(Author’s Note: This post builds upon prior pieces by Dr. Elizabeth Morton and Angela Adams.)
I enrolled in Dr. Morton’s Exploring Evaluation for Public Art studio as a way to complement my experience as a working artist-art educator with a limited sense of the planning and evaluation process for public art. Over the course of the studio I came to see evaluation not as a zero sum game meant to occur after installation, but rather as an ongoing series of assessments conducted by and for major stakeholders, including, but not limited to, the intended audience.
While public art evaluation clearly includes examining the perceptions of the general public, it must also examine the processes and decisions that influence, direct, and ultimately, commission, new works.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this studio was the opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue created by the intentional interface of urban planners, designers (in this case, architecture & landscape architecture students), artists, and arts administrators.
Each of these roles fulfills an important and different function in the life cycle of the public art project; yet all too often we work in isolation from one another and/or use language that is particular to one discipline and foreign to another. The studio proved to me that we have a great deal to learn from one another and that increased cross-disciplinary collaboration will continue to yield exciting new contributions to the field of public art evaluation.
For example, as a predominantly 2D artist moving into the more design-based role of the landscape architect, the concept of site analysis took on an expanded meaning. From a conventional fine arts perspective, a site is a location where an artwork is placed, not necessarily a place that an artwork might inhabit over time. Artists would clearly benefit from the designer’s perspective of understanding site as an ongoing process, with multiple actors; yet this is a concept that is rarely discussed in undergraduate or graduate level art programs.
From the literature and the artworks the examined, it is clear that there is an increased trend in public art towards more integrated, design-based works. This finding presents both unique challenges and opportunities for the artist.
My group conducted the aforementioned Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) of sculptor Doug Hollis’ piece, Wave Arbor. Our study found that the sculpture is so well integrated into the surrounding infrastructure that many users did not recognized the work as a piece of public art.
From an interview with Mr. Hollis we learned that he was not necessarily concerned with whether or not Wave Arbor was recognized as such, but that he was interested in having his work function as a “beacon” for the park. Thus our findings reveal an interesting and sometimes conflicting tension is set up between the need to integrate work and the desire for iconic works that act as placemakers.
How designers and artists approach this tension remains to be seen. Clearly, artists would benefit from working with designers to expand their understanding of design function and program so that their proposals might grow in this capacity while still retaining some sense of the provocative or transformational.
Results from this past semester reveal that designers and planners similarly profit when they are exposed to the often unique perspectives that artists employ, and that it is to their benefit to begin this dialogue early in the planning process.
One overriding theme from this semester revealed that while public art is often appreciated by an audience, it remains difficult for users to articulate how or why an artwork impacts them specifically. Existing literature also suggests that once equipped with more knowledge about an artwork, users feel empowered to share their experience.
Both of these finding were reinforced by our POE of Wave Arbor. While many interviewees thought the work was “cool,” most were hard pressed to elaborate as to why. Asking users to describe the sculpture or provide alternate names yielded important clues about the public’s reception of the work. Many users thought the sculpture generated alternative energy, for example, and our evaluation demonstrated that there is an interest in seeing such work.
From my perspective as an artist and art educator, user hesitation to evaluate or opine about aesthetics is not surprising. This finding presents a great challenge and one that we should collectively embrace.
While I appreciate the inherent usefulness of the internet in my life, I cannot explain how a series of zeroes and ones is ultimately transmitting this blog to the reader.
Likewise, how can we expect the public to evaluate an artwork without a basic understanding of design language?
If we know that an informed user is a more enthusiastic user, how might better art literacy change the perception of, and ultimately support for, public art and public art funding?
How might we incorporate such literacy into all stages of the public art process, beyond a small plaque that is often overlooked?