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The Bean - Chicago

The Importance of Public Art

Public art:  subject of praise, derision, censorship, and defense.  Public art, by its very nature, is fundamentally different from its private counterpart.  Public art isn’t just art for the wealthy or those inclined to visit museums and gallery shows, it is art for everyone.  One New York Times op-ed said on public art “With outdoor sculpture, the private act of looking converges with public habit. Public art is a communal activity; its reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers.” This art, often, though not always, monumental in scale, looms large in public spaces and transforms them through its existence.  Permanent installations imbue a space with character that can become iconic symbols of a city and, in doing so, engender pride and ownership in the local populace.  As we know from Placemaking, this public involvement and ownership is key to a space’s success. Temporary installations are sometimes more inflammatory than permanent installations. As they come and go, more experimental or controversial pieces can have a turn in the spotlight.  These installations spark public discussion, debate, and engagement. Their temporary nature makes their space dynamic and exciting.  Ever changing public art means a space can be one place in the summer and and altogether other space come spring.

Recent studies have found that public art is instrumental in creating an attractive community.  The Dirt’s Jared Green writes “The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative surveyed some 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the ‘aesthetics of a place – its art, parks, and green spaces,’ ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a ‘driver of attachment.’” And, “in Philly: a survey of local residents found that viewing public art was the 2nd most popular activity in the city, ranking above hiking and biking.”

As The Waterfront will feature a mix of permanent and temporary art installations, with an eye towards engaging local artists in the creation of this shared public space, let’s take a look at some of our favorite waterfront art:

1. Chicago – Cloud Gate

Bean 2 copy

Talk about an iconic public sculpture.  Cloud Gate – or “The Bean,” so nicknamed because it looks, well, like a bean – is instantly identifiable and intrinsically connected to Chicago, and it’s only been around 10 years!  Installed in Millennium Park in 2006, Cloud Gate is made of highly polished, mirror-like stainless steel to reflect Chicago’s famous architecture.  This is a great example of a piece of art that both creates a sense of place and compliments that which makes its place so special.  Its reflective surface invites visitors to interact with it and see the skyline, and themselves, from new perspectives.

2. Brooklyn – OY/YO

Brooklyn - YOOY copy

Located in Brooklyn Bridge Park, this sculpture has something different to say depending on where you’re standing.  Either “OY” or “YO” this sculpture nods to Brooklyn’s historic Jewish, Black, and Hispanic populations, as well its more recent – ahem – hipper, residents. In just two letters, Deborah Kass’ installation embodies a special part of the New York spirit.

3. New York – East River Flows

East River Flows 2 copy

Last summer, New York’s East River Esplanade hosted a 60-foot long photo installation featuring six photographs previously taken on the Esplande.  Using long exposure and a florescent lamp, the artist, Vicki DaSilva created a dynamic representation of this public space. Commissioned by Friends of the East River Esplanade, this “light graffiti” hopes to bring attention to the needs of the esplanade.

4. Scottsdale Canal Convergence – Water + Art + Light

Scottsdale copy

When you think of Arizona you probably don’t think of waterfronts, which is exactly what Scottsdale Public Art and the Salt River Project hope to remedy with their annual celebration, aimed at drawing attention to Arizona’s vital canal system.  This is a great example of how temporary art can bolster public support and interaction with a space and resource.  Water + Art + Light brings an array of light installations to the Scottsdale Canal for a visually stunning display.

5. Seattle – Fremont Troll

Freemont Troll copy

Though not technically a waterfront installation (it’s located a few blocks up from the Fremont Cut), Seattle’s Fremont Troll is an excellent example of community supported public art. In 1989, the Fremont Arts Council organized a national competition for creative ideas to transform the area under the Aurora Bridge.  The winning design, The Troll, was completed by a group of local artists on Halloween 1990, and has become a hugely popular destination for locals and tourists alike.  Each year the Arts Council hosts Troll-a-Ween, a celebration of the Troll’s birthday, and locals dress him up for various holidays and events. He is, undoubtedly, a true emblem of the grunge culture Seattle is famous for nationwide.


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