Essay: A Place for the Public’s Art

Not much may have been posted over the past few weeks, but written plenty. I thought a couple of the more interesting essays I’ve generated might be of interest to those that check in regularly. The first is the themed essay I wrote in response to my observations of how place-making public art is used within the European context. It was submitted for assessment, and was marked, um, favorably. (It helped me to maintain my hefty grade average, but that’s all I’ll say). The second essay will follow in a subsequent post.

A Place for the Public’s Art

In 1949, a voluntary scheme was established by the former West Germany to promote the commissioning of public art through a program that has become more conventionally known as ‘Percent for Art’. Generally, the scheme encouraged building and property developers to set aside 0.5% of their development budget to commission art pieces and programs for the public realm (Hamilton 2001). The scheme was modelled on a similar idea that arose out of France in 1936 but had yet to be implemented. The Kunst am Bau (Art in Building) program became so popular across West Germany during the post-war reconstruction period, that it was eventually extended from 0.5% to 2.0% and mandated in many cities and municipalities across the country.

Figure 1: Joan Miro, “Sculpture de Joan MIRO,” 1978, La Defense, Paris. Source: Author.

Percent for Art programs have since been initiated in countries across the world including the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and here in Australia. Not all programs have been legislated or been made mandatory by other means, and not all have been as popular as the Kunst am Bau in Germany. However, each has been predicated on the idea that public art programs and instillations contribute a net
improvement in the physical amenity of the public realm, and that this improvement brings with it other, more broad based benefits to the community – a contention that has for decades now, generated wide ranging criticism and debate (McCarthy 2006).

This themed essay aims to explore the relationship between public art and the public realm in the contemporary urban context. In particular, it seeks to document and discuss observations made during a five week study tour which concluded on July 15 of 2011. The tour visited cities in Germany, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Wales, England and France. For the purposes of this essay, the aim of the tour was to test some of the ideas put forward in academic literature that support the use of public art in contemporary urban development and redevelopment.

This essay does not seek to present observations of how these factors may impact on the public acceptance of each piece, only to analyse the direct observations and personal experiences gained on the tour. This will also attempt to show that contemporary public art does have a legitimate ‘place-making’ function, but also achieves other important objectives. And although some of the public art instillations visited on the tour fail to attract place-making status, these have been included as evidence that the practice of commissioning these works could quite conceivably result in cultural and economic development activity in other forms.

Figure 2: Henk Vische, "Marathonbeeld," 2001, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Source: Author.

It’s also important to note that this essay does not seek to critically appraise any of the public art pieces that were encountered on the tour; nor is it intended that any piece be
judged on its artistic merit. The public art instillations that are the subject of this essay have been selected on the basis that they represent permanent, contemporary pieces that have been commissioned for and on behalf of the public, and are displayed within the public realm. In an attempt to narrow the scope to relevant pieces, political, military and other monuments; uncommissioned artwork such as “graffiti” or “street art”; architectural or landscape works; temporary works; and works located outside of the public realm have all been omitted.

The Art in Place-making

Monuments, statues and sculptures featuring imperial, political, military or religious iconography have long formed the basis of artistic works within the public realm (Schrank 2010; Hubbard, Faire & Lilley 2003). Prior to the end of World War II, alternative decorative devices in the public realm were mostly confined to architectural flourishes and landscapes – gardens in particular. The idea of art for art’s sake was, for the public at least, something of a rarity. Post war reconstruction activities across Europe led to a rethink in the role art might play in public open space (Miles 1998). With the introduction of various Percent for Art schemes in many parts of Europe, and later, in America, the decorative intentions of public art began to be supplemented by purposes more closely aligned with community and economic development and place identity, or place-making. Public art was also purported to be a useful device for cultural and economic development (Hubbard 1996; Hall 2003; Miles 2005; Sharp, Pollock & Paddison 2005). In the United Kingdom, it is said that a ‘golden age’ of public art occurred during the 1980’s and 1990’s, as the cities of Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin and Belfast each began a post-industrial transformation (Pollock & Paddison 2005). The conspicuous use of public art as a tool in the urban design strategy of each sought to brand these places within a global context, and as Pollock & Paddison (2005, p. 335) describe, were “cited as having a catalytic effect on the local economy”.

