PRINT Summer 1981

Personal Sensibilities in Public Places

ANY DISCUSSION OF CURRENT, publicly funded, publicly accessible artworks must begin with a bit of semantic wrangling. Specifically, art in public places must be differentiated from public art.1 There are areas of overlap; indeed, these areas make up the principal subject of this essay. But it is important first to recognize the distinctions between the two. Art in public places is essentially just that: artworks purchased or commissioned for publicly owned or publicly accessible spaces. It is art made public, outside the home or museum.

Whether purchased by a bank for display in a lobby or commissioned by a government agency for installation in a public plaza, artworks in public places are alike in being more accessible to a larger public than are those works reserved in private or museum collections. This is most apparently a matter of physical access. But equally significant is a kind of emotional or intellectual accessibility. Artworks in a museum or a notable private collection are sanctioned, the former by, recognized professional opinion, the latter by an aura of wealth, discretion and connoisseurship. Works of art in public places, however, are presented without the restraining authority of either professionalism or wealth and are thus open to public inspection and appraisal, functioning as agents of education and discourse rather than as unassailable symbols of a priori judgment.

Public art is somewhat more complicated. Traditionally, it has been commemorative of great events or people, or illustrative of common sociopolitical goals. It has taken forms that range from portrait statues (Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln) to personifications of abstract ideals (The Statue of Liberty). Implicit in public art is the assumption that it embodies values and beliefs shared by its audience. It is presumed to be art made for the public, with the people’s convictions in mind. Yet it is doubtful that this presumption was ever correct. The Union generals on horseback who populate Washington’s traffic circles face south, perpetually confronting the predominantly north-facing Confederate generals of Richmond’s Monument Avenue. They are persistent witness to the fact that public values are not universal, but a function of their epoch and locale.

Public art is likewise assumed to have a content and symbolism readily understandable to the majority of the populace. This is true enough in the case of portrait statues. But it, too, is a questionable presumption when the subject matter or imagery becomes even slightly more symbolic. We’ve accustomed ourselves to certain imagery: figures draped in flags are assumed to be connected with duty and patriotism, those with scales are identified with justice. Teddy Roosevelt surrounded by noble savages (in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York) is an obvious reference to the notions of the white man’s burden. But more often than not the symbolism is opaque. A nubile maiden is a nubile maiden until we are told she personifies liberty, peace, wisdom or a river.

If the presumptions of past public art were suspect in their own time, they are altogether inoperative today. Ours is a more openly pluralistic society, without a unifying religion or consensus in the realm of social and political ideas. An art that expresses the values of all the people is impossible to achieve. In addition, the forms of 20th century art have tended toward an esthetic—and an ethic—of personal expression, and toward individualist rather than collectivist content. There is thus a basic incompatibility between contemporary artistic practice and the traditional forms of public expression in art. As a consequence, a need has emerged to test the appropriateness of various current art forms in a range of contemporary public situations.

It is with this need in mind that the National Endowment for the Arts has been supporting projects for art in public places since 1967. At the base of its activity seems to be an awareness of the distinctions between art made public and public art; this is reflected in its use of the title Art in Public Places, rather than Public Art or Public Sculpture, to describe its grant category. Procedural matters reflect the Endowment’s appreciation of divergence in matters of artistic preference, and the recognition that community involvement in initiating a project, selecting an artist, and raising the necessary funds are essential to the development of a sense of pride and satisfaction within the community. The Endowment’s procedures set it apart from other federally supported art-in-public-places programs, such as those of the General Services Administration (GSA), the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). These agencies provide all of the funding for their artworks and select the artists at the federal level. This generally results in less community identification with and less affection for the artworks sponsored by these agencies than exist for those supported by the Endowment.

