publication of the International Sculpture Center
Criticism: Evaluating Public Art
by Harriet F. Senie
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Smith, Light Up, 1971. Work installed at Seagram Plaza, New
The idea of responsible
criticism is, of course, predicated on the existence of public art criticism,
period, a body of writing that has yet to reach critical mass. There are
various factors responsible for the present near vacuum. Public art operates
outside the gallery system; it cannot be exhibited in museums except by
proxy (drawings, models, photographs). And, most significantly, its economic
function doesnt generate revenue within the art business. If it
is commissioned directly from the artist, there may be no fee for the
gallery. There are few ads and therefore fewer reviews.
One strategy for
bridging these gaps is to link public art installations directly to museum
exhibitions. The Public Art Fund in New York has been very successful
with this approach: already in 1975, the Mark di Suvero retrospective
at the Whitney Museum of American Art had a public art component extending
to the five boroughs, and more recently the Tony Smith exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art in 1998 was accompanied by five installation sites.
Although this increases the odds of reviews, it is a limited, temporary
Public art attracts
critical attention only when it is the subject of controversy. It is rarely
reviewed with museum or gallery arton the same page or even in the
same sectionat least not in New York. Its unlikely that public
art will be recognized as art by critics, art institutions,
and the general public until it is consciously reframed as art.
This article is intended, in part, to suggest ways of accomplishing that
end. Certain factors pertain to all types of public art: the nature of
the patron and the terms of the commission, the site, and public response.
All, I believe, should figure prominently in responsible criticism.
Who is the patron,
and what are the parameters of the commission? What was the role of the
commissioning agency? Was there a selection panel? If so, who served (i.e.,
who was the curator)? The curatorial aspect of public art administration
is rarely acknowledged, yet many administrators play formative and even
collaborative roles, beginning with the selection of slides to show a
panel and extending to conversations with and suggestions to the artist.
While it is gradually becoming museum practice to note curatorial authorship
in exhibition wall labels and some critical reviews, public art administrators
(perhaps from now on better called curators) generally remain
anonymous to all but those in the field.
Michael Heizer, Adjacent, Against, Upon, 1977, Seattle.
It is arguable that
in public art, the site is the content. Most famously, the commissioners
of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial chose a site on the Mall in view of the
Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument before they set the parameters
of the competition. All sites have local, if not national, content established
well before they are transformed by public art. Every public space has
an evolving history of multiple uses, visual, social, and political, that
directly or indirectly influence, if not determine, both artistic and
Too often public
art attracts all manner of neighborhood discontents, something I have
come to think of as the Velcro factor. Sometimes it is even
held responsible for the general condition of the site. Here, a peculiar
form of the blame the victim phenomenon occurs: if someone
urinates on a work or defaces it in any way, its the fault of the
art. Federal Plaza, once the site of Tilted Arc and arguably one of the
worst examples of urban public space (barren, without any amenities, punctuated
only by an empty, consistently broken fountain), was so dismal that it
was singled out by architecture critics as well as members of the general
public as being at the root of the objections to Tilted Arc.1 Would anything
have worked at this site? Before we critique public art, we have to consider
and articulate the pre-defining features of the site.
It would also be
useful to ban, at least for a time, the term site specific.
It has too many meanings and is loaded with too much theoretical baggage.2
And it is impossible for public art to be site specific for
long. Since a public site invariably undergoes seasonal and/or developmental
change, any work would logically have to be frequently or periodically
redesigned to remain specific. Site responsive is, I think,
La Grande Vitesse, 1969, painted on civic garbage trucks
in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Id also like
to suggest a different terminology for public response. Audience
rather than public or community implicates only
those for whom something was created, an assembly of hearers or
spectators...the persons reached by a book, radio broadcast, etc.
(according to a popular dictionary definition). Audience does not imply
or suggest a larger political entity or philosophical concept. Arguably,
there is no public or community in general, or for public art specifically,
but there certainly is an immediate audiencethose who pass it sporadically
or on a daily basis. And there is an indirect audiencethose who
read about it or see it on television, should it become famous or infamous,
or notice it as the backdrop for an ad.
