Making Art Public: The Future Of Public Art In Cities

by Daniel Tobin

There is something I love about the hustle and bustle of a city; with the streets in a constant state of flux there is a constant smell of anticipation in the air. Le Corbusier said, in his 1929 classic, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning that ‘we are fond of the crowd and the crush, because we are human beings and like to live in groups’.

He was right of course, over the space of just one hundred years, human civilisation has changed from a predominately rural experience, to one where almost 7 out of every 10 of us will be living in an urban environment by 2050. That’s a staggering 6.6 billion people.

With the growth of urbanisation, now, more than ever, cities are looking towards artists, architects and designers to create meaningful projects that future proof public spaces. Public art is often used to create and reinforce a sense of place, but it can also be used to challenge the relationship we have with our surrounds, spark conversation and inform and educate.

Instagram-able pop-up lounges invite participation

Times Square is one of the world’s most iconic urban locations. With more than 300,000 people moving through the space each day, UAP’s collaboration with Times Square Arts and architect Jurgen Mayer, XXX Times Square with Love, alters the way people interact with the space.

Amid the hustle and bustle of New York’s busiest intersection, XXX invites viewers to pause and reflect, and by reclining on the x-shaped loungers, view the landmark from a different perspective. As a colleague said XXX is brilliant, it’s counter intuitive, inviting you relax amongst the vibrant cacophony of the passing crowd.

XXX pays homage to the famous bow-tie shaped crossroads of Times Square and is a cheeky reference to the plaza’s racy past. It works because it provides amenity, humour and connection to place. Its success can be seen in its uptake on social media, with hashtags like #TSqXXX specifically referring to the artwork.

Immersive city-wide public art sends powerful message

Ai Weiwei’s multi-site, multi-media work that infused all of New York’s five boroughs meant it was impossible for residents or visitors to New York to escape Good Fences Make Good Neighbours. Inspired by Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, the artist presents ‘a passionate response to the global migration crisis and a reflection on the profound social and political impulse to divide people from each other.’

Powerfully iconic, Gilded Cage (Doris Friedman Plaza) and Arch (Union Square Park) demanded attention and drew the crowds while a banner program celebrated the diversity of New York’s immigrants through the ages. Works also appeared on buildings, busways, parks and advertising platforms, over 300 different sites throughout the city.

The great success of the exhibition was to engage the populace in an open and frank conversation about ‘the global refugee crisis and the political and social forces that seek to divide us.’ Some of the works have a continuing life in exhibitions around the globe including the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Revealing cultural histories in the heart of Sydney

Judy Watson is an Indigenous Australian artist with a quiet strength and determination to reveal cultural histories that have been pushed aside by two hundred years of colonisation. Watson, with Aboriginal & European ancestry, straddles two cultures and creates powerful works that speak of prejudice, shared histories and reconciliation.

What better choice for architects FJMT, who were responsible for Sydney’s newest corporate tower at 200 George St. Clear in their design approach: to see if they could “make a city tower grow out of its site, being the source of its inspiration, its material and character, and in doing so somehow reveal, interpret and reinforce this unique site and sense of place”.

Artist Judy Watson was able to use the physical location and material from the site to shape ngarunga nangama, calm water dream, to create a visual narrative that references the indigenous and colonial history of Sydney’s Tank Stream. Working with Gadigal Elder, Uncle Allen Madden, Judy’s work helps to unveil the hidden history of the building’s location and inform all those who view it. A rich cultural history is revealed and embedded into sandstone quarried from the site itself. What the artist has created is an artwork that embeds Indigenous and colonial histories permanently into the very fabric of the building, ensuring generations of Australians will have a deeper understanding of this place in the future.

Get smart about public art

To ensure the success of our city’s public spaces, creativity and public art is an essential part of the early design conversation. Recognising the multiple roles public artworks play in a city, Brisbane is adopting a public art master plan for its Queens Wharf Development. The development will turn an under-utilised section of the CBD into a hub connecting key points in the urban landscape. Destination artworks and art trails will help shape the world class vision of the precinct and assist with functionality. They will respect heritage and history, enhance roads and pathways and act as precinct markers. They will also educate and inspire and help to create an immersive experience for the public.

The above exemplars from New York, Sydney and Brisbane show how important public art is to shaping the way we view, use and understand our cities and reveal how art can impact our interactions with each other and our physical surrounds. They show the need for cities to consider art to ensure citizens and visitors continue to experience a sense of place in a way that challenges and inspires.

Images: XXX, Times Square with love, Jurgen H Mayer & Times Square Arts with UAP; Good fences make good Neighbors, Ai Weiwei & Public Art Fund with UAP; ngarunga nangama, calm water dream, Judy Watson & FJMT with UAP