Despite the assertion that contemporary artworks in the public arena must be perceived principally as art and not as expressions of shared public values, it is nevertheless possible to find in them a measure of public significance. Focusing on those works supported by the Endowment, that is, on those that come into being with a certain amount of community involvement, one can identify several ways in which these artworks become assimilated by the sponsoring communities and are consequently of value to them. The first is procedural, as discussed above. Public involvement can generate public acceptance. The others relate more specifically to the work itself. An artwork can become significant to its public through the incorporation of content relevant to the local audience,2 or by the assumption of an identifiable function. Assimilation can also be encouraged through a work’s role in a larger civic improvement program. In the first case, recognizable content or function provides a means by which the public can become engaged with the work, though its style or form might be unfamiliar to them. In the latter, the work’s identity as art is subsumed by a more general public purpose, helping to assure its validity. In both cases, the personal sensibilities of the artist are presented in ways that encourage widespread public empathy.

The mechanics of assimilation thus return to the matter of accessibility. Luis Jimenez, sculptor of Houston’s Vaquero, has remarked, “I don’t want to sound like a commercial artist, but [making art] is entirely different when you’re working with a community. The work belongs to the people. It has to come from the artist, but the people have to be able to identify with it.”3 George Segal has made a similar point: “Here I spent 20 years working on essentially private pieces in an indoor space, and suddenly I am asked to do outdoor public pieces. Now I have to take people’s feelings into account. . . . I don’t have to apologize for having my own opinions, but I do have to start thinking on levels other than my own.” Segal concluded: “The question is whether you can maintain the density of your subject matter, a decently high level of thinking, and still be accessible to a lot of people.”4

Jimenez and Segal resolved these difficulties through the use of identifiable content relevant to the intended audience. Jimenez was commissioned by Houston’s Community Development Division to produce a work for Moody Park, a recreation area in an Hispanic neighborhood. His witty equestrian Vaquero depicts the cowboy, a classic American character of Hispanic origin. Segal was awarded his commission by the Youngstown Area Arts Council. He visited the city and toured its steel mills, finding the open hearth furnaces “staggeringly impressive.”5 He decided to make steelworkers at an open hearth the subject of his sculpture, and used as models Wayman Paramore and Peter Kolby, two men selected by the steelworkers union from its membership. His commission coincided with a severe economic crisis in Youngstown during which a series of mill shutdowns eventually idled some 10,000 workers. Yet completion of the sculpture became a matter of civic pride. Numerous local businesses and foundations gave money; one of the steel companies donated an unused furnace. Labor unions assisted in fabricating and installing the work. One cannot escape the conclusion that the subject matter was largely responsible for this outpouring of public support. The people of Youngstown sought a monument to their principal industry, even as it collapsed around them. Segal’s The Steelmakers is a tribute to their tenacity.

Segal and Jimenez used identifiable content. Joseph Kinnebrew incorporated a recognizable function. His Grand River Sculpture was assured of acceptance within its community because it takes as a point of departure a phenomenon of known interest to many people. A dam across the Grand River at Grand Rapids had been preventing spawning fish from migrating upstream. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources initiated planning for a fish ladder for the site; Kinnebrew became involved in an effort to enhance the esthetic component of the project and to facilitate public access. He designed an architectonic structure to surround and overlook the fish ladder; it provides framed views of the river and of the spectacle of leaping fish. The sculpture is apparently quite crowded with spectators during the migrations of trout and coho salmon, and is reported to be a success with the fish as well. Within weeks of the sculpture’s completion, trout were sighted over 100 miles upstream.6

Nancy Holt’s project for Rosslyn, Virginia, will not be as specifically functional as Kinnebrew’s. Yet it will be a significant amenity for an intensively developed suburb of Washington, D.C. Holt has been asked by the County Board of Arlington to design Rosslyn’s first downtown park on one of the few remaining open spaces in the area. Located at the conjunction of two major traffic arteries, Holt’s park will include a high earthen berm to shield the small space from the surrounding traffic. The berm will be pierced by a large tunnel that will enter into the park, and by sight lines that will focus on various sculptural elements. Holt is working with county planning officials on details of the project such as lighting, paving and an irrigation system. She has consulted with the county’s landscape architect on the plants best suited to the local climate and the park’s projected level of use. And, perhaps most significantly, she has taken her proposal through the various steps required of any public works project. She began by introducing her past work at public meetings, and hearing from local residents of their desires for the site. After formulating her design, she presented it successfully to the various departments at the County Planning Office, and then to the County Board of Supervisors.

