Art In The Open. Public Art: What Is It And Do You Have Any In Your Town?

The official definition of public art is any visual artwork [sculpture, mosaic, mural, memorials and any other form whether it be functional or aesthetic only] that is located on a publicly accessible site should be considered public art. A very general meaning for a concept as broad and varying as, well, art. And to make it all-encompassing, public art also covers street performances such as, parades, street theatre, outdoor concerts – any sort of live performance. The scope of this article, however, is much more narrow and defined. Public art = structural artwork made by an artist with the intention of improving aesthetic environs or providing a functional gathering place.Many of us have walked past, eaten lunch under or beside, thrown coins at, and completely ignored a whole array of public art. But not any more! Public art is a blossoming component of our built landscape that, in many cases, we can be involved in. Local governments and art organisations, depending on their public art policy or specific requirements, allow for community consultation on design and basic structure. The level of consultation, of course, depends on the function and placement of the piece being planned.Arts organisations, museums and galleries that are involved in bringing art to the public, have stricter opinions on what constitutes public art and less scope for community consultation. Their goals are different. Developing and coordinating outdoor exhibitions, of one artwork or many, is vastly separated from local government acts that require their planning departments and private developers to make provision for art in future developments.


What I love about public art is that the artist often has space to create really big works! Works that can inspire and uplift by their sheer physical presence alone. We won’t like them all, but we’ll pay attention to the statements the work and the artist are trying to make.Local government authorities around the world have development policies that require a percentage of a proposed development’s value to be spent on commissioning art. The art may be required to suit a particular location’s natural environment or heritage identity, or fit in with the cultural or tourism demands of the area. Public art can be temporary as in outdoor exhibitions and building wraps, or permanent such as fountains, memorials, roadside noise reducing barriers or street furniture.The possibilities for public art continue to grow as many regions include Public Art Trails in their tourism plans. Guides, maps and booklets are being developed that outline and locate notable artworks in an area, and then targeted to local and international tourists. In Australia, there is a long history of Big Things on the tourist trail; things such as the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, the Big Trout in Adaminaby and the Big Merino in Goulburn, plus the dozens of other Big Things dotted around the country. That’s not to say that all tourist-attracting public art needs to be big and garish. There’s quite a number of arty, culturally-aware and just plain interested people that like to take a step into an area’s local culture and get a feel for the people and lifestyle they are visiting.For the ordinary person not so involved in the art or local government worlds, how do you go about getting, locating or recognising public art in your area?Recognising is simple. As mentioned, public art is anything that is installed or erected that has either a purely aesthetic value or is functional, purposeful as well as being interesting to look at.Locating the public art in your area ranges from easy to hard. Start with local parks, town squares and outside any museums, galleries or government buildings. Not all areas or towns are created equal when it comes to money to spend on art [which is why making public art a development requirement is such a good idea], but that doesn’t mean there won’t or can’t be any around. Schools, public buildings and large expanses of wall are great places for the odd mural or three. Businesses that have turned their signage into art forms are only limited by their imagination. Tourist information centres and historical landmarks may abound. Many reserves and former industrial sites are the locations of old equipment and structures that have been turned into a reminder of days gone by.


Holbrook, a town approximately halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, has gone “superstructure” with its public art and turned an old submarine, the HMAS Otway, into an historical and artistic statement. Closer to the New South Wales/Victorian border, the Ettamogah Pub, near the town of Albury, has turned itself into the reproduction of an iconic cartoon edifice, a major tourist attraction and quite a fascinating piece of life-size 3-D, functional pop art.Around the world, towns and regions are travelling the public art trail by coordinating exhibitions that link individual homes, businesses, and industries via the artistic rendering of local identity. Scarecrows, cows, letterboxes, indigenous culture, building facades, milk urns, produce festivals, and the list goes on and on, all represent identity as seen by the local people, and all are art.Public art has been with us since the days of the cave and the creation of the first memorial sculptures and wall-murals. It may not be something new, but it does have the potential for huge growth as people insist on the beautification and visual expression of their communities and look for the same in countries, cities and towns they visit on holiday. Find your local public art and celebrate it. Make more. Art in the open has a way of lifting your soul and calling you to it, whether it’s to admire, disagree with or rest your feet and eat your lunch under.