The Future of Public Art in Five Phases


Ben Davis


SOM Thinkers


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As we continue to explore Public Space, it's important to engage in conversations with colleagues and professionals who are also discussing the future of Public Space.


Public art encourages people to gather and explore. Its history and future is discussed in the following article.


Ben Davis is the national art critic for artnet News. This article is reprinted with permission from The Future of Public Space, the second volume of SOM Thinkers. (Copyright Ben Davis 2018)



In order to arrive at a credible predication about the prospects for public art, it is necessary to sketch the past and present of the field, drawing a line through the two toward a possible future.


In the United States, the case for funding public art has always been about the larger questions that surround the idea of value and of the public good. The continuous, uneasy shifting of public art rhetoric can consequently be seen as where a recurrent artistic dialectic is played out in its most monumental form: aesthetics have been drafted into service to respond to various economic-political conflicts, yet also continuously find themselves at the mercy of economic-political shifts that they are not in control of.


Let’s look at how this has played out in the recent past:


PHASE 1: Idealism to Malaise

While there is a history of monument building and public sculpture of various kinds in the United States, it is customary to date the emergence of “public art” as a field to the 1960s. A number of factors formed the particular ideological shape it would take.


1) Attitudes toward art and architecture were shifting in the United States, which, as a rich and powerful nation, had a new sense of creative leadership. With his Guiding Principals for Federal Architecture in 1962, Kennedy would “abolish the ‘old-boy’ system of federal commissions that had presumed a Beaux Arts style and had relegated sculpture and mural painting to second-class status of ornaments.”[i]


2) The Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union led to a perceived need to earn credibility with intellectuals and project a public image for the United States that cut against its image as “a nation of money-grubbing materialists.”[ii]


3) The liberal belief in the interventionist power of government to correct social ills was at its height. The National Endowment for the Arts was created by President Johnson in 1965 as of a piece with the Great Society.


4) The top-down “urban redevelopment” initiatives of the 1950s led to a backlash. Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in 1961, arguing for increased attention to street-level vitality. 


Throughout the 1960s, city governments passed Percent-for-Art laws, mandating that a portion of new construction budgets be earmarked for commissions of public sculpture. Chicago’s installation of a monumental Picasso in 1967 is seen to mark the beginning of a vogue for large-scale modernist sculpture.[iii] Two years later, the NEA sponsored its first public art commission, Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, as the centerpiece of an “urban renewal” initiative in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


It may come as a surprise that Richard Nixon remains the president who did the most to boost the NEA. In 1971, announcing that he was doubling the agency’s budget, he declared: “It is my urgent desire that the growing partnership between Government and the arts continue to be developed to the benefit of both—and that this will be good for the arts and good for the country.”[iv]


Notably, this Nixon directive came mere weeks after the dramatic 1971 May Day antiwar protests, organized under the slogan, “If They Won’t Stop the War, We’ll Stop the Government.” Protesters tried to occupy plazas, parks, and government buildings in Washington, DC; the state replied by mobilizing some 10,000 troops. The result was the largest single day of arrests in US history.


Such contestation over public space formed the background of Nixon’s unexpectedly high-flown artistic rhetoric. Yet in truth, a backlash against the idealism and perceived elitism of public art’s official version had already begun to set in.


Under Nixon, the NEA would, for the first time, officially define criteria of “site-specificity” in public sculpture. Yet this was itself a response to a percolating sense that all was not right. Already at the end of the 1960s, architect James Wines (of the firm SITE) formulated the concept of “plop art” to describe the abstract, isolated trophies that had begun to infest the urban landscape.[v]


At the same time, the long postwar economic boom in the United States waned in the ’70s. The vicious, stagflationary decade would further undermine the idea of an optimistic, forward-marching modernism. As Casey Nelson Blake, editor of The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State, has summarized: “[I]n many ways, by the mid-to-late 1970’s public art installations no longer seem like these vehicles of urban revitalization, but rather seem like the most visible symbols of a liberal urban project that had gone terribly wrong.”[vi]


PHASE 2: Backlash

The term “postmodernism” arrived on the scene in 1979. It was coined by French thinker Jean-François Lyotard to describe the waning of a belief in “master narratives.” These included the optimistic teleologies of modernist art,[vii] but also the idea that governments might intervene successfully in the economy.[viii] This mood could not help but affect the surrounding prospects for public art.


