artfairtokyo2008_1Due to its cost and visibility, public art can be tough sell to, well, the public. So what are the benefits of public artworks, and when did the idea begin?

The production and introduction of artworks into the public domain started to be regulated and organized by national programs in the 1930s. Although state-sponsored institutions—such as the US Federal Art Project, the USSR’s Ministry of Culture, and the Chinese Communist Party’s art-related efforts—primarily pursued propaganda goals, this laid the foundation for public art programs worldwide.

As the movements of minimalism and pop art in the 1960s and 1970s changed the concept of what could be classified as art, the idea of introducing art into the public space gained traction in the US and elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, up to 1.5 percent of a public building’s construction budget is used for site-specific art. Other European countries have dedicated certain funds to public art as well, according to a Percent for Art report.

This idea is also reflected in the establishment of non-profits such as New York’s Public Art Fund, which started in 1977 with the purpose of commissioning and realizing local public art projects.

“The exciting thing about public art is that it provides artists with unparalleled opportunities to think outside the traditional and physical limitations of the white cube,” Nicholas Baume, director of the Public Art Fund, told artnet News in an email. “And it gives audiences the opportunity to experience a familiar space, in a completely new way, through the eyes of the artist.”

Today many public artworks have become symbolic of the spaces they inhabit, for better or worse. For example, in Chicago, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2006) affectionately dubbed “the bean” by locals, is almost synonymous with the city.

However, as the size, scope, and ambition of public art projects have expanded so too has the cost and complexity of realization, prompting increasing levels of criticism and skepticism from the public. For example, in 1989 Richard Serra‘s monumental Tilted Arc (1981) installed at New York’s Foley Federal Plaza, was removed following a lawsuit by office workers who claimed it disrupted their daily routines.

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