The Secret to a More Beautiful Neighborhood Is Public Art — Here’s How to Advocate for It in Your Community

published Oct 18, 2022
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My first apartment was a gloomy but cozy one-bedroom in Oakland, California. It was my first home away from home, and I loved feeling that it belonged to me. After a long day away, as I merged off the freeway and drove up the hill, I would catch a glimpse of the spray can painting on the wall of the corner liquor store. Seeing this piece of public art every day filled me with a sense of pride because it was a reminder that I was home. I would often think of the artist, contemplating what inspired them to claim that wall, what message they wanted to impart, and what they would think upon learning their artwork was one of the best parts of my day.

Public art is the interaction between an art form, people, and the environment, taking place within spaces that are accessible to as many as possible. When art is created with this intention, it helps people build a sense of belonging to their community, says Patricia Walsh, Director of Creative Community Advancement at Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing the arts and arts education in the United States.

Public art is by no means a modern concept. Think of the pyramids of ancient Egypt from 2500 B.C. and the cave paintings found in Indonesia dating to 45,000 years ago. Public art has been a part of every culture and every society, serving a range of functions. In the U.S., you may commonly see public art in the form of memorials and monuments to war heroes (or war criminals, depending on who you ask), architectural works like buildings, physical structures like bridges, and colorfully commissioned murals.

“More people are realizing that if you’re going to put something in a public space, it’s very important to get insight from those who are going to be experiencing that on a regular basis.”

Walsh says public art in the U.S. has seen various transformations, with one of the most recent being community-engaged art. “More people are realizing that if you’re going to put something in a public space, it’s very important to get insight from those who are going to be experiencing that on a regular basis,” Walsh says.

“Public art signifies inclusiveness, equity,” says Chantal Healey, “and it can catalyze change.” As executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), Healey points to the Windy City as the birthplace of the community mural movement as a result of a collective artistic effort that began in protest. In 1967, 15 Black artists and activists — including one of CPAG’s founders — painted a mural on the south side of Chicago known as The Wall of Respect, which highlighted 50 Black heroes as a rebuke to Black erasure in art. Healey says the mural is considered the first of its kind in the U.S., demonstrating how art by the people and for the people encourages pride in one’s community and in artistic ownership.

Credit: Chicago Public Art Group
The Chicago Public Art Group is set to celebrate its 50th-year-anniversary to commemorate its more than 2,000 public art pieces throughout the Windy City. This mural, originally painted in 1979 by Mitchell Caton and Calvin Jones and restored in 2018, is called "Another Time’s Voice Remembers My Passion’s Humanity".

“Public art is the trigger,” says Carmen Zella, cofounder and chief curator of the NOW Art agency and foundation in Los Angeles. This art practice has the capacity to continue redefining itself, she says, adding that “we’re barely at a 5 percent range of what I think could be possible.”

In a well-thought-out future, Zella says, public spaces could be curated to amplify the unique aspects of a community by leaning into technologies, such as augmented reality (AR). That way, visual arts would not be the dominant medium, but part of a diverse landscape including more digital, sound, and performance arts. 

But building toward an exciting future for public art starts today. Want to get your community involved? Here’s how to go about it. 

Credit: Koury Angelo, courtesy of NOW Art
The NOW Art Foundation recently put on their show, LUMINEX, which used augmented reality technology to trace movement in the sky, and encouraged attendees to use a phone app to view digitally enhanced movements from performers.

I’m an artist who wants to engage more with my community. Where do I start? 

For artists looking to create accessible public works, Zella says to start thinking about your message: What you want to say, how you want to say it, and how does it benefit your community?

“If you really have something compelling to say and a compelling way to say it, your community will rally around you,” Zella says.

Artists should seek tools to financially empower themselves, such as NFTs and selling small-scale artwork, so they can create the art they want without compromise. Zella says her organization is an example of this, as NOW Art does not rely on grants from The City of Los Angeles or other institutions, but instead uses a portion of the profits from their agency to reinvest back into their community.

“My time is better spent in creating opportunities myself than it is relying on a system that hasn’t really caught up with the importance of art,” Zella says. “We have to prove that first and then we can make some changes. And those changes are coming. They’re just not there yet.”

Local artists should look for institutions that have a legacy of supporting public art. Healey says organizations such as CPAG offer mentorships and apprenticeships that can help emerging artists gain more experience and make connections.

Credit: Koury Angelo, courtesy of NOW Art
Part of the NOW Art Foundation's recent show LUMINEX, this multimedia performance is called "Choose" by Carole Kim.

I love community-engaged art! How can I support and campaign for more in my city?

Start with supporting local artists. Zella says we’re already witnessing a changing of the guard, where there is less dependency on institutions to produce public art, and instead more direct interaction between the public art consumer and the artist. This helps remove some of the biggest barriers to creating public art, which she says are primarily bureaucratic and financial. 

Walsh suggests connecting with neighborhood groups and associations to either support the events they’re working to put on, or work together to create new events. Art lovers can also create a link between businesses looking to beautify their spaces with artists looking to make their mark in the community.

Art patrons should also consider encouraging their local government to see art as integral to their city, such as advocating for more art restoration funding, Healey says.

Advocating for art is an ongoing effort. Zella says people should consider the moments we deem worthy of our public support for public art as an everyday campaign, and not just in times when it’s trendy to do so.

“Even though it might seem superfluous to support art when we’re confronted with issues that are raging across the country and globe,” she says, “when we see art as a catalyst for change and we see the importance of expression as a way to make monumental shifts in the consciousness of society and how we relate to each other on a human level, it becomes less superfluous. It becomes something important.”

This piece is part of Art Month, where we’re sharing how to find, buy, and display art in your home, and so much more. Head on over here to see it all!