It has become a cliché to explain every malignant feature of the ensuing decades as the result of “neoliberalism,” the program of pro-market, anti-government initiatives symbolized by the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in the United States. William Davies’ recent proposal of a more fine-grained periodization of the term is worth bringing in here.[ix] Davies sees its first phase, what he calls “Combative Neoliberalism,” as lasting from 1979 to 1989.


Against the background of the febrile final decade of the Cold War and the labor and social movements of the recent past, “Combative Neoliberalism” was accompanied by the need to militantly assert its ideology via a program of demonizing perceived enemies. Public support of art provided a convenient face for wasteful government, with Reagan igniting the so-called culture wars as a unifying device.


In public art, the most iconic confrontation of the decade would be over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a curving, 120-foot-long metal sculpture installed in Federal Plaza in downtown New York in 1981, and finally dismantled in 1989. The work was defended by museum directors and art critics using the language of site-specificity and avant-garde provocation. It was disliked by city bureaucrats and office workers at the site, who found the vast steel wall to be an obstruction of a once open space.


This profile did not exactly make Tilted Arc the ideal poster child to generate widespread sympathy for public art funding. Accounts of the contretemps make it clear, however, that for defenders, criticisms of Tilted Arc as ugly and obstructing were seen by liberal arts advocates as of a piece with the “authoritarian populism” of Reagan, with its appeal to simple, sentimental values.[x]   


Yet, if demonizing the government was one pillar of Combative Neoliberalism, reconstructing the social terrain to the benefit of private capital was the other. Thus, Rosalyn Deutsche argues in her famous essay about the Serra affair:


The decision against Tilted Arc was not a ruling against public art in general. On the contrary, the verdict coincided and was perfectly consistent with a widespread movement by city governments, real-estate developers, and corporations to promote public art, especially something called the “new public art,” which was celebrated precisely because of its “usefulness.” The new public art was defined as art that takes the form of functional objects placed in urban spaces—plumbing, park benches, picnic tables—or as art that helps design urban spaces themselves. Official efforts to discredit Tilted Arc cannot be isolated from attempts to portray other kinds of public art as truly public and useful. Moreover, the promotion of the new public art itself took place within a broader context, accompanying a massive transformation in the uses of urban space—the redevelopment and gentrification engineered throughout the 1980s as the local component of global spatioeconomic restructuring. The Tilted Arc proceedings were, then, part of a rhetoric of publicness and usefulness that surrounded the redevelopment of urban space to maximize profit and facilitate state control. Tilted Arc, represented by its opponents as elitist, useless, even dangerous to the public, became the standard foil against which conservative critics and city officials routinely measure the accessibility, usefulness, humaneness, and publicness of the new public art.[xi]


The transition Deutsche refers to is sometimes referred to as the shift from “art-in-public-places” to “art-as-public-places.”[xii] The new strain of work justified itself as environmental design, with artists serving as part of architectural “design teams”—in essence providing spruced-up site features, like the curving green benches and hedges by Martha Schwartz that ultimately replaced Serra’s steel barrier in Federal Plaza.


Yet the formal shift is less important than the larger overarching shift of emphasis: Public art would be about offering attractive amenities, not symbolizing higher ideals.


PHASE 3: Blips

Davies dates his second phase, “Normative Neoliberalism,” from the fall of Communism in 1989 to the financial crisis of 2008, describing it as a period when market logic, no longer having to justify itself against any rival, now became proposed as the default logic of society. Under the guise of concepts like attracting “human capital,” economic language worked its way into all aspects of endeavor, including urbanism, with corresponding effects for theories of public art.


A short list of the new set of factors for arts through this period would be:


1) Art itself became more professionalized, less associated with bohemian or intellectual values, and more associated with an idealized form of luxury consumption.


2) As inequality increased, catering to the tastes of the top-earners became more economically important, with cultural amenities viewed as a valuable way to lure the wealthy.


3) As manufacturing migrated offshore or faced waning fortunes, conventional wisdom held that the “creative economy” (services, high-tech, etc.) was the key to First World economic success, making public art a valuable branding as symbol of creative dynamism.[xiii]


4) Global integration increased tourism in general, again making cultural tourism that catered to the newly robust middle classes of developing nations and the jet-setting winners of the New Economy in the developed world a larger and larger part of economic activity in general.


