Arts Administration Fundamentals – Ten class series taught at NYU 1998

Lecture 3: Introduction to Public Art and Public Art Presenting



The difference between public art and other visual art is that it is made for the public or general population. It is different from work that is commissioned for a private purpose or collector. It is designed from the beginning to be observed and shared by a large number of people. It is presented in a context that is not only or specifically for the presentation and appreciation of art alone. We find public art in hospitals, airports, schools, parks, plazas, street corners etc…


Historically Public Art has often been in the service of a social agenda, delivering a religious or political message. Examples, early Greek and Roman sculptures of the gods and an ideal image of man. Mayan & Aztec stone carvings. The famous Peking Tombs. 20th Century examples, memorial statues of Lenon, Stalen, and political murals and posters of the former USSR. Sculptural Images of the Swaztica of the Nazi regime in Germany on its heroic architecture.

Since ancient times there has been a strong connection between architecture and art for the public. Egyptian Pyramids, Stone Henge, Gothic cathedrals, Earth Works, the Native American sacred sites like the one in Ohio depicting serpent and egg, or the white horse carved in the chalk on the Berkshire Downs in England or the mile long Peruvian plains drawings depicting for example a butterfly and insect. It is only in the 20th century that the idea of self-referential art— art about art — art purely for art’s sake has evolved. It is out of this separation that the labels or definitions of public art as it is today has come about. Traditionally public art has been about message — it has been monuments or memorials. Contemporary Examples include the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington or the three soldiers putting flag up on Iwugima. Dance, Music, Theatre — In many cultures these things are not separated. They are more integrated into the general population. You could trace historical development of all these forms in western culture. It would be the history of the development of the difference between popular culture and high-art but for the sake of time, I won’t do that now.

The evolution of public performances have also been connected to religous, social or political agendas. Street Theatre (Modern ex. San F. Mime Troupe 60′s politics anti-war Vietnam) to – early European passion plays communicated religious concepts of good and evil–communicated, educated populations about a specific code of morality from the church. Elaborate ritual dances of war, sex, property etc.. Public pageant, parades etc… So in this history and evolution we have examples of monument, memorial, and all of it is content oriented work (the legitimacy of content oriented work has at various times been an issue of debate in the visual art world), Multi-discipline work, multimedia work, collaborative work, temporary and permanent work, site specific work, all processes of art making/presenting that have at times been hotly debated as legitimate or not.

Ironically much of what is considered in the late 20th century to be contemporary avant guard or alternative art making and presenting simply draws on earlier models like pageant, parade, ritual, mural, memorial etc.. Much of it is trying to bring art back to the general population.


Public Art – generally a term used in relationship to visual art designed and presented in a public or non-art specific context. This is up for broad interpretation. Anything from a statue of Nathaniel Hawthorn at NYC’s City Hall to Paco Cao’s rent a body project for Creative Time to Hundreds of people organizing to go pants less on the subway on a Sunday in January.

Site-specific – any work which is designed to occupy a very specific place. The piece could not exist without that particular context or gains some of its meaning from the context. Example – Shimone Attie’s history of the lower east side project for Creative Time.

Non-traditional presenting – is any presenting that takes place outside the gallery, museum, theatre, concert hall. Example, concert in Bryant Park, Creative Times’ Art on The Beach.


The procedures you follow to place temporary and permanent work have some differences and some similarities. Arts Organizations usually structure themselves differently according to which kind of work they are presenting or placing.


There are a number of organizations in New York with very specific focus on how they present in the public realm and their administrative procedures are tailored to accommodate this. Dancing in the Streets, dance in public context – Public Art Fund – present visual semi- temporary works at specific sites around the city and theme projects like artists designing gardens etc…Creative Time – presents a range of public work push envelope of defining public sector, mail, telephone, posters, TV, billboards etc… LMCC wall street district works with business and neighborhood presents events in public plazas. DCA % for Art Program – commissions artists to do permanent projects in public buildings like schools ( 1% of building budget goes to art project) Sites for Students – students work with an artist in residence to create a permanent artwork for their school. MTA Arts for Transit Program – commission artists to do things within the subway system, things at grand central station.

Obviously one organization cannot cover all aspects of public and non-traditional presenting.


So, what are the practical challenges as an arts administrator? How do you mount a play or performance in a meat-packing warehouse? How do you place a temporary sculpture in a park or on a street corner? A permanent monument on the lawn of the capitol plaza? The biggest challenge is that you are often creating a new presenting structure every time you do a new project. Presenting a dance performance on the architectural features of Grand Central Station is different than presenting storefront installations on 42nd street. Every site is of course unique with unique challenges. This posses different challenges than having a space where you present dance concerts, performances, theatre every week etc…

How do you get the artist/project? What is your relationship to the project as an administrator? How do you get the site? How do you get the artist/ project? Sometimes the artist defines the parameter, sometimes the organization does. Example an organization can have a specific idea – We need an artist to design a billboard on the topic of air pollution this size, place, this period of time, these colors etc… or we like this specific artist and want to give them an opportunity to think of a project and work together or general request for proposals from artist for project and site of their own choosing. What is your relationship to the artist and project as an administrator?


Presenter – artist brings completed work to you – you present it (give examples)

Commission – your organization provides/raises the money for the work to be created by the artist.

Producer – finances and supervises the making and presenting of a play, performance, event etc.

Funder – you provide the money for whatever has been requested – presenting, commissioning, fellowship etc. You want to see that it has been carried out but you don’t participate in the process.


Funding – Government US & International, Corporate Giving, Foundations, Individuals

Admin. – Team up with other organizations or international governments to present a large project.

How do you get the site? WHO OWNS THE PROPERTY?


City Government, State Government, Federal Government–Which department in one of these agencies controls the space?

Local Community board, DOT, MTA, TDI, Port Authority, Parks & Rec, Sanitation Dept., Public School System. You will often end up negotiating with more than one agency.


Large Office Buildings, Malls, Complexes – these are often required by law to provide a certain amount of space for public use in lobby or plaza areas. Examples: Sony Plaza, Winter Garden in World Financial Center. Talk about the Urban Development Corporation and the 42nd Street Project for Creative Time.



The Challenges and Rewards are closely related. You get the adventure of exploring new territories. What does the inside of the water system or the new site for sewage treatment plant look like? Contact with different constituencies and groups like community boards and city planners. You get to use your full experience and creative problem solving because you are make a new plan for every single project. It is very rewarding to share in the experience of the artist’s vision and the public’s reaction and participation.


Closing and questions-