Searching For Public Art

By Elizabeth Miller

Where do you find public art? Do you see it every day, in murals in your neighborhood or an art installation on your campus? Have you traveled to visit destinations like Mount Rushmore or Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park?

There is a new tool to help you find public art--- the Public Art Archive™, a data-rich, online catalogue of public art throughout the U.S. and Canada put together by the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). WESTAF is a regional arts service organization dedicated to the creative development and preservation of the arts, with an emphasis on technology. While the organization primarily serves the 13 states that make up its membership, WESTAF impacts the entire country through their new technology tools designed for the creative industries.

Launched in 2009, the archive is a free resource that allows a broad range of users to explore public art in their communities. Their extensive, standardized data includes items such as images of the public artwork at different stages of the project, documents with artists’ statements, audio of artist interviews, and video of the piece’s installation. The archive also boasts a mobile site that grants visitors easy access to the database, including a geo-location feature to immediately find artworks near you. With 100 collections catalogued to date, WESTAF continues to accept content submissions to the archive.

The NEA recently spoke with Rachel J. Cain, the program manager of the Public Art Archive™, and Anthony Radich, the executive director of WESTAF. We talked about the beginnings of the archive, how it works to serve the field right now, and their hopes for the future.

NEA: What sparked the idea for this project?

RACHEL CAIN: There is a real need in the public art field to not only collect information in one place which in turn, allows people to explore the wealth of public art to gain new insights. It is a simple idea with a huge impact.

What you have right now are silos of information about public art information that exist in individual city websites or in one-off websites by various people. Some public art programs may have been able to create their own website and there is a new trend where programs want to develop their own public art app. The Public Art Archive™ is the place where all of this information can live and be found together, creating a united and free resource for everyone. We want to surface information and images of public art instead of making people hunt for them.

ANTHONY RADICH: I would add two other things that give a reason for this. One is education. Many public art projects have some kind of citizens' committee that participates in the selection process. What has happened until now was that public art administrators would have to collect their own images of artwork to show those committees as examples. So, as a tool, the Public Art Archive™ is an educational resource. If the Omaha Public Art Commission wants to do a ceramic tile mural under a viaduct, the administrator could pull up images of ceramic tile murals from all across the country and show that group what has been done and how it looks.

The other reason is to support cultural tourism. Many public art administrators have an interest in attracting visitors to see their public art, but producing a full-color brochure with a map can be cost prohibitive. The Public Art Archive™ has a very robust mapping feature that helps tourists find and learn about the public art. This is where the mobile site can be really beneficial.

NEA: Is there a selection process for the public art listed in the Public Art Archive?

CAIN: The selection process is pre-determined by how we define public art. For the Archive™, an artwork must fit two criteria. First, it must be publicly accessible or intended to be publicly accessible if it is currently in storage. Second, it  must have gone through some sort of official acquisition process. That process can have happened by donation, private support, grant, artist initiated, or the traditional pubic art commissioning process. So artworks that are privately owned but publicly accessible are eligible, for example. This also includes temporary, ephemeral, and multimedia works. It’s important to be broad here, but also to define boundaries of what we are not aiming to catalogue.

NEA: Who is using the Public Art Archive?

CAIN: The public art administrators who are interested in researching what has already been created, what is out there, and how it survived the climate and the community are our primary users. Then we have the public artists who also need to research the makeup and potential challenges of an existing collection in the Archive™. This way they can make their application for a new opportunity more appropriate and competitive.

Cultural tourists are a really important user group, too. Related to that is our development of the mobile optimized Public Art Archive ™---a mobile version of our website. When you go to the URL on your mobile device, it automatically plops you on a map and shows you artworks that are near you, either on a list or on a map. That is really important for cultural tourism because it is one URL that tourists can visit whether they are in Seattle or New Haven.

NEA: How did you build the archive?

CAIN: Right now, we are collecting information in two different ways. I do consultations with any public art administrator who contacts me and says that they are interested in embarking on this project. I work with them one-on-one, answer their questions, and coach them along at whatever pace is reasonable for them. We can import entire collections from public art administrators that way.

We also have a call for entry on the CaFE ™ website, which is where a lot of the public artists have their information so that they can contribute to the database. We do outreach via listservs and in community groups, meet-ups, conferences, and are on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. There are also the Senior Advisors, 13 professionals and scholars from the public art, museum, conservation, visual resources, information science, and related fields who advise us on the development of the Public Art Archive™. They help expand our reach by bringing information about the PAA™ project to their communities and their networks.

RADICH: This is a fairly low-cost approach, and Rachel has about 100 collections now. Our vision for the future is to crowdsource for public art. We call it "guided crowdsourcing." It is not just that you take a photo of an image and put it up like you would on Wikipedia and write things about it. There would have to be an intermediate person who confirms, curates, and adds it to the database. What we would aim for is training volunteer groups to help in different communities to document public artworks. One thing we hope is that this project will help improve the quality of images in these collections. Believe it or not, even though we are all arts people, some of these images could use improvement. I think through crowdsourcing and other ways we can improve that quality over time.

NEA: Since we are talking about the future, do you have a wish list?

CAIN: We have 100 collections right now. In the next year I want to have 300, and in five years I want to have all of them. Our goals are really lofty in terms of the contents of the database. We really want everything for everywhere for all time. But of course, you have to start from somewhere reasonable.

