the public’s response to it and its historical meaning (if any). Public art is known to take various shapes and forms which may include participatory art initiatives but in some instances may take no shape, such as engaging conversations. Art also can connect, inspire, motivate, give a voice to the voiceless and lead communities to great things in future. With this great power also comes responsibility.

Public art has a responsibility of providing the public with valuable knowledge while at the same time creating awareness about the alternate reality that exists around them. As a member of the panel discussing the responsibility that public art courtesy of the Sharjah Art Foundation Dr. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares is of the opinion that the priority of artists and designers should be their audience. As the Founding Director of the prestigious Khatt Foundation, she has made it her life’s work to delve deep into design research. She brings forth the idea of collaboration between individuals from different cultures and disciplines in public art to challenge the norm in their countries. As a specialist in bilingual topography, topographic matching and design, she was instrumental in nurturing cultural dialogue. The development of design skills that are ingenious in nature are the hallmarks of her initiatives. An Example is the Typographic Matchmaking around the Maghrib involving a group of Arab (Moroccan, Tunisian, Lebanese) and European (French, Dutch, Spanish) designers. These individuals research and develop a tri-script font that aims to combine Latin, Tifinagh and Arabic scripts to fit in harmoniously.

Public participation is central for any country that intends to create a connection with its citizenry. A lack of public participation in Bahrain was a factor responsible for further fuelling the pro-democracy uprisings that were born out of the 2011 Arab Uprising. As a member of the panel, Noura Al-Sayeh from the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain categorically states that public art is responsible for creating public participation in her country. She gives the example of the Bab al Bahrain square, a busy traffic intersection, that was able to bring the citizens of Bahrain together through her architectural installations. While redesigning the square, she had the idea of transforming the pavilion into a shared space that would ostensibly encourage debate among the different people that would visit it. She was able to organize movie screenings, lectures, workshops and public interviews that were successful in stimulating the sharing of open ideas. Competitions were also held to encourage people to participate in the redesigning of the square. The use of a reflective silver thermal screen that is often used in greenhouses creates a microclimate that is welcoming to the public while at the same time encouraging their participation in informal meetings, picnics, games, and debates about a range of issues that affect them.

Public art also has the responsibility of connecting people and their history while defying the idea of territorial disconnection. Yazid Anani of Bizeit University does this best by creating a moving exhibition that seems to “moves around spaces”. As an artist and curator at the Cities Exhibition, he posits that the moving exhibition connects spaces in a divided Palestine. The connection between the Palestinians and their history is also a result of this initiative that seeks to solve the contemporary problems that they face. Anani’s exhibition attempts to draw attention to the intricate relationship that people share with their cities. Anani’s exhibition also sought to expose the uniqueness and cadence of each city.

Artists often find themselves in unique positions requiring them to come up with solutions for the “wicked problems” that the society faces today. Artists are under constant pressure to use the power that is in their art to improve their community in every way possible. It is however important to acknowledge that different situation that arise require them to bring new skills and approaches into play. Art may be a perfect solution to solve problems that present themselves in society but this one-size approach happens not to fit all situations in reality. An approach may be appropriate and ethical in one context but unethical in another. An example can be drawn from the discussion where Anani attempts to create fake billboards that relay information about the building of real estate ventures comprising of a gated community over an existing historical market. While the proposition was merely meant to elicit a reaction from the people, a member of the audience suggests that it is unethical to do so. Such an act seems innocent but can affect the people psychologically as they have a deep connection with these areas.

Measuring the impact of public art is also a challenge for many artists. In many occasions, artists and organizations that are responsibe for bringing art to the public domain cannot conclusively claim whether their art had an profound impact on the target audience. Most artists depend on the positive comments that they get from the public or the fact that vandals did not cover their art in graffiti. Knowing the exact impact of their art to the public, therefore, becomes difficult to quantify. It is quite rare that artist go the extra mile to gather systematic data over a long period due to the complexity of the data collection process, the time that it my take and the seemingly futile nature of such a task. The reason for such a complexity lies in the fact that public art doesn’t sell tickets or bring together an audience that can easily be the subject of a survey. Administrators of public art agree on the need of a form of evaluation that would gauge the success of their project and at the same time providing a case to their founders for support. Artist can strengthen their skills and at the same time address problems that may arise in programming (Responsibility of the Public Art 1/2 on Vimeo, n.d.). The evaluation of the public response would typically involve the setting of clear goals that directly connect to the central activities of the program. It is important for artists to capture the range of values that need consideration when deciding on the possible or desirable outcomes that result from engaging artists that are in the public realm. A personal project analysis would come in handy in assessing the delivery of any project.

Another challenge that artist faces is the funding of their public art pieces and initiatives.  Securing a consistent source of funding for independent public art projects has always proven to be challenging for an artist who consistently lacks the financial muscle to push their works of art.Artists often depend on grants from art boards and the government to carry out the projects and if they are not successful in securing them, their projects stall (Responsibility of the Public Art 2/2 on Vimeo, n.d.). Artists shun public art projects that receive funding from the government are usually for obvious reasons. The government can curtail the full expression of the art when it is seen as politically provocative and capable of stirring up feelings of revolution amongst citizens. The government ensures that the public art initiatives it funds do not evoke feelings of discontent and dissent. Artist also know this policy and are known to intentionally avoid public art initiatives that receive direct or indirect funding from the government or any of its agencies

In the pursuit of their work, artists also run the risk of doing harm to the communities that participate in the project. Community development offers a window into the harmful effects that artists may bring upon communities regarding economic and physical regeneration. A result of this regeneration is the undermining of their success by the unforeseen consequences such as the displacement of businesses and residents commonly known as gentrification. Artist has to appreciate and understand the power that they have which may result in positive or negative outcomes. To ensure the success of the projects that they initiate, artists need to first conduct a background check on the community in question before “dropping into” it and imposing their visions onto others. An imposition on a community would have disastrous consequences and results that would affect the effectiveness of the whole project.

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