One of the showpiece cases of this philosophy at work in the United States was New York City under the leadership of financial services billionaire Michael Bloomberg (2001–14), who came to power as Richard Florida’s development handbook, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), was becoming gospel among city bureaucrats.


Boasting that he would apply “private sector” logic to government in a much-cited 2003 speech, Bloomberg argued that, given the reality of global urban competition for businesses, New York would need to sell itself as a “luxury product.”[xiv]


It’s not a coincidence that Bloomberg’s mayorship would shortly be dubbed the “Arts Administration,” having done “more to promote and support the arts than any in a generation,” according to the New York Times. “Under Mr. Bloomberg, public art has flourished in every corner of the city.”[xv] This artistic feat was the aesthetic sideshow to a development tsunami that saw a rezoning of thirty-seven percent of the city.


While this metamorphosis involved plenty of new-model “plop art” to brand various luxury apartments, a notable feature has been the increasing number of what you could call “blip art”: works monumental in scale but temporary in nature.


New York’s public parks have shown programs of temporary sculpture since 1967, but the escalating program of showy temporary interventions, from Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s The Gates (2005) to Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls (2008), was unprecedented. Even the somber Tribute in Light, the famous, and now annually recurring, monument to the fallen Twin Towers, originally conceived by Municipal Art Society and Creative Time, can be said to fit in this model.


Indeed, this increasing weight given to temporary public art over lasting symbols of place under Bloomberg might be said to fit nicely with the evolving theory of “luxury goods” themselves, no longer pitched as representing durable timeless craftsmanship, but up-to-the-minute branding.[xvi]


Increasing inequality has been the economic trend since the 1980s, with its correlate in the successful New Economy city being bitter battles over gentrification experienced as cultural change. Rather than providing symbols of civic togetherness, this latest wave of public art appears more as a way to give a sheen of public benefit to development meant to favor the very rich.


A key example might be Kara Walker’s 2014 A Subtlety (aka the “sugar sphinx”), sponsored by Creative Time in partnership with Two Trees Management as an amuse bouche for an impending luxury redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront in the Domino Sugar Factory, a potent symbol of New York’s receding blue-collar past.


PHASE 4: Bifurcation

The final phase of Davies’ neoliberal typology flows from the fallout of financial crisis of 2008. He terms this the era of “Punitive Neoliberalism,” in which the logic of treating society according to business terms persists, even though the dysfunctional side of this logic has become so visible that it no longer seems to make rational sense.


Between 1940 and 1980, the economic geographic story in the US was one of regional economic convergence. But “starting in the early 1980s, the long trend toward regional equality abruptly switched.” Globalization and corporate consolidation meant that “a few elite cities have surged ahead of the rest of the country in their wealth and income,” leaving stagnation elsewhere.[xvii]


Despite the gentrification that has made New York one of the most unaffordable places to live, it represents the winning side of the equation. Since the turn of the millennium, the Big Apple sucked in an increasing share of the United States new Creative Economy jobs.[xviii]


The metropolis also used its position as cultural hub to spectacularly absorb larger and larger percentages of tourism flows. “In this recession, the country lost 6 percent of private-sector jobs and got about a quarter back,” Bloomberg said in 2011. “New York City lost 0.3 percent and got them all back. Why? Because we have the option to use tourism to replace growth.”[xix]


What does this mean, however, for the languishing rest of the country? The signature public arts theory of recent years is “creative placemaking,” formulated for the NEA in a 2010 white paper by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, then adopted across the country with “unprecedented speed and coordination.”[xx]


In their introduction, the authors make clear the economic prognosis undergirding their vision:


For two decades, American cities, suburbs, and small towns have struggled with structural change and residential uprooting. The causes are powerful: an integrating world economy, accelerating technological change, and Americans’ proclivity to move. These forces unsettle communities and diminish returns on past investments in public infrastructure and in local networks and know-how.[xxi]


Postulating that attempts to retain employers are futile, they then offer the arts as a solution:


Yet revitalization has come from an unexpected quarter. Mostly under the radar, unusual partners have made significant arts and cultural investments, leveraging resources from many funding sources. They create and provide jobs, nurture local businesses, generate spin-offs, revitalize local economies, and stabilize neighborhoods. They reinforce the nation’s global leadership in cultural industries, a major source of jobs.[xxii]


In terms of strategy, “creative placemaking” is substantially eclectic (it is “asset-based,” in the lingo, looking to activate local resources first of all). It touts initiatives from Providence, Rhode Island’s WaterFire festival of river-bourn urban bonfires, to Paducah, Kentucky’s Artist Relocation Program, which lured artists to a blighted historic neighborhood with the promise of property ownership.


