It might be the AIDS Quilt, a graffiti mural, or a community parade. It could even be a Greenpeace activist skydiving off a smokestack, or a homepage on the World Wide Web. Public art can be many things in the 1990s—but it’s not likely to be what it used to be: a bronze statue in a park or big hunk of abstract sculpture next to a skyscraper. “Public art isn’t a hero on a horse anymore,” states Arlene Raven in her introduction to Art in the Public Interest (Da Capo Press, 1993), a collection of essays by artists, art historians, and critics that struggles to define and explain a genre that has changed so rapidly as to defy containment.
“An explosion of new forms in the 1980s—as diverse as street art, guerrilla theater, video, page art, environments, posters, murals, paintings, and sculpture—radically changed the face of contemporary public art,” Raven writes. Between 1988 and 1990, a theater troupe called the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) traveled from city to city developing and staging plays using local street people as playwrights and actors. In a project completed in 1990, engineer and artist Viet Ngo worked closely with the community around Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, to construct a winding canal that serves simultaneously as park, interpretive center, and organic wastewater treatment plant. And every May Day in Minneapolis, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre organizes a colorful parade that culminates in a community celebration at an urban park.
The legacy of this kind of work today is a churning artistic environment in which community members are often drawn into the creative process and social and political aims are frequently elevated above aesthetic concerns. Performance artist Suzanne Lacy offers “new genre public art” as a potential label for this new breed of art that isn’t about constructing objects as much as it’s about constructing community. Patricia C. Phillips, one of the essayists in Lacy’s Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Bay Press, 1995), points out that the new forms “encourage, through actions, ideas, and interventions, a participatory audience where none seemed to exist. Inherent in public art is the issue of its reception . . . Community involvement is the raw material of artistic practice.”
Independent curator Mary Jane Jacob, one of the most impassioned advocates of community-based exhibitions, sees the new work as a cure for the elitism that ails the art world and the gallery system. “I think we’ve created rather hermetic, chic circles, a kind of club, between the artist and collector and curator,” says Jacob in an interview in the arts journal High Performance (Spring-Summer 1995). “The audience [has been] totally beside the point. If the public doesn’t get the work, they are stupid or ignorant. If they do get it, the art is not challenging enough, too populist, and not of ‘quality’.”'
Jacob has responded to this hermeticism with art that aims to engage viewers like no museum show could. In 1992 and 1993, she directed Culture in Action: New Public Art in Chicago, which turned spectators into participants, and she is curator of the 1996 Olympic Year project for the Arts Festival of Atlanta, which will team international artists with Atlanta-based humanitarian organizations.
Critics in publications such as Public Art Review are struggling to create a new vocabulary and analytical framework for new genre public art. Museum curators, who see the writing on their hallowed white walls, are reconsidering the role of the museum and branching out into their communities as never before. And artists are adjusting to a climate where, increasingly, to be a funded artist is to be a public artist.
Suzanne Lacy is a driving force in the new genre public art movement—she has created community-based spectacles such as The Crystal Quilt, which in 1987 gathered 430 black-clad elderly women to form a living quilt—but even she acknowledges that the current atmosphere is challenging for the working artist. “Public art has become a highly competitive alternative gallery system in which artists are thrust in contact with a broad and diversified audience, each group bringing its own contributions to the debate,” she writes.
Competitive and controversial, she might add. Though dissent is often tempered or unspoken, many in the art world are not fond of an atmosphere where artists must act simultaneously as politicians, publicists, educators, and consensus builders, and where audiences are referred to as “constituencies,” “stakeholders,” or even “clients.” In galleries and museums across the land, some art aficionados lament the decline of aesthetic excellence at the expense of populism.
Mary Jane Jacob agrees that community-based art is not always as “avant-garde” or “contemporary” as some might wish—but she argues vigorously that maybe this isn’t the point. As she told High Performance, “There are community-based artists who I would say from my experience are not making good art, but are doing a great job of affecting other individuals in positive ways.”