Figure 3: Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc,” 1981. Removed in 1989 by court order. Source:

In the years since, the place-making intent and efficacy of public art as a driver of cultural and economic development have been challenged and openly criticised by commentators, academics and the wider public. Perhaps the most high profile example of such criticism occurred in the years preceding the removal in 1989 of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981) from Federal Plaza in New York. The decision to remove the 120 foot long steel sculpture came about after a protracted public hearing and court ruling, and a failed legal appeal by the artist. Tilted Arc was an ambitious attempt by the Arts-In-Architecture Program – a Percent for Art scheme administered by the US General Services Administration – to use the work of a high profile artist as a central feature of the redevelopment strategy for the precinct (Pollock & Paddison 2010, PBS n.d.). This event gave rise to debates regarding the role of government arts funding; ‘site specificity’ and the appropriateness of artistic forms in the urban context; the rights of artists to their public works; and the role of the public in determining the value of public art. These debates became intertwined with broader questions relating to art as a driver of cultural and economic development.

A proliferation of public art has occurred throughout the world in the years since, despite the Tilted Arc controversy (Miles 2005). At it’s pinnacle, the concept of ‘cultural regeneration’ or ‘culturally led urban development’ has manifest in new flagship cultural institutions at the
centre of regeneration projects in Glasgow (Scotland) and Bilbao (Basque Country, Spain) – the latter lending it’s name to the phenomenon described as the “Bilbao Effect”. But dissent against the movement of art into government policy is the position of many within the artistic community, as concerns arise with regard to the objectification and misinterpretation of artistic works (Miles 2005, Hall 2003).

The disparate controversies surrounding the role of public art became the focus of this investigation, raising two specific questions regarding the use of public art in three European cities. First; what role, if any, does public art play in the place identity of precincts within a city? And second; is the existence of public art of itself a driver of place identity, or a consequence of it? To investigate these questions, a simple site visit was conducted to observe the location of each piece, and it’s proximity to other urban features. A Survey of the locality was conducted to determine the acceptance with which each had been embraced by the public. Was there evidence to suggest that the piece was embraced, rejected or disregarded by the public? Finally, an observation of how each piece might act to enhance or detract from the amenity of the locality in which it sits. Each factor contributed to the overall assessment of the contribution each piece makes to the identity of the precinct.

Public Art in Freiburg, Germany

Figure 4: Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, “Gartenschlauch,” 1983, Freiburg, Germany. Source: Author.

Located in the south of Germany, Freiburg is a small city renowned for its progressive adaptation of sustainable urban development and public transport. A major contributor to the town’s vitality is also the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg), with campus buildings dispersed throughout the central part of the city. Perhaps the most prominent instillation of public art is “Gartenschlauch” (Garden Tap), a sculpture 11 meters tall, located at the centre of an expansive public park (Stühlinger Park) to the West of the city centre. The expansive scale of the sculpture appears well suited (in scale) to its park location, and appears to act as a dominant landmark along the tram route adjacent to the park. At the time it was viewed, local children were climbing upon the sculpture, and the bare earth at its base indicated that it was a popular site for visitors to the park. It was a popular object for graffiti too, albeit limited to simple painted and inscribed tags – no substantial damage had been inflicted.

Figure 5: “Gartenschlauch,” in its urban context. Source: Author.

“Gartenschlauch” features in the psyche of Freiburg residents, as a ‘place’ in the city. On two occasions, passengers on the tram were overheard referring to it. One passenger spoke of the sculpture in glowing terms, and described the artist responsible as an “important American Pop-artist”. Although factually incorrect (the artists were German, and not of the ‘Pop Art’ genre), “Gartenschlauch” has etched an important place within the urban landscape of Freiburg.

Figure 6: Roland Phelps, “Bundel-Stele 1,” 2007, Freiburg, Germany. Source: Author.