One of the precursors for this project was done by Heritage Preservation in 1989 called Save Outdoor Sculpture, or SOS. In my fantasy world, the Smithsonian would add the records that were documented about public art from back then into the Public Art Archive ™ database.

RADICH: I think it is really important for this project to be sustainable. It is free. Our goal is for it to always be free. We are building a public art-specific collection management system. There are a lot of management systems out there, but they are not necessarily a good fit for public art for a variety of reasons.

The other vision we have is to collect a higher volume of granular data. Now, to be on the Public Art Archive ™, it requires a dozen lines of data, including location, etc. I would hope that in the future we could have 50 lines of data, and could expand to include things about the artwork that are more subtle. For instance, we know that an artwork is steel, but we would love to include what kind of steel it is, what type of coating it has, how was it applied, by whom, when, and when should it be checked again. Or we could collect topics or subjects that an artwork represents, which would be searchable. Do we look for subjects that are humorous? That would be kind of fun.

One thing we have always talked about---and the site can do it to a degree---is to use the site to educate local K-12 students on the artists in their community or the artists' work in their community. Right now, the site can handle audio and video and different kinds of document uploads. I can see going to a town or a city and working with the school district in order to create a curriculum for the 8th grade around public art.

NEA: Are there any surprises that have come up during the process?

RADICH: I think one thing…is a reticence that you find in collection management people. Some of the work is lost, some of it is stolen, and some of the record keeping is haphazard. Some of those pieces are pretty expensive. How do you tell the public an $80,000 piece has gone missing or that an artwork is falling over because you don't have funds to repair it? Increasing the visibility of a public art program can make administrators anxious.

One thing we are hoping to do with the project over time is to make it a little safer by educating the public and elected officials that there will be some losses; some related to the government inability or unwillingness to properly fund the protection and inventory of these works. I think that the field itself does not want to talk about it. So, that is the problem. It has not been a big barrier, but I think it is something that comes up pretty regularly.

CAIN: One of the things on my wish list would be to create funding for ongoing maintenance and conservation of collections. Many of the ordinances provide funds for commissioning new works, but they do not provide funds for the administration of the program or for ongoing maintenance. You have huge collections that are growing, but the older artworks are not being maintained. It can really undermine the value of a program. That can be the case if the public sees artworks that are in disrepair; they might think that the money for the programs is being spent poorly. If I had my way, we would provide more money to the conservation of these artworks. Perhaps we can begin to rethink how we commission artworks, whether they have to be permanent, or if public art programs can operate more like public service programs with presentations and performances and temporary ephemeral works that are not meant to be permanently installed for the next 50 years.

NEA: How does this fit in with the NEA's catchphrase “Art Works”?

CAIN: Public art as a field has continued to grow as the recession deepened. Many public art programs have continued to create art when other programs have suffered.

The NEA's Our Town program identifies public art as a successful way to make a place. We totally agree with that. It would be wonderful to see the Archive ™ be used to highlight the pieces of public art that have been successfully used to make a place. When you think about it in terms of economic impact, public art is unique because every public art piece, especially the larger-scale, outdoor sculptures, have a team of people that work on that sculpture. You do not just have one person do a commission. You commission an artist to have an idea. You pay that person, they have to work with an engineer, a fabricator, a welder, a lighting designer, an installer, probably an architect. There is a whole economy built up around and supported by public art.

RADICH: The Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis is a partner of ours, and the director says that they get 300,000 people in that park through the year. There is no gate. People just walk into the park. I think it is a great example of public art's ongoing, direct connection to large groups of people. It is pretty phenomenal. One thing that we want to do is increase the appreciation of that work by those zillions of people, because they can go to the Archive™ and look up something they saw driving to work and learn a little bit more about it.

CAIN: The major tenant of public art is that it is publically accessible. You do not have to pay to see public artworks, so for some people who are not interested in going into a museum, paying a fee, finding parking, taking a Saturday to go to a museum where they may not feel welcome or particularly relevant, public art is a way for them to experience art in a way that they may not have access to otherwise. That includes public sculpture outside, but also includes multimedia pieces and ephemeral pieces that exist in a place for a short period of time.

Public art is unique in that it is a completely different discipline than museums. It is related, and a lot of times public art collections lead people into museums, but the municipal collections exist to serve their audiences, to serve their communities in a way that is unique.

When you have a public art collection, individual works and the collection as a whole would [ideally] be a physical manifestation of that community. What you have then is a body of artwork that aesthetically, visually describes the community. The community can gather around that collection and bind themselves together through that collection. Then, hopefully you increase the community buy-in to the collection itself and into the artworks. So if one of them gets graffitied or gets knocked over by a storm, there is a community of people that cares about that collection because they have their own personal ownership about it. Art works that way, too.

NEA: Do you have any favorite pieces that are in the archive right now that you want to share?

CAIN: I personally like Janet Echelman's work. Colored fiber that is suspended and responsive to the atmosphere seems alive and is generally fantastic.

RADICH: I will say one of my favorites is---we call it the "Big Blue Bear" in Denver---but its true title is I See What You Mean. It is a 30-foot-tall blue bear on the side of the convention center, and what is nice about it is it has a little humor, it has some sophistication, it relates to people of all levels and knowledge. It is certainly on the fun, humorous side of the public art world, but I think it works very well in terms of connecting to the general public in a way that is high-quality and really wonderful. People love that piece here.