Penn Praxis recently released a study called Philadelphia Public Art: The Full Spectrum. Commissioned by the William Penn Foundation, it examines the state of public art in the city and the opportunities for the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) to better promote the creation and preservation art in the public sphere. All too often we look at public art, when we deign to pay attention to it, from an artistic standpoint and not from the perspective that shows how it gets built, installed and maintained. The study is notable for its historical examination of public art and for highlighting how Philadelphia’s policies for funding, managing and maintaining public art have not evolved along with the times, arts themselves and the living city. Praxis suggests that public art often gets short shrift from city agencies due to both budget pressures and from a lack of perceived value for the departments’ own missions’. They call for the OACCEE to “meet with representatives from all relevant departments and agencies for exploratory conversations and look for collaborative opportunities. Frame the OACCE and the Percent for Art Program as a resource instead of a requirement, offering to assist in that department’s work.”
This is a far more important recommendation than one might initially presuppose because it hints at a new way the city, communities and developers can interact when it comes to negotiating the impact on the community. Before I explain what I mean, a short digression is necessary to explain some of the problems with the process of community participation in planning and development. Be it a private developer who needs the community support to appear before a zoning commission, or a Streets/Highway/Transit Department that must complete an environmental review process before building a road or transit system, the builders of our cities must sit down with the communities who will feel the brunt of the impact of their project. The fact that developers and project builders must sit down with their community is not the problem, in fact it is rightly part of the whole development process. The benefit of such a process is two-fold, it is an opportunity to educate the public about a project, and it provides the developer (private or public) the political cover for some of their decisions. Problems arise can arise however when a community makes unfeasible demands or impractical demands and expectations are created for project aspects that are simply unable to be acted upon. It is one thing to ask for a place to sit, or a set-back in the highest portion of a tower, and it is another to expect a developer either not to go as tall as financially feasible or that they will fund the ongoing maintenance of a youth center. Out of such meetings, delays, costs and acrimony arise.
This is where public art comes in. At the crux of many communities’ complaints and demands is the sense that their community, where they have grown up and raised their children, is changing and that they have no voice or place in the future of their community. However Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has created a tried and true method of transferring the collective aspirations and values of a community and expressing it visibly on the vacant walls of the city’s many neighborhoods. By using the public art process as the main venue for public outreach during the building process developers (again, public or private) not only make the public a meaningful part of the development process, but they can act as partners to bring new identify, beauty and sense of identity to a place and project. The community sees themselves as a partner and the developer sees an added layer of investment in their project. Bringing in the OACCEE to the development process, to help encourage and steer the development of public art “tangible commitment to the public environment.” Ultimately a commitment to public art is an expression of our collective values, both for art in general and more importantly for its contributions to the city we live in.