Art in Public Places


By Victoria Chick, contemporary figurative artist and early 19th & 20th Century Print Collector


Contemporary figurative artist Victoria Chick discusses the history and benefits of art in public spaces on Big Blend Radio.


Art in public places has a history going back to antiquity. Excellent examples are relief and three-dimensional sculptures on Babylonian, Egyptian, and Persian buildings along with sculpture gracing the acropolis in Greece and the forum of the Roman Empire.  Millions of people today view art inside ancient tombs such as the terra-cotta army of the first emperor of China or inside religious structures like the Sistine Chapel, but that art was not originally intended for general public view.

Worldwide, art in public spaces began as political statements reflecting the desire of rulers as to how they wanted to be remembered. Ancient public art and public art in Europe through the 16th century was generally done because of the vision of one person who also controlled the money to pay for it. As more democratic forms of government developed in some European countries of the 17th century, there are examples of public art being commissioned by an elected group and paid for with public tax funds. The Burghers of Calais bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin is an example of art chosen through a process of government group agreement.

A big leap forward in public art came about during the New Deal of the 1930s in the United States. The main goal was to employ artists. But the public benefited as the talents of many artists were directed toward decorative sculpture on public building exteriors as well as mural paintings inside post offices and courthouses. Painters were given the general instruction to use themes relating to the city or region in which they worked, but otherwise had free reign to use their own style. In some cases the murals were rectangular and composed much like an easel painting. In other cases, the building’s architecture required the artist to develop a compositional design that was more inventive and to integrate the subject matter with the architectural space. It was through the New Deal programs that art in public places came to be appreciated as something that enriched the general population.

Today, most states have an official “Art in Public Places” program wherein a certain percentage of the cost of a public building has to be devoted toward visual art. In addition, Ad Hoc and other groups form corporations and/or become non-profit organizations that work with local governments to provide sculpture, mosaics, and murals outdoors along sidewalks or in parks. The newer federal highway bridges and retaining walls use a wide variety of art that reflects the cities and states in which they are constructed.

The art produced for public spaces can have a wide range of subject matter and materials that can roughly be categorized into environmental art, traditional figurative sculpture, mixed media sculpture and mosaic, mural painting, art that is site specific, and art that is interactive. Within these categories of art are subjects that may be serious, contemplative, educational, or whimsical. Glazed clay, steel, and concrete are commonly used in public art because they resist degrading by weather.

Art that is placed in a public space runs the risk that the public will not like the art or the public does not like the place the art is installed. Several famous examples of public art producing controversy are the Burghers of Calais by Rodin, Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, and the Picasso sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.

Rodin was one of the first sculptors to bridge Impressionism and Expressionism in the loose way he modeled his figures and the way he used uneven surfaces to catch light. This was at a time when European monuments were always heroic in a Classical or Romantic style with smooth, polished surfaces. The true story of the Burghers was that they offered to sacrifice themselves by surrendering to the English King Edward III to be killed if he would spare the city and people of Calais in France.  Rodin depicted them as tragic figures in their noble act. His sculptural grouping was almost turned down by the city because Rodin did not include allegorical figures and made the six men look too common. Rodin wanted the people of the city to identify with the sculptural figures and the sacrifice they represented. Eventually, the sculpture was accepted and placed at ground level where Rodin felt it should be, close to the people.

Picasso worked for two years drawing, making models, and overseeing the construction of a fifty foot high steel sculpture to be placed in Daley Plaza in Chicago. There were mixed reactions when the sculpture was unveiled because it was not representational  at a time in the 1960s when people were used to a recognizable subject. The Picasso sculpture was extolled by Mayor Daley as a great work of art by a great artist and it would become something of which Chicagoans would be proud. Mayor Daley was a strong enough figure that most people did not openly contradict him no matter what they thought about the Picasso. Picasso was offered $100,000 to do the sculpture but, instead, gave it as a gift to the people of Chicago. Mayor Daley was right; it is a Chicago icon and Chicagoans make sure their visitors see it. It is still called the Chicago Picasso because Picasso never named it.

Tilted Arc was a contemporary abstract steel sculpture that was designed in the 1980s