By contrast, “Bundel-Stele 1” is located within the grounds of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in the centre of the city. It’s tucked away under a canopy of mature trees, and perched above the eye line of those at street level. The instillation itself is tall, and dominant, albeit hidden and awaiting discovery. The precinct itself is in the midst of a large scale rejuvenation with the dominant university library building (under redevelopment) only as short distance across the intersection (refer to Figure 7). “Bundel-Stele 1” it seems, is a feature within the new and bold future the precinct is facing.

Figure 7: “Bundel-Stele 1” in its urban context. Source: Author.









Public Art in Prague, Czech Republic

Figure 8: David Cerny, “Babies,” 2000, Prague, Czech Republic. Source: Author.

David Cerny is a high profile, albeit subversive, contemporary artist and sculpture responsible for producing many of Prague’s most renowned public art instillations. “Babies” is one of the last in a series of projects featuring large scale ‘alien’ form sculptures of infant humans. This instillation located at the edge of a public park (Park Kampa) and in the shadows of the walls of Museum Kampa, features forms that are familiar to the people of Prague. In 2000, similar (if
not the same) sculptures were fixed to the side of the prominent Zizkov TV and telecommunications tower in Prague; a temporary instillation that bought international acclaim to the artist and to the city of Prague itself.

Figure 9: “Babies” in its urban context. Source: Author.

“Babies” is a sculpture that has featured in promotional campaigns for the city, and plays an important, if not influential role in the modernisation of Prague in the contemporary, global context. It is interesting to note that at the time of visiting the instillation, a wide variety of people stopped to engage with the sculptures; to have their photographs taken beside them and to stand up alongside. Interesting also is the absence of any type of wilful damage or vandalism of the sculptures, perhaps an indication of the regard resident have for them, or the security presence at the nearby Kampa Museum.
Other works by the artist have been the feature of tourism and trade events internationally, and play an important role in identifying the city as a place of creative rejuvenation.

Figure 10: David Cerny, “Piss,” 2004, Prague, Czech Republic. Source: Author.

Not far from “Babies” is another of David Cerny’s works, in the forecourt of the Franz Kafka Museum. As another example of the subversive style that is typical of the artist, “Piss” is located inside the public entrance to the Museum, in a place better suited to its more liberal minded audience. “Piss” is both a kinetic and interactive work that appears to appeal more to the sensibilities of the somewhat more liberal minded target audience of the Franz Kafka. Nonetheless, the sculpture offers residents and visitors a distinctive sculptural work by a high profile Czech artist – a common characteristic of place-making public art.

Figure 11: “Piss,” in its urban context. Source: Author.









Figure 12: Sign explaining the temporary removal of sculpture during underground tunnel sealing works, July 2011. Source: Author.

Public Art in Berlin, Germany

Although installed in the years immediately prior to German reunification, Brigitte Matschinsky-Denninghoff’s and Martin Matschinsky’s “Berlin” remains one of the Berlin’s most liked public art pieces (Loeb 2009). In a city that seems awash with military and political monuments, “Berlin” stands in contrast with its scale and form. Normally located in the centre median strip of a busy shopping street, the sculpture had been temporarily removed to accommodate underground metro rail tunnel works for the duration of the study tour visit to Berlin. In its place, a sign had been hung (ref. Figure 12), alongside a series of display cases with models and illustrations depicting the renewed streetscape and the return of the “Berlin” sculpture.

Figure 13: Brigitte Matschinsky-Denninghoff and Martin Matschinsky, “Berlin”, 1987, Berlin, Germany. Source:

These depictions demonstrated quite clearly that the sculpture was to become an even more prominent feature of the public realm, perhaps an indication of the enduring popularity of the piece both as a landmark within the precinct, and as a piece of public art that resonates in the hearts and minds of the community.

Figure 14: Jonathan Borofsky, “Molecule Man,” 1997. Source: Author.

