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.

Credit: Columbia Spectator

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.

About the Author: Mara Blackwood

Mara Blackwood is the executive editor of RedDotBlog


  1. YES!!!!
    Public art is not just important but critical to the balanced development of peoples brains. Public art allows people to stop a moment… take some time to think… to reflect… and certainly brings to young, budding creatifs avenues they might one day consider as an outlet for their gifts.
    Cities are especially goal-oriented places… everyone needs a break from that even if it’s only for seconds. Think of how that Henry Moore sculpture could form a jumping-off place (well… maybe literally… LOL) for discussions on the imagination, on the role of individuality, on urban development, on how we all see differently…
    I went to an art college in a fairly large city. We had NO art anywhere except for that which we were creating… there was no room, no budget… but the city! Oh my. There was one sculpture I can still envision with absolute clarity; I got engaged on a Henry Moore by the river!
    We need art everywhere we can manage it. It feeds the creative in all of us.

  2. Art in public places is a very critical reflection of what a city is all about. A variety of styles, medium and subject matter creates even more interesting pro and con points of view and discussion. For example a traditional bronze statue of a soldier in battle and a tall abstract steel sculpture painted in bright colors. Both says a lot about the variety of public tastes. The more the variety, the more the city develops and art identity wether it’s admired or criticized . Its the nature of art and its purpose is not to please everyone.

  3. Public art connects people with their communties, and creates a sense of ownership. This feeling of ownership , in turn, helps a community to flourish. Nice space has been proven in countless studies to attract businesses and home buyers (thereby increasing the tax base), and lower the crime rate. Free art for ALL to enjoy encourages people to take pride and ownership in that community, and many times inspires those who need a lift.

  4. There is a lot of bad public art out there in which the artist ignores the people who must use the space. There was a sculpture by Richard Serra called ‘Tilted Arc’ that was installed at 26 Federal Plaza in NYC. It was put in such a way that it impeded pedestrian traffic and was an annoyance to people who wanted to use the building and came in from the North. It was eventually removed.

  5. People like to be proud of their city, and part of what makes them proud of it can be how it looks, how pleasant it is to be in. That means public art. I am not a huge fan of funding really goofy art projects; there does need to be vetting, but to have no public art would be very boring and unattractive. It is sad that some people would view a valuable sculpture as just being in their way. People I know who live in Europe tell me there is much more appreciation there for art. Perhaps this is the consequence of continually stripping down education, like removing the arts. This is seen not only in lack of appreciation for public art, but for art in general, and for those who choose to go into it as a career. In the 21st century, every country should be aspiring to rising above the kind of existence we associate with undeveloped countries, not trying to fall behind. The US has been sliding for some time. Lack of respect for art is as symptom of a much bigger problem.

  6. I agree with the comment on “taste.” To me, a lot of the high-priced art (anything with a 7-figure price tag, and most media with 5-figure tags) is simply the tastes of hoity-toidy elitists whose primary requirement for “good art” is being completely different/un-understandable from what the masses consider something nice to look at. If it’s public art, the general public should be able to understand it.

  7. I have difficulty understanding the issue when I come across it because, often, the decisions about public art are made by self-appointed art experts who don’ t consult the constituencies that are impacted. How did the Moore get chosen without the student body doing a sign off? Students are often treated as if they are just consumers, and, rightly or wrongly, ignored in these procedures. The Alumni, who fund a lot of the University infrastructure should have been consulted. In any case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the beholders are going to voice their opinions. In these situations, it is hard to place leading edge art, but if you don’t bother consulting the constituents, the piece will be gathering dust in some storage facility some day. I’ve seen lots of examples of misguided public art with this destiny. I don’t see this as any kind of “new attack on public art” since there is a long history of this going back to the Greeks (or maybe further).

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