Observers note that “creative placemaking” draws on earlier theories of the “creative class” and “creative economy.” Yet, while it is far from consistent on this score, what appears distinctive about the new rhetoric is the degree to which it suggests using art not to attract or retain desirable residents or employers, but to replace industry via small-scale, local cultural initiative.


Thus, “creative placemaking” booster Leonardo Vazquez will acknowledge that “attracting a large employer would have a bigger immediate impact than many arts initiatives.”[xxiii] However, arts-focused development appears to him the more realistic option, given the straightened times:


With the exception of large performing arts spaces, very little space has to be created or reallocated for creative uses. In most cases, creative activities can reuse space at little direct cost to communities. There are no educational requirements to be a producer of creative products. The manufacturing of creative products, which can be done in small facilities, does not often require higher education. While creativity and technical skill are barriers for designing creative products, much of the work of transporting and managing creative products, as well as supporting the operations of creative economy enterprises, can be done without a great deal of these skills. Many creative activities tend to be more labor-intensive than capital-intensive, so the financial barriers to entry are lower than for other types of industry.[xxiv]


The formulation is extraordinary: rather than the figure of an alien cosmopolitanism, or a highly refined branding operation, art is enlisted as a replacement for blue-collar labor!


One notable feature of the post-2008 world was that economic austerity policies, once sadistically directed at Third World countries as part of their debt crises, came to be applied to the economies of the debt-ridden First World itself. It may be worth noting, then, that cultivating local tourist attractions, packaging local traditions, and selling handicrafts has long been the preferred development advice for Third World countries that lack industries competitive with more sophisticated foreign rivals.


In that sense, the near simultaneous turn of small towns and Rust Belt cities across the United States toward rebranding themselves as artsy destinations may, at some future date, be looked at as yet another symptom of the period of Punitive Neoliberalism.


PHASE 5: The Future of Public Art

If economic growth continues to be captured by the wealthiest layer of society, then the cities or regions that will continue to grow will be the ones that manage to transform themselves to cater to this layer. Yet because the spoils of this economy are so unevenly shared, and concentrated in a minority, growth must almost by definition be uneven and experienced by a minority of locations. It cannot be that metropolitan hubs like New York will suck up larger quantities of this attention at the same time that second- and third-tier cities all simultaneously transform themselves into vital sites of cultural tourism.


Thus, already, Markusen[xxv] and Gadwa[xxvi] have both distanced themselves from the promises of their original paper. Other observers have stressed that “creative placemaking” initiatives function as part of a complex web of economic and governmental forces, and can only be held accountable for the very limited types of good that those small-scale public art projects can bring.[xxvii]


The clearest thinking about the subject comes from Mark Stern. Looking at the city of Philadelphia specifically, Stern mapped both poor and better-off neighborhoods that featured concentrations of cultural resources, and was even able to demonstrate the real benefits generated in terms of improved measures of communal well-being.


Yet, despite this, Stern noted that measured over time, “cultural resources in the city are increasingly clustered in the better-off neighborhoods,” particularly as a result of “a decline in cultural assets in Philadelphia’s low-income communities.”[xxviii] Put bluntly: organizations in poorer, largely African American communities found it harder to sustain the level of cultural investment required to realize the promises of “creative placemaking.”


Stern sees this, finally, as a problem stemming from the limits of public art funding as urban policy itself:


Ultimately, creative placemaking initiatives are about making grants to organizations. Even when these initiatives require collaborations between multiple partners, they are likely to include only a fraction of the “cultural assets” in a particular neighborhood. The gap between culture’s impacts—based on the aggregate efforts of dozens of different organizations, informal groups, and individuals—and funding mechanisms—which identify specific organizations—will continue to pose a challenge to those who wish to link creative placemaking to a specific set of social benefits.[xxix]


It is almost as if, when thought through rigorously, the question of “creative placemaking” pushes it up against the limits of its original frame as a strategy of leveraging modest investments in culture in the absence of economic growth. Realizing the promises of public art leads us back to the need for large-scale investment, and the economic redistribution between people and regions that this would entail.


