Public Art’s Share of Public Controversy


Public art is currently enjoying a revitalizing moment. City leaders nationwide are coming to see public art as a vital civic amenity fulfilling many roles. Such art provides a way for people to connect with a place, offers a visual tool for promoting civic dialogue and understanding other cultures, gives a city a visual identity, humanizes the built environment and enlivens public spaces.

Our nation’s parks and public spaces are filled with countless war memorials and busts of civic leaders or famous artists. However, a burst of new thinking and new forms has entered the public art realm in the last 20 years. A defining moment in Chicago’s history arrived with the 2006 completion of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) and the 2004 unveiling of Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, both in Millennium Park.

People were transfixed by the ingenuity of both artistic expressions. Cloud Gate gave Chicago a defining signifier of the city, while Crown Fountain offered a new take on what a fountain can be.

Another boost to a renewed public art awareness has been artists’ increased interest in working in the genre. An impressive program that works with artists to commission site-specific public art exists at Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York City. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Senior Curator of Madison Square Art, says, "Many distinguished artists want to work in the public realm. It gives them a chance to push materials, experiment with scale and provide access to new viewers. The public’s role in public art is essential to the artist."

Madison Square Park’s most recent installation was a work by sculptor Arlene Shechet. A new work by artist Leonardo Drew will replace Shechet’s and debut in June of 2019.

However, while few seem to have an unkind word to say about public art these days, the issue has generated its share of public controversy as recently as in 2017, in a story involving the internationally recognized artist Ai Weiwei.


Ai Weiwei, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, 2017,

Jason Wyche/Public Art Fund.


"Public space in urban centers can be contentious because there simply isn't enough of it," says Rapaport. City residents feel proprietary about space in their proverbial living room. The public also wants to be consulted when city agencies decide to plop a questionable new work in their neighborhood. Any art that would not provoke negative reaction in a museum is fair game when it appears outside gallery walls. Public art often collides with the imprecise nature of public taste.

Bob Lynch, former president of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that oversees public arts programs nationwide, has said that intense public opposition to such artworks seldom involves arguing about their looks but more extraneous issues such as location, durability, safety, and effect on property values and traffic patterns.

The recent past contains five examples that illustrate the fierce opposition that public art can incite. All took place in New York City, the nation’s art capital.

During the late seventies, the federal government’s Arts in Architecture program commissioned sculptor Richard Serra to produce a work. The result, finished in 1981: a 120-foot wall of curving steel meant to move with the viewer, changing both a walker’s perception of the sculpture and the environment.


Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981, Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Artspace.


The work sparked outrage. Tilted Arc was highly criticized for disrupting pedestrian traffic around Foley Federal Plaza in New York. Serra claimed his rights as an artist were being violated, but a trial determined that the work be removed. The sculpture raised issues of funding for public art projects and how far artistic expression can go in an artwork made for a public space.

Five years later, Keith Haring was arrested for erecting an unauthorized mural on a city park wall in New York. The mural, “Crack is Wack”, is probably Haring’s best-known work and, according to the Huffington Post, could now be considered the city’s most famous mural. However, at the time, Haring’s work was seen as unlawful graffiti.


Keith Haring, Crack is Wack, 1986, handball court at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue, New York. Source:


When the husband/wife artist duo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, installed 7,503 orange gates along 23 miles in New York’s Central Park in 2005, it marked the end of a 26-year struggle with city agencies to gain a license for their artistic vision. The city was totally against the project when Christo proposed it in 1979.

Lilly Tuttle, curator at the Museum of the City of New York, characterized the Park Department’s objection in a 2017 New York Post article: “There was a feeling among city leaders …that it would be too much of a strain on the park to install a work of this scale and ambition, that it would bring damage to the park. Other critics believed The Gates would detract from Central Park’s landscape.”


‘People Wash’ or strolling through Christo and Jean-Claude, The Gates. Central Park: New York City, February 22, 2005. Photo by Babette Babich.


Christo’s luck changed when Michael Bloomberg, a fan of public art, became mayor. The Gates was finally approved. The work was a major critical success and brought over 4 million visitors to view the installation.

Two examples from the current decade show that public outrage is not a thing of the past. In 2012, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, known for work that inverts public and private space, was invited by the Public Art Fund to transform a city landmark. Nishi chose the marble statue of Christopher Columbus, perched atop a 27.5-foot granite column in Columbus Circle, as the site for his first New York project.

Nishi proposed having the Columbus statue standing inside a fully-furnished living room. Visitors would climb six flights of stairs and stand on a square platform that Nishi constructed around the sculpture, equipped with modern furniture and pink wallpaper.

Such a proposal raised the ire of a number of Italian-American leaders. They argued that Nishi was disrespecting Columbus’ statue and that it wouldn’t be visible to the public during the city’s Columbus Day Parade. The art community and the Italian group battled on television over the piece’s merits. Yet, all the opposition only generated wider public interest and, by the time the installation closed, it had drawn over 100,000 visitors. The Public Art Fund had to issue timed tickets to control the lines of people wanting to climb the statue.

The most recent brouhaha occurred less than two years ago and centered around Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. His citywide installation of more than 300 artworks, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (referencing Robert Frost’s poem) provoked comments that one work resembled “a prison cell” while another city resident called Ai a “shit artist.”

Ai wanted to erect his pro-immigration installation to raise public awareness of the issue. Yet his wish to place the structure within the open space of Washington Square Park’s iconic arch drew the opposition of the Washington Square Association which viewed the arch as “a work of art in itself” and objected to Ai’s “politiciz[ing]” the arch.

The citywide exhibition went on as planned. It marked the 50-year anniversary of public art in New York that began in 1967 when the city moved to expand its war memorials, relief sculptures and murals with more contemporary, cutting-edge forms.

The conflict between public artists and their critics is a long-standing war of wills. History is replete with numerous examples of fierce opposition to what are now seen as masterworks such as the Eiffel Tower and Rodin’s famed statue of Balzac. Thus, if history teaches anything, it is that the art often outlives the public Sturm und Drang it ignites.


Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s managing editor.



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