Art Works Blog

From the Archives: Artists and the Visual Definition of Cities

Washington, DC

Reach by Lorna Jordan was a public project of the Washington State Arts Commission in cooperation with Edmonds Community College. Photo by Lorna Jordan Studio

In 1986, the Arts Endowment was celebrating its 20th birthday. The winter edition of Arts Review featured an interview with First Lady Nancy Reagan, chair of the official NEA 20th Anniversary Committee. Also included in the issue were an article on Vartan Gregorian, the Carnegie Corporation head who was then president of the New York Public Library; a short piece on supertitles, which at the time were still fairly new technology; and excerpts from writers who had received support from the NEA's Literature program, including current Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin, Tobias Wolff, and  Ntozake Shange. Richard Andrews, director of the NEA's Visual Arts discipline from 1985-1987 also weighed in with "Artists and the Visual Definition of Cities," an essay on the changing face of public art. What follows are selected excerpts from Andrews' piece.

Cities evolve through a gradual layering of events, nature, economics, and politics. Once mapped and defined, the formal composition---the particular arrangement of the public and private domains---remains relatively stable over time. Yet the elements within the composition---architecture, transportation, commerce, finance, and recreation---are in constant flux. Yesterday's historic battle site becomes today's supermarket parking lot. The site for civic celebrations shifts as history fades or is newly created. The corner grocery store falls victim to improved transportation and then is reborn with the energy shortage. This constant reformation of a city's gathering places, markets, and transportation systems can make the presence of art sometimes central, sometimes peripheral, and occasionally forgotten.

This ongoing transformation of the particulars of a city affects not only the physical character, but also the psychological map or portrait held by the inhabitants. This impressionistic portrait is not a literal depiction; its features are distorted by the social, historical, or cultural values placed on various sites or areas.

The role of art within a city can be a determinant of, or be determined by, the public spaces that are prominent features in this psychological map. For an agency seeking opportunities for artists to create works for urban public spaces, it is not enough to simply look for open space within the literal grid of a city. If one seeks to provide both access and audience, in addition to the site challenge given to an artist, then an agency must review the importance of a site within the subjective portrait of a city. In so doing, other sites may emerge that may appear minor in the literal map but that constitute major features of the subjective map.

Such prosaic elements of a streetscape as a sidewalk or a street triangle may become appropriate sites for the activities of artists if they are perceived by residents as prominent in the use and understanding of the city. The "obvious" site for an artwork the prototypical urban plaza, may sit barren while a set of nearby benches adjoining the street may be filled to capacity by users who seek to be closer to the life of the city.

Since the public domain is complex, filled with multiple uses and values, what role does art play in our experience of a city? Historically, public art has served a wide range of functions: landmark, monument, symbol, architectural embellishment, functional element, isolated aesthetic object, and cultural artifact?.

Many artworks are conceptually independent of site: as objects, they can be appropriately exhibited in a variety of sites within a city or within many different cities. Their relationship to site is pragmatic, concerned primarily with physical features and limitations. To a public audience their genesis and content often seem shrouded in mystery. Much like a book on a library shelf that is continually available but not necessarily of popular interest, these works represent distillations of independent aesthetic investigations unmitigated by the influence of a large community or audience.

In contrast, those artists whose work is conceptually tied to the unique characteristics of a site must develop a broader understanding of the context surrounding the site. A simple topographical site study, sufficient to appropriately exhibit a sculpture as an independent object, does not incorporate the more complex "portrait" of the site held in the community's mind. The unveiling of this portrait requires an increased communication between artist and community. The very act of gathering information engages the artist with the users of the site and opens up the artist's creative process to view.

The interest in a contextual approach to the creation of public art has been generated largely by artists. It extends from the public art of the last decade, but its roots are as old as the relationship of ancient art to social spaces. Much of the interest in a response to site relates to other disciplines' investigations of how a city is experienced and to artists' curiosity concerning direct communications with a public audience. Whether this interest will remain ongoing is an open question. Certainly it can be said that the generally anonymous vacuum of American streetscapes is overdue for examination.

Ultimately an arts agency must remain responsive to the ongoing investigations of artists as it develops new projects. There is a danger in perceiving contextual projects as a panacea for public art---as a means to reduce controversy and make art "useful." An important distinction should be maintained between the provision of support for artist-generated projects and the creation of a program that usurps the artist's contribution as an investigator of ideas and substitutes an inflexible bureaucratic process. Since functional elements are often a component of contextual works (a functionalism attractive both to bureaucrats and the public), legitimate concern exists that function should not become the primary criteria for an institutionalized program of public art?.

The opportunities presented to artists for public spaces should be open-ended and should encourage an experimental investigation---the idea of public space as laboratory---as much as they further the more traditional notion of art in public places as a library of visual art experiences.

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