Without more evenly distributed growth, whatever the fate of many individual worthy projects, the overall future of public art looks bipolar—because history has shown that public art’s meaning and prospects are always overdetermined by the tensions of the society that produces it, and our society has become wildly economically bipolar.


At one extreme, public art will likely be symbol of the city as luxury commodity. At the other, it will be testimony to inadequate and under-resourced government policy. Or society itself will become more equal, and in the process create a new symbolism.



[i] John Wetenhall, “A Brief History of Percent-for-Art in America,” Public Art Review (Volume 5, Number 1), 5 “ Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[ii] Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., quoted in Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vitange, 2007), 374.
[iii] Harriet F. Senie, “Baboons, Pet Rocks, and Bomb Threats: Public Art and Public Perception,” Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy (Smithsonian Books, 1998), 237.
[iv] Richard Nixon, “Memorandum About the Federal Government and the Arts” Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[v] James Wines, interviewed in Alyssum Skjeie, “James Wines: The Architect Who Turned Buildings Into Art,” Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[vi] Casey Blake, quoted in John Emerson, “Whose Streets?,” Social Design Notes Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[vii] It is at this same moment that the NEA opened up its patronage beyond formalist modernist sculpture: “By the end of the 1970s, the NEA endorsed a ‘wide range of possibilities for art in public situations’—‘any permanent media, including earthworks, environmental art, and non-traditional media, such as artificial lighting.” Miwon Kwon, “Sitings in Public Art: Integration versus intervention,” One Place After Another: Site Specificity and Locational Identity (The MIT Press, 2004), 67.
[viii] See Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (University Of Minnesota Press, 1984), 5.
[ix] William Davies, “The New Neoliberalism,” New Left Review 101 (Sept.–Oct. 2016), Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[x] Rosalyn Deutsche, “Tilted Arc and the Uses of Democracy,” Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (The MIT Press, 1998), 266.
[xi] Deutsche, 259.
[xii] Kwon, 60.
[xiii] Elena Lombardo describes four main “art-based local development trends,” all of which are currently active: the “art-based tourism” model, dating from the 1960s; the “creative class” model of revitalization through attracting artistic communities, arising from the 1980s; the “creative sector” approach of focusing on cultural industries, dating from the 1990s; and, finally, “creative placemaking,” from the 2010s. “Art-Based Local Development: Strategies, Opportunities, and Challenges.” The Role of Artists and the Arts in Creative Placemaking, 19–22. Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xiv] Michael Bloomberg, quoted in Diane Cardwell, “Mayor Says New York Is Worth the Cost,” New York Times Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xv] Jennifer Steinhauer, “The Arts Administration,” The New York Times Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xvi] As Bernard Arnault expressed it: “You feel as if you must buy it, or else you won’t be in the moment. You will be left behind.” Bernard Arnault, quoted in Heather Thomas, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (Penguin Books, 2008), 41–42.
[xvii] Phillip Longman, “Bloom and Bust,” Washington Monthly (Nov.-Dec. 2015) Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xviii] “In 2003, 7.1 percent of the national creative workforce was centered in the Big Apple. By 2013, that share had grown to 8.6 percent, far higher than the city’s 3 percent share of all jobs in the nation.” Adam Forman, Creative New York 2015, Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xix] Micahel Idov, “And Another Fifty Million People Just Got Off of the Plane,” Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xx] Nicodemus, quoted in Lombardo, 20.
[xxi] Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, Creative Placemaking, 3. Accessed on October 8, 2017.
[xxii] Markusen and Gadwa, ibid.
[xxiii] Leonardo Vazquez, “Creative Placemaking: Integrating community, cultural and economic development,”, 9. Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xxiv] Ibid, 12.
[xxv] Ann Markusen, “Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success,” Accessed on October 9, 2017.
[xxvi] Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, ibid.
[xxvii] Ian David Moss, “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem,” Accessed on October 8, 2017.
[xxviii] Mark J. Stern, “Measuring the Outcomes of Creative Placemaking,” The Role of Artists and the Arts in Creative Placemaking, 92. Accessed on October 8, 2017.
[xxix] Ibid., 94.