It seems everyone has an opinion about “public art.” And why not? It tends to have a major impact on communities. It inspires, amuses, and challenges people. It captures the time in which it is created and installed.
Public art can help make parks and greenspaces especially distinctive and memorable. Public buildings and plazas can host modestly sized to monumental art installations that reflect the character of the community. Small nooks and mini-greenspaces can showcase small-scale wonderful works.
One major issue with public art is that it is often controversial, sometimes wildly so. Government officials and public authorities seldom embrace controversy. That’s perfectly understandable. However, the flip-side can be bland and boring “safe” art that seldom merits much attention. In fact, the “safest” art usually is derided, being controversial because it is so uninteresting.
Ideally, a piece of public art will capture the imagination and stir the souls of many people, whether through beauty, simplicity (or complexity), subject matter, its style, etc. But it may fail to connect with other people whose tastes are different or who just don’t get it. Sometimes a piece of public art is universally embraced by a community; occasionally a work is overwhelmingly panned.
But it attracts attention and generates dialogue, and those are major attributes of public art.
Moving beyond issues of controversy, it is often said that all great cities have great art. That is undeniably true, as evidenced by cities throughout the world. But a community does not have to be New York City or Paris to have great art. Inspiring public art is also found from small towns to all-sized cities.
As CEO of the Spruill Center for the Arts, and a frequent traveler, I get to see the good, the bad, the ugly, and the “what were they thinking” when it comes to public art. I am a firm believer that key roles of public art are to: 1) capture the character of the community in which it is displayed; 2) make the people in that community feel more a part of, and more proud of, the area in which they live; 3) be accessible to everyone at no charge; 4) enhance everyday life; and 5) help draw cultural tourists and economic development.
The Spruill Center for the Arts, located in Dunwoody, is one of the largest community art centers in the southeastern United States. Thousands of students take art courses and workshops at Spruill Arts every year. There is also a professional artist gallery and gift shop in an historic 1867-1905 building on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
On a gallery outbuilding, a smoke-house dating from the 1840s, there has for years been a large mural that says, “Everything Will Be OK.” Originally a temporary exhibit piece by Jason Kofke, it has taken on iconic status as public art. Viewable from a major intersection, it is immensely popular and has changed lives: people struggling with cancer and other hardships have told us about the positive impact it has had on them. People also share with us the joy the mural has brought them. Engaged couples show up all the time to have their photos made beside the mural. So do many groups. It is amazing. Such is the power of public art.
A new addition just behind the Spruill Gallery is a beautifully landscaped sculpture garden. Installations are being added, with many more planned. Some sculptures will be permanent; others will be displayed temporarily and then replaced with new pieces.
While the garden is on private property, it is very accessible to the public. Spruill Arts will always do its best to foster a deep appreciation of public art.
Please think for a moment what life would be like without public art: no Statue of Liberty, no Eiffel Tower, no entertaining roadside attractions.
Let’s all take time in the hectic crush of every day to have our lives made richer and fuller by public art.
Bob Kinsey is CEO of the Spruill Center for the Arts in Dunwoody.