Since part of the
raison dêtre of public art is an expanded audience, it is
essential that responsible criticism consider reception. The general press
already does, but not in a responsible way. Most reporters are happy to
cite negative remarks or intentionally provocative comparisons, for example,
relating two works in Seattle composed of stoneNoguchis Landscape
of Time (1975) and Michael Heizers Adjacent, Against, Upon (1977)to
the then-current pet rock craze, or likening Joel Shapiros proposed
piece for Charlotte, North Carolina, to a headless Gumby.
response is problematic. For some time Ive used student field work
to gather such information. Every time I teach a class pertaining to public
art, I assign a public art watch. For the duration of a semester,
on different days of the week, at different times, students observe, eavesdrop,
and engage the audience for a specific work of public art. Based on a
questionnaire developed in class and modified for individual circumstances,
they inquire about personal reactions to this work and to public art in
general.4 Although far from scientific, the information is
based on direct observation over timeprecisely what is in short
supply for reviewers working on a deadline.
Louise Nevelson, Madison Plaza Sculpture, 1986, Chicago.
The best time to
write about public art is not when it is first installed but after it
has settled in. Its important to observe audience interaction
(or lack thereof) and to talk to some individuals. My students found that
people were easily engaged (unless they were running for a train) and
often had interesting observations once they got over their initial fear
of expressing themselves about art. Interestingly, although peoples
reactions became more favorable once they were told something about the
art or artist, often they had not bothered to read the information plaques,
even those placed in close proximity to the work.
Public art agencies
have a responsibility to the audience and the art and should find a better
way of getting information out there. All manner of information is available
to museum visitorsfrom wall labels to brochures to guided tours.
Indeed, museum educators might provide useful models. Perhaps interns
could be used to provide information.
Following the museum
model of comment books, there might be a way to ask for responses initially,
after a few weeks, and after a few months or years. In 2001, for the temporary
exhibition Points of Departure: Art on the Line, independent
curator Julie Courtney provided questionnaires at each station along the
Septa regional rail line in and around Philadelphia.5 Many people took
the time to fill them out. So, it is possible to gather feedback. Its
essential for all involved, including critics, to lose the art gaze,
to view things as a non-art-informed person might, without the benefit
of the artists explanation or even a general context for understanding.
Before we can determine
how information about audience response might best be used, we have to
know what is going on: if people ignore, discuss, or use a
work in some wayor if they even see it. At the least, being informed
is being more generally aware of how art functions in our public spaces.
Although public art
is intended for a general audience, there is a general distrust of that
very audience among critics and even some artists and public art curators.
A popular work is somehow presumed to be not good (public) art. For example,
in spite of the overwhelmingly positive audience response to the Towers
of Light (possibly the most visible temporary work of public art in our
time), I dont think there was any serious discussion or critique
of the work as public art.
Otterness, The Real World, 1992, Battery Park City, New York
should include a discussion of the requirements of the commission and
the curatorial role of the public art administrator, an analysis of the
site, and a consideration of audience response. Beyond that, critical
parameters are determined by the type or model of public art. In all models,
however, as with museum or gallery art, the artists intention is
a critical issue.
Single object sculpture
was the initial form of the public art revival in the late 1960s that
began with the Chicago Picasso. Contemporary discourse notwithstanding,
this is still a dominant form of commissioned public art. Works should
be judged both independently and in terms of placement (or installation),
much as if they were in a gallery (i.e., Thats a great piece,
but it looks terrible here). Public art as art presumes
the possibility of an art-viewing experience. To be seen as art, a work
requires a site where this experience is possible, where people can literally
see it and possibly stop for a brief or extended encounter.
Away from the protective
art frame of a sculpture garden or gallery space, public art
is vulnerable to certain public uses that change or distort its meaning.
Consider the well-known Calder in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose silhouette
is emblazoned on civic stationary, as well as on garbage trucks; and George
Rickeys Triple L Excentric Gyratory II in front of Coca-Cola headquarters
in Atlanta, renamed Leadership by the corporation. Public art as civic
or corporate logo (unless specifically commissioned as such) precludes
its being seen as art.
In addition to use
imposed from above, another kind of daily use often goes unremarked. Object
sculpture frequently serves as a photo oppeople often line up behind
George Segals Breadline at the FDR memorial in Washingtonand
as a jungle gym for its younger or more agile audience. (di Suveros
sculpture at Pierwalk is one of many examples.) If a sculpture has a viable
base people will sit on it, as they do on Nevelsons Madison Plaza
Sculpture in Chicago. While its not clear if this makes the art
more or less visible, it clearly signals a lack of seating in the urban
For public art as
art to work it must be visible, must be perceived by its immediate audience.
Its apparent widespread, if not pervasive, invisibility is comparable
to that of familiar works in a museums permanent collection, which
go unnoticed unless they are rearranged or moved to an unfamiliar space.
Obviously this is not an option for public art. But a sculpture that moves
often serves to attract audience attention. George Rhoadss 42nd
Street Ballroom (1983) in New York Citys Port Authority Bus Terminal
is surrounded when it is operative, but people ignore it when nothing
moves. Because not all public sculpture is kinetic, we are back to the
central issue: What will make public art more visible to its immediate
Some public work
seems to do better, it is more accessible or user-friendly, without dumbing
down or depending on signage. Tom Otterness takes an installation
approach in his scattering of pieces throughout the New York City subway
station at 14th Street on the A, E, and C lines, much as he did in The
Real World in Hudson River Park in downtown New York. Imbued with narrative
content, his small figures transform their space in subtle ways, their
atypical placement providing ongoing elements of surprise. Its hard
to over-estimate the effectiveness of surprise in public art, especially
since it often goes hand in hand with delight.
Artschwager, Sitting/Stance, 1989, Battery Park City, New
Public art today
consists of an array of functional works, encompassing (intended) seating,
fences, bridges, outdoor lighting, clocksany and all imaginable
street furnitureand even entire sites. This model is based on a
pragmatic as well as aesthetic response to site, compensating for a perceived
lack of urban amenities. The works at Battery Park City in New York address
this paradigm. At North Cove, Scott Burton and Siah Armajani, working
with architect Cesar Pelli, designed an urban waterfront plaza with a
sculptural element evocative of a lighthouse, ample seating, and a fence
inscribed with lines of poetry. Indeed, at North Cove there is an adjacent
park designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. Further south,
Ron Fischer designed Rector Gate (198589), a playful assemblage
that provides seating at its base. And still further south, Richard Artschwager
designed Sitting/Stance (1989), a furniture/sculpture that questions traditional
forms of seating, while also providing a good place to sunbathe, judging
from use. The question of whether a work is good (urban) design becomes
paramount. Does it fulfill its intended function? Does it provide viable
seating, lighting, or enclosure in a visually provocative way? And do
people actually use it?
The garden paradigm
is less common than its urban counterpart and raises distinct issues.
One is maintenance. Although this is a major factor in the success or
failure of all public art (a maintenance budget should be part of every
commission), it is critical to a project that consists primarily of planted
materials. Occasionally public art with landscape elements is called upon
to address environmental issues such as erosion or pollution, raising
other questions. Is this a good use of public art, or is it a whitewash?
As Robert Morris remarked in 1979 at the opening of Land Reclamation
as Sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum:
The most significant
implication of art as reclamation is that art can and should be used to
wipe away technological guilt...Will it be a little easier in the future
to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy
source if an artist can be found (cheap, mind you) to transform the devastation
into an inspiring and modern work of art? Or anyway, into a fun place
to be? Well, at the very least, into a tidy, mugger-free park?
It would seem that
artists participating in art as land reclamation will be forced to make
moral as well as aesthetic choices. There may be more choices available
than either a cooperative or critical stance
But it would perhaps
be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially
blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert
such sites into idyllic reassuring places, thereby redeeming those who
waste the landscape in the first place.6
Morris, untitled land reclamation sculpture, 1979, Seattle.
has other implications for the various uses/abuses of public art, but
for this model, if public art is commissioned to perform a specific environmental
function, then, in part, it must be judged on its ability to do so. We
would be better served, however, if the art in question also called attention
to the questionable practices that caused the problem. This is not always
easyas Morris found out. In fact, Morriss critical stance
became part of a controversy. He cut down trees and blackened their stumps
to mark the topmost boundary of the site as a reminder of its former debased
state. This not only provoked objections from environmentalists but was
not necessarily understood unless you knew the artists intentions.
It was easy to mistake it for the result of a fire.7
Often called community-based
public art, this model immediately raises the question of what is being
judged: process or product? It makes sense, however, to begin with concept.
Is this a good or viable idea? Then, did the process achieve the project
goals? And, finally, what was the intended role of the product and what
implicit criteria does it suggest?
When students in
a graduate seminar in public art taught at the CUNY Graduate Center in
spring 2003 considered the projects included in Mary Jane Jacobs
public art exhibition, Culture in Action, in Chicago in 1993,
their responses were amazingly consistent.8 The vote for best work was
split between two projects. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Street-Level
Video worked with neighborhood teens to produce Tele-Vecindario, 75 video
installations installed in the streets and intended to reveal the concerns
of neighborhood youth. In one lot, an 11-monitor-installation, Rest in
Peace, was dedicated to those who had died in gang violence. Displayed
at ground level, it suggested a cemetery with video-screen grave markers.
