The Function of Public Art

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My daughter next to one of Norie Sato’s Pride, Columbia City station

A frequent (and somewhat deserved) lament among the non-art-going-majority is that museums and galleries are just too distant, too alienated from the everyday experience to have any real meaning. I say this as a museum lover, but art that resides in beautiful buildings surrounded by discreet landscaping can feel like an affront to someone whose eyes more frequently rest upon strip malls or unadorned expanses of highway. Museums can broadcast (like a blinking neon sign) our country’s little-discussed class distinctions, quickly curdling ambivalence into antipathy.  If art is only “for” the wealthy or those who “know” about art, it’s a frivolous waste of time, and it doesn’t connect. Some museums have chosen to remove this barrier by offering ‘free’ days and education programs, but that doesn’t change the calculation when you’re worried about being told “don’t get too close!”

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Above: my mom in front of Victoria Fuller’s Global Garden Shovel, Columbia City Station Below: detail

One solution, of course, is public art- art that reaches beyond the reserved, moneyed areas of town and into the places that are the most aesthetically ‘ravaged’ through poverty or the neglect of infrastructure builders. Most major cities dedicate a percentage of construction projects (usually somewhere in the neighborhood of .5-1%.) Houston’s percentage is 1.5% but only on “vertical” construction, and in Seattle the percentage is 1%, with a healthy political push towards an increase. One major venue for public art in Seattle is transportation, which links neighborhoods both wealthy and poor. You can find public works at every light rail station, some more or less successful, and more or less beloved. They add to an extant collection of artworks (both publicly funded and sanctioned and folk art interventions) that give this city its character and reputation as one of the great public art bastions of North America. The Olympic Sculpture Park is recognized internationally and it is always free. Interestingly, Seattleites themselves don’t seem to know of this reputation. When I’ve mentioned it, people react with surprise.

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Ginny Ruffner’s Urban Garden, corner of 7th and Union

It’s true that art can be a tough ask in a city with such a vast wealth gap. When people are living on the streets, it can seem callous to invest in objects that seem to have no real “function.” If we think in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, art can seem pretty pointless. But a need is a need, top of the pyramid or not, and the function is this: good public art finds us where we are, no matter who we are. We can like it or love it or hate it. It can bring us momentary joy or a feeling of disdain. But it does ask us, whoever we are, to make a critical judgement. That personal request is a gift- the feeling of buy-in, the feeling that our opinion about this strange or singular object made by another human-matters. In this way, public art belongs to us and tells us who, and where, we are. It’s a barometer, and in that small critical exercise, we can be jarred out of our routine- we are not the mass-produced clothing we buy, or the dull job we labor at, or any of the other inane injustices we encounter in day to day life. Good public art reminds us that we are capable (at any moment that we choose!) of making, or participating in something utterly strange or beautiful.

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Clementine in front of Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium, Olympic Sculpture Park

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