The Attack on Public Art

Cities, communities, and public spaces all over the world are beautified by public art installations. These pieces, often large and incredibly valuable, add an element of culture and sophistication that can’t be achieved any other way.

However, over the past few weeks, public art has been a topic of controversy in the media. A recent article from the New York Times discusses the privatisation of public art around the world and especially in London, a city known for its abundance of art and culture. The article states that as a result of the international financial crisis of 2008, many countries have made cuts in spending on public art and other “cultural projects.” Other things have been deemed more necessary and valuable and, therefore, more worthy of public funds.

This doesn’t mean that public art is going away, but it does create complications. If a city is interested in installing public art, it is becoming much more rare for the city to fully fund the project. Instead, cities are forced to team up with galleries, real estate developers, and other private parties to put in the art they want.


London Canary Wharf Crossrail Station art Credit: New York Times

In London, this system of collaboration seems to be working quite well. A company called Futurecity is working with the City of London to install art in major stations of the Crossrail line that is under construction. Futurecity has partnered with six popular London galleries to find the perfect pieces of art, and the project is being paid for by a number of private companies in conjunction with the City of London Corp.

While London still values public art and is successfully continuing to install it, there is a backlash against art installations in other communities, even, in some cases, when it is privately funded.

At the end of last month, students at Columbia University protested against the installation of a Henry Moore sculpture on campus because, in the snarky words of Hilary Hanson of The Huffington Post, it was “too dang ugly.” 1,200 students signed a petition against the installation of Reclining Figure, and a school newspaper published a scathing commentary on the piece, even stating that it “suggests a dying mantis or a poorly formed pterodactyl.”

Setting aside this piece of undisguised blasphemy, there is more to this attack on Henry Moore’s sculpture than meets the eye. When I first heard of the sculpture controversy, I thought it was ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the students of Columbia University are the only people on earth who would complain about having a Henry Moore sculpture worth millions of dollars in their front yard. But underneath this seemingly trivial issue lies the essence of the public art problem.

The unfortunate truth is, some people don’t see art as a priority. In the eyes of the students of Columbia, the priceless piece of art is nothing more than an eyesore that takes up green space they wanted to use for sports, a hunk of metal that could be sold for things they think their campus needs more. In their eyes, it is a waste.

Is that so different from how governments around the world look at public art? They don’t protest it verbally, but whenever finances are tight, it seems like art budgets are among the first things to get chopped. To a lot of people, that makes complete sense. “Art doesn’t feed people,” they might argue. “Art doesn’t solve world problems.”

As people who are closely connected with art, we know something they don’t: as a matter of fact, art does both of those things and much, much more. Hopefully, if public art budgets continue to be cut, cities will rise up as London has done and find ways to keep art in the community. We can only hope that the world will continue to appreciate the beauty and value of fine art, rather than seeing it as a waste.

What do You Think?

Is public art important? Who should fund it? What do you think the future of public art will look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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