A more recent instillation sits within a geographically prominent location on the Spree River. Viewed mostly by passing vehicle traffic from a busy road bridge nearby, “Molecule Man” is one in a series of sculptures in a similar style produced by the Boston (USA) born sculpture Jonathan Borofsky. “Molecule Man” is an example of how a public art instillation by a high profile overseas artist seeks to contribute a creative-cultural element to the rejuvenation of an industrial area as it is redevelopment into a mixed use residential precinct.


In the end, it’s just Art

After the removal of Tilted Arc in 1989, a justifiably aggrieved Richard Serra was quoted as saying that “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people to decide” (PBS n.d.). Despite the tensions that exists among the artistic community regarding the politicisation of public art, and the disparity of opinions both in support of, and opposed to the proposed benefits of public art in urban development; the observations made for the purposes of this essay lead to the conclusion that public art plays an incredibly prominent role in the amenity of urban precincts. These observations also indicate that the public good that arises from the instillation of public art at the very least might be measured by aesthetic interest and appeal, if not by any real or perceived cultural or economic benefit. The diversity of pieces presented in this paper alone suggest that public art plays an important role in generating vitality; a desirable objective, one would imagine, in the ongoing evolution of modern cities.



Deutsche, R (1996), ‘Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City’ in Miles, M Hall, T & Borden (eds), The City Cultures Reader, Routledge, London, pp 420–422.

Gdaniec, C (2000), ‘Cultural industries, information technology and the regeneration of post-industrial urban landscapes. Poblenou in Barcelona – a virtual city?’, GeoJournal, vol. 50, pp. 379–387.

Grodach, C (2010), ‘Beyond Bilbao: Rethinking Flagship Cultural Development and Planning in Three California Cities’, Journal of Planning Education and Research, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 353–366.

Guest, A (2009), ‘ARTISTS AND PLACES – the time for a new relationship and a new agenda’, Public Art Scotland, viewed 02 August, 2011, <
G.php >.

Hall, T (2003), ‘Opening up Public Art’s Spaces: Art, Regeneration and Audience’ in Miles, M Hall, T & Borden (eds), The City Cultures Reader, Routledge, London, pp 110–117.
— (2004), ‘Public Art, Civic Identify and the New Birmingham’ in Kennedy, L (ed), Remaking Birmingham: the visual culture of urban regeneration, Routledge, Oxon.

Hamilton, J Forsyth L & De Iongh, D (2001), ‘Public Art: Local Authority Perspective’, Journal of Urban Design, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 283–296.

Hubbard, P (1996), ‘Urban Design and City Regeneration: Social Representation of Entrepreneurial Landscapes’, Urban Studies, vol. 33, no. 8, pp. 1441–1461.

Hubbard, P Faire, L & Lilley, K (2003), Memorials to Modernity? Public art in the ‘city of the future’, Landscape Research, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 147–169.

Johnson, L (2009), Cultural Capitals: revaluing the arts, remaking urban spaces, Ashgate Publishing Limited, London.

Kwon, M (1997), ‘One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity’, October, vol. 80, Spring 1997, pp. 85–110.

Loeb, C (2009), ‘The City as Subject: Contemporary Public Sculpture in Berlin’, Journal of Urban History, vol. 35, no. 6, pp. 853–878.

McCarthy, J (2006), ‘Regeneration of Cultural Quarters: Public Art for Place Image or Place Identity’, Journal of Urban Design, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 423–262.

Miles, M (2005), ‘Interruptions: Testing the Rhetoric of Culturally Led Urban Development’, Urban Studies, vol. 42, nos. 5/6, pp. 889–911.
— (1998), ‘Public art and urban development, in Hall, T & Hubbard, P (eds.), The Entrepreneurial City, John Wiley, Chichester, pp. 222–225.
— (1997), Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, Routledge, London. Oldenburg, C & Van Bruggen, C (n.d), ‘Gartenschlauch’, viewed 22 July 2011, <;.

PBS (n.d.), ‘Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc’, viewed 02 August, 2011, <;.

Pollock, VL & Paddison, R (2010), ‘Embedding Public Art: Practice, Policy and Problems’, Journal of Urban Design, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 335–356.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: