“Putting artists in the public realm is essential.”— Barbara Goldstein

Barbara Goldstein is an independent consultant that focuses on creative placemaking and public art planning. She has been working in the field of art for over 30 years and has held positions includinge Public Art Director for both the City of Seattle and the City of San Jose. In 2016 she was honored with the Public Art Network Award by Americans for the Arts.

One of Barbara’s contributions to the public art field is an invaluable public art resource—Public Art by the Book. It is a nuts and bolts guide for arts professionals creating public art in their communities, and covers practical issues like funding, governance, legal agreements, and commissions. The book is an excellent resource for local government, arts agencies, art professionals and artists.

We sat down with the brilliant mind behind this publication to gather more advice for those making art for the public realm.

What does creative placemaking mean to you?

Creative placemaking is engaging artists from any discipline to collaborate with community members to build upon the existing character of a place in order to preserve and build upon its history and culture.

How does public art promote healthy, flourishing and equitable communities? 

Governments generally have progressive agendas, and that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed working in government. If you work in the public sector you have the opportunity to work with artists to develop work that illustrates government priorities such as sustainability, public education, and cultural diversity. 

In the public sector you have the chance to advance things that you care about. Public art can be democratic agents in our communities. This is where placing artists in the public realm is essential. You can pair artists with communities that want to tell their stories in a world that usually wouldn’t happen otherwise.  

Endurancea civic performance led by artists Brad McCallum and Jacquieline Terry that included oral testimony, c-print photographs and video with sound. 

Do you have an example of when public art initiated democratic change?

In Seattle, we started a program called ARTSUp that placed artists ‘in residence’ with various self-described communities. There were more than a dozen residencies and artworks completed under the direction of project manager Lisa Richmond.

Rene Yung worked with the residents of Kawabe House, a senior housing project that served Asians with various ethnic backgrounds. It was a situation where people did not know each other and Yung worked with them to share common stories and translate these into a series of postcards, tiles, and recorded histories. It broke down barriers between residents.

Artists Brad McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry worked with a group of homeless teens. The artists helped the teens tell the stories of who they were as individuals rather than the stigmatized vision people have of homeless kids. People have preconceptions of people sitting on curbs asking for change. Brad and Jaqueline helped present these teens with dignity; illustrating their struggles and the reasons they came to be homeless. The project included three elements: larger than lifesize portraits of the teens, an ‘endurance’ performance of the teens standing on the same street corner and telling their stories, and a public conversation. 

Can you tell us about a public art project in which you worked with less-than-expected partners?

I worked with the art and technology organization, ZERO1, and Lava Mae, an organization that provides “radical hospitality” to unhoused people in San Francisco. We commissioned artists John Craig Freeman, who uses augmented reality, and Sound Made Public (Tania Ketnjian and Philip Wood), to conduct video and audio interviews with people who had been displaced and then translated these conversations into geo-located augmented reality segments. Viewers could download the app, go to a particular location and, as they moved toward the image, they would hear the person speaking about their experience. 

Image courtesy of Conflict Kitchen.

Do you have an example of a public art project that brought about social change?

This is something that really interests me a lot. I am not sure if I can say yes to this question though. What I can say is that there are several artists creating model projects in the social realm. I would point to Mark Bradford and Rick Lowe, who have been embedded in communities and have created change by empowering residents to take control of their own environments and share their talents and skills, creating stronger communities.

The Conflict Kitchen, a project by Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski is another example. It is a restaurant that only serves food from places that are in conflict, rotating the place periodically. The food is served in packaging that explains its origins and the basis of that country’s conflict with the United States. The project has many additional educational facets that bring people who frequent the restaurant into closer contact and understanding of the subject country.

Unfortunately, many social practice projects are “hit and run” where people are doing something that is interesting to the community but it may not continue and thus not affect social change. 

Another concern is that no one is measuring social change. I can’t say if any of the projects I have commissioned have had lasting social change because this hasn’t been measured. I would love to go back and find the teens who were part of the ARTSUP project 18 years ago. Are those kids alive and successful? Have they passed from the challenges of the street? It would be interesting to find out.

How do you measure the impact of a public art project?

For a project and artists to be impactful, there has to be a way to actually measure what’s happening before and after, and not necessarily with numbers. Did it change peoples’ attitude? Did it create dialogue? 

For instance, in Seattle, we commissioned a water retention project that received and cleaned runoff from the pavement during heavy storms. Instead of putting a wall around the retention pond, we invited people onto the site. Afterward, we wondered whether people’s attitudes change towards pollution and waste? Did they appreciate the purpose of the retention project?

The issue is that the impact of art can be challenging to measure. What do you measure? How do you measure it? And the tools used may not be great for every situation.  

Images courtesy of Conflict Kitchen.

Have any recommendations for getting public art projects implemented in communities? 

Some sources of funding include grants such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors’ Challenge, Kresge Foundation placemaking grants, ArtPlace, or the National Endowment for the Arts' Our Town grants.

Another opportunity is in cities like San Jose that include public art in their general city plans and designate cultural areas. San Jose designated two dozen areas as “urban villages.” They require creative peacemaking in each urban village and sometimes even fund it!

Artists can also work with private developers. Some cities that are conducting development in a large area connect with a master developer and require that the developer include art. The trick is placing requirements on developers. In most cases, you can’t require a developer to include art unless you make a change in the building code. If you don’t make a change in the building code, you have to rely on the developer’s goodwill to commission art and there’s no way to enforce this. 

An example of a master development agreement is Creative Village in downtown Orlando Florida. The stadium moved from its location downtown and the city asked for a master developer to revitalize that part of town and include art in that plan.

What are other important things to consider when implementing public art projects?

It’s important to set up a good database of public art collections because otherwise people may forget that the art is there and neglect it. 

What do you do with the art if the building is going to be destroyed or moved? That’s where deaccessions come in. I don’t think that everything should last forever. That’s a very controversial thing to say. It is a shock to artists when work has to be deaccessioned. For example, in Seattle, an artwork at the arena was commissioned in 1994 and the building was being renovated. The artist wanted the artwork to be moved, and it becomes a tricky situation because neither the developer nor the city was willing to fully assume responsibility for relocating it. Whether the art is in a public or private building it is desirable, if possible, to find a way to move it and find another home for it. It’s heartbreaking to have to destroy an artwork. 

What advice do you offer to artists who want to initiate public artworks?

Listen carefully to the stakeholders, be humble, and share your ideas with respect.

Interested in creating works in the public sphere? Learn more about accessible ways to get started.