Public Art: Creativity As Catalyst For Economic Success

In Australian capital cities, warnings of an apartment oversupply have prompted a rethinking of the concept of supply and demand. Bold approaches to creating urban environments in international markets have seen place-making and landmark public art stimulate increases in real estate values. The way in which investment in public art may change the valuation of the urban landscape is visible in New York’s High Line, and Chicago’s Millennium Park, both of which were seeded in recent decades. In Australia too, public art has powerfully impacted places and communities, not only in cities but increasingly in regional areas as well.

In New York, the High Line project was begun by its local residents in 1999. A disused elevated freight rail track was transformed into a 2.3 kilometre art, park and pedestrian precinct, transformative of this part of Chelsea and bringing together horticulture, art and changing public programs. David Barista, for Building, Design+Construction (March 2, 2015) wrote, “Almost overnight, the High Line has become one of New York’s most popular cultural attractions, drawing some five million people in 2014. It has spurred billions of dollars in economic development activity in Chelsea. In the most dramatic real estate deal to date, Manhattan developer Ziel Feldman [in November 2014] acquired a 76,425-square foot parcel adjacent to the park for a hefty US$800 million. Days later, Feldman announced plans for an 800,000-square foot mixed-use tower that could fetch as much as US$6,000 per square foot for luxury condo space—nearly triple the going rate for the area, according to the New York Post.”

High Line, New York. Image by John Gillespie

In Chicago, the Millenium Park project was initiated as a cultural precinct in 1998, and now spans 24.5 acres adjacent to Chicago’s business district. It includes two large scale interactive artworks which have become the park’s identifiers – the Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate (2006) and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain (2004). In terms of the Park’s economic impact, Edward K. Uhlar wrote for the Greater Philadelphia Regional Review (Winter 2000) that, while Millennium Park opened in 2004, its impact on Chicago’s economy was evident during its development years. “Real estate values and the property tax base were enhanced as early as the spring of 2000 when it was reported that a Michigan Avenue commercial building was sold for US$90 a square foot, more than double what the seller purchased it for six years before… As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business, the opening of Millennium Park stimulated the sales of condominium projects along central Michigan Avenue ‘with buyers standing in line for hours to put down deposits, and sales contracts being signed at a faster pace than any other downtown neighbourhood’.”

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, Chicago. Image by Pedro Szekely

“…Public art has powerfully impacted places and communities, not only in cities but increasingly in regional areas as well.”

While both New York’s High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park are major projects with significant public investment, other studies also suggest that, even at a lower level of investment, art may draw a wide audience (together with allied services), into regional areas and smaller towns. In Victoria, Benalla’s Wall to Wall Festival, now in its fourth year, engages its local community and draws visitors to the area to view murals. The festival claims that, due to the relatively small size of Benalla, it is able to create an all-encompassing ambience in the town. On 9 November 2017 the Border Mail reported Quantum Market Research findings of AUS$418,232 generated in April (2017) with AUS$4,228,562 likely over the forthcoming eleven months, with an impressive total economic impact of AUS$6.338 million to Benalla over the year.

Wall to Wall Festival. Image courtesy Juddy Roller.

Ephemeral art is also known for its spur to the local economy. Despite the public resources often invested in temporary public art, Pittsburgh-based business analyst Rebecca Harris cited the example of artificial waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson in New York which were installed at a cost of US$15 million. She said the Public Art Fund estimated a return to the city on this investment of US$69 million.

Artificial Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson. Image by NAParish – Flickr

Arguably the best known ephemeral art work in the world is Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck sculpture which inflates to stand 12-16 metres high and socially activates the cities it visits. It has toured the globe (not without controversy) since 2007. Atlas Obscura reported (July 29, 2015) that before the Rubber Duck was installed in Hong Kong in 2013, keen fans “had found the test inflation site, ‘a shipyard, like, 20 minutes outside the city,’ and were lining up to shoot photos”. Rubber Duck made its Canadian debut in July 2017, where it was central to the Redpath Waterfront Festival (Toronto). Cision (October 12, 2017) wrote, “The economic impacts of the 2017 RWF were US$7.6 million”, and drew a record 750,000 people to Toronto’s waterfront.

The generally agreed “soft” impacts of public art may reshape the consciousness of a place and offer significant intangible benefits. Its ability to generate a powerful bulge on the bottom line is less known, but has strong potential, particularly in the current environment of economic uncertainty. As New York’s High Line, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Benalla’s mural festival, and even Hofman’s Rubber Duck indicates, it is creativity and innovation that offers success.


Text by: Louise Martin-Chew for UAP | References | Feature image: Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman. Image by Mark Lehmkuhler.