The implications of this process are considerable. Holt’s work will have come into being through an artist’s involvement in existing planning procedures, and as part of a more general effort to improve urban surroundings. It marks a shift from the artwork as isolated object to the artwork as a more carefully integrated part of its physical and cultural environment. Holt’s project also reveals the artist working not as solitary creator, but as a member of a professional creative team. Although the identity of her park as art might thereby be diminished, Holt is certain to conclude with a work that is integral to the cityscape, and one that helps establish artists as capable professionals in the design of public works.

But what of artworks that make none of these concessions to intellectual and psychological accessibility? Can artworks be assimilated by a numerically large, nonart audience if they exist outside the public planning process and do not have a recognizable content or function? The example of Richard Serra’s sculpture at Western Washington University in Bellingham illustrates the difficulties encountered by such pieces. Wright’s Triangle is the target of verbal and physical abuse, and is frequently marred by graffiti. Recently, it carried the inscription, “Art is best when it has been defaced—i.e., demystified.” While the provocation of discussion and the tolerance of dissent are certainly primary among a university’s functions, it seems unlikely that Western Washington acquired this work to provide a forum for such visible expressions of contempt. Yet these responses seem inevitable in the case of works that so aggressively exclude extra-art meanings. Fortunately, Wright’s Triangle is not a delicate piece, and its rusted surface will ultimately efface all signs of abuse.

Serra’s sculpture may eventually win a greater measure of acceptance within its community. A pattern can be detected in the response to many works that suggests that a growing familiarity produces feelings of appreciation and support. Such was the case with Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon in Seattle. It is a linear piece, well suited to its narrow waterfront site. Composed of rough-cut granite slabs placed, as the title suggests, near to, leaning on and on top of concrete plinths that are three-, four- and five-sided respectively, the work is a combination of natural and architectural elements. As such, it mediates between the dramatic natural features of the site—Puget Sound and the distant Olympic Peninsula—and the buildings that form the urban backdrop to the piece. At the same time, it is in scale with both. Scorn has given way to praise for the work, despite its lack of recognizable content or function. A segment of a recent TV news program broadcast in Seattle, sharply critical of a newly completed, publicly funded artwork, concluded with the query: “Why couldn’t they have done something interesting, like the Heizer?”7 Adjacent, Against, Upon still has its detractors. Yet it shows that works of art in public places can achieve a degree of acceptance based on purely esthetic values. This is, however, problematic. For those artists who utilize recognizable images, create works at least partially utilitarian, or incorporate art into larger efforts to improve the surroundings, the path to the public acceptance of their work seems relatively open. For those whose content and purpose are exclusively artistic, the debate goes on.

John Beardsley is an adjunct curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a book on art in public places written for the National Endowment for the Arts, to be published by Partners for Livable Places, Washington. D.C., in 1981.



1. This distinction has been touched upon before, but it is not widely recognized. Harriet Senie approached it in her essay “Urban Sculpture” (Art News, September 1979, p. 108), in which she distinguishes public sculpture from urban sculpture. Ed Levine discussed it in a program called “Public Sculpture: Objects and Issues” at Ohio State University, as reported by Gina Franz in “How Public Is Public Sculpture?,” The New Art Examiner, February 1980, sec. 2, p. 3.

2. This is distinct from generalized content assumed to be relevant to everyone.

3. Quoted in the Endowment’s Cultural Post, issue 28, March–April 1980, p 8.

4. Quoted in an unpublished article on publicly funded sculpture by Sam Hunter, 1979.

5. From Segal’s letter to the Youngstown Area Arts Council accepting their commission, quoted in Louis Zona, “A Segal Comes to Youngstown,” Dialogue: The Ohio Arts Journal, July–August 1980, p. 13.

6. Statement by William Mullendore of the Department of Natural Resources at the sculpture’s dedication. From leaflet distributed at dedication.

7. Recalled in a conversation by Jerry Allen, Coordinator of Visual Arts Programs at the King County Arts Commission, Seattle.