Haha (a collaborative group consisting of Richard House, Wendy Jacob,
Laurie Palmer, and John Ploor, which formed in 1988, the year David Nelsons
portrait of Mayor Washington in drag was arrested in Chicago) and Flood
(a voluntary network for active participation in healthcare) transformed
a vacant lot into a vegetable garden and created a hydroponic garden in
an adjacent storefront. Envisioning bacteria-free produce as particularly
important for those with HIV, the artists included a space for discussion
and dissemination of information on local services available to AIDS sufferers.
Haha saw this as a model that could be reproduced in other areas.
In both cases, students
applauded the concept, the process, the product, and especially the existence
of built-in mechanisms for continuation. This is an essential element
of public art as social intervention. It has to have the potential for
an ongoing, evolving relationship with its immediate neighborhood, to
be more than a one-day (or night) stand.
In a critique of
Culture in Action, Eleanor Heartney remarked on the general
dematerialization of public art.9 Jacobs next large-scale venture,
created in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, consisted primarily
of public dialogues.10 In the call for papers for the 2004 meeting of
the College Art Association (CAA), of seven panels devoted to public art,
three directly addressed the public-art-as-social-intervention model.
Two addressed publicly created forms of public art (i.e., created without
professional artist intervention). Two more focused on the place and form
of public art in our changing urban environment. One panel was devoted
to the history of perhaps the most contentious form of public art: The
Rise and Fall of Memorial Sculpture. Few of the works discussed
relate to the kinds of public art currently being commissioned. I see
this as a critical split, comparable to the rift between theory-based
art history and object-based museum practice. These CAA topics presume
that the best or only interesting kind of public art is based on a critical
stance and created by an artist together with neighborhood residents or
entirely made by a non-professional artist. And, it is, by definition,
temporary. The vast majority of public art commissioned today falls outside
these narrow parameters.
Public art is not
a substitute for urban renewal or social work, although projects may address
or include such functions. Public art ideally creates better places and
provides enjoyment, insight, and maybe even hope to its participants,
viewers, and users. But it cannot correct deeper problems stemming from
widespread unemployment and poverty, the neglect of public education and
healthcare, and all the other social ills so glaringly ignored at the
moment. Yet these unreasonable expectations are often implicit or imbedded
in the commissioning of public art. Although different models prompt distinct
criteria, I think that three basic questions should be asked, and probably
in this order. Applying art-world standards: 1) Is it good work, according
to its type: art, urban design, or community project? 2) Does it improve
or energize its site in some wayby providing an aesthetic experience
or seating (or both) or prompting conversation and perhaps social awareness?
3) Is there evidence of relevant or appropriate public engagement or use?
For me, successful public art has to score on all three or it isnt.
These, I think, are high but reasonable expectations.
Harriet F. Senie
is director of museum studies and professor of art history at City College
and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of numerous books and
articles on public art. A version of this article was given as a keynote
address for the 2003 annual meeting of the Public Art Network. The ideas,
developed over many years, took form in a seminar taught at the CUNY Graduate
Center in spring 2003.
1 See Harriet F. Senie, The Tilted Arc Controversy:
Dangerous Precedent? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
2 For a good analysis of its various evolving meanings, see Miwon
Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003). 3 My thanks to Anne Pasternak, director
of Creative Time, for this term and many other insights about public art.
4 See Harriet F. Senie, Reframing Public Art: Audience Use,
Interpretation, and Appreciation, in Andrew McClellan, ed., Art
and its Publics (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2003). 5 Julie
Courtney, Points of Departure: Art on the Line (Philadelphia: Main Line
Art Center, 2001). 6 Robert Morris, Earthworks: Land Reclamation
as Sculpture, in Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster, eds., Critical
Issues in Public Art (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998),
pp. 25060. 7 See Kenneth S. Friedman, Notes on the
Environment: Robert Morris, in Peter Frank, ed., Re-Dact (New York:
Willis, Locker & Owens Publishing, 1984), pp. 7072. 8
Mary Jane Jacob, Michael Brenson, and Eva M. Olson, Culture in Action
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1995). All descriptions of the projects are taken
from this catalogue. 9 Eleanor Heartney, The Dematerialization
of Public Art, Sculpture, March/April 1993: pp. 4449. 10
Mary Jane Jacob, with Michael Brenson, eds., Conversations at the Castle:
Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).