The Advocacy Behind Public Art
Pictured Above: The installation of various works by sculptor Seward Johnson for “Arts In the Parks” in Lower Makefield, PA. Photo Credit: Contributed.
Arts News Now contributor Amy Masgay shares with readers what’s involved with making public art happen
By: Amy Masgay
Public art is easily something taken for granted. We walk by murals on the sides of downtown businesses or sculptures in a park, and we just assume they were always meant to be there. What often goes unseen is all that went into getting that piece of art there for us to enjoy.
Public art can set the tone for an entire community, and certainly be used to honor that community. That’s what muralist Jared Bader keeps in mind when he approaches a new work–the community that he is striving to represent with his art.
“My murals are mostly historically based,” Bader said. “There’s an element of education through illustration of an area. More than just looking cool, there’s a subject matter there that people can feel proud about their community.”
Bader can’t physically live in every location where he is hired to create and install his work. These locations range from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Massachusetts, Virginia, and Tennessee. So, how does he approach commissions for communities that aren’t his own?
Pictured Above: A sculpture installation onsite at the AOY! organization by Seward Johnson as part of the “Arts In the Parks” program in Lower Makefield, PA. Photo Credit: Contributed.
The months-long process starts with coordination with the local committee tasked with bringing the project to fruition. Then, Bader dives into research, using libraries and online collections and photographs to design the public artwork that will be used to represent that community. Always in the background, there are the other details of juggling permits, construction setbacks, timeframes, and the wants and needs of the planning committee and local businesses.
The committees, when they’re made up of community voices with art education in mind, argues sculptor Jennifer Rubin Garey, can be extremely beneficial, especially when local artists are considered for that oversight responsibility.
“You wouldn’t go to your neighbor who’s a contractor for medical advice,” she points out.
Pictured Above: Sculptor Jennifer Rubin Garey at West Virginia University’s inaugural Sculpture Tour in 2019. This sculpture was on display for two years. “Formed to Fit II, Cast Iron 8’x2’x2’ by ©Jennifer Rubin Garey. Photo Credit: Contributed.
A point that both Bader and Garey touched upon in regard to the necessity and vitality of public art, is how when communities invest in such projects, the benefits come back to that community many times over. Tourism sours where there’s public art drawing focus toward a town or city and local businesses profit.
This is possibly the greatest argument for public art initiatives, especially as naysayers may point out more practical uses for public funds. The reality is, grants specifically for beautification and creative endeavors are a major source of funding for these projects, and municipalities often have to fight for these opportunities.
“It should be part of the planning,” Garey said. “We can’t negate necessities for public art, but it does enhance the community. It should be part of a balanced budget for the Parks and Recreation department, but for communities that don’t have them, what do you do?”
Bader and Garey both consider themselves to be public art advocates. When asked what people can do to support such efforts in their own communities, Garey suggested reaching out directly to their local governments.
“Most cities have local art organizations, like AOY,” she said.
Not coincidentally, AOY, or Artists of Yardley, as an organization in part supported by the Bucks County Tourism Grant Program, has been staying busy with their own efforts to increase the public art available in the community.
Last year, the Community Needs Assessment in Lower Makefield showed a need for increased arts and culture in the parks. In response to this finding, the Parks and Recreation department and AOY Art Center teamed up for a project called “Art in the Parks.”
Eight works from Seward Johnson, the New Jersey sculptor who founded Grounds for Sculpture and who passed away in 2020, are now on public display in the parks of Lower Makefield, on loan for six months. To make this project (themed “Play for All”) possible, funds from multiple partners were required. AOY committed $2,500, Lower Makefield Township committed an additional $5,000, and a grant from Visit Bucks County brought in the final push of $7,500.
“Play for All” doesn’t stop with the hosting of the eight Seward Johnson figures. This funding will also be used for additional visual and performing arts programming during the exhibition period, planning for which is currently underway.
Public art is certainly a gift for those who get to witness it, both the tourists merely passing through, and those who call these communities home. However, the efforts to ensure communities have public art to enjoy also, in a way, create a unique community of its own. They are the artists, advocates, and enthusiasts who recognize the value of public art in public spaces. It is because of them that we get to interact with something beautiful or interesting or unique everyday, without having to purchase a ticket or go much farther than our own backyards. All we have to do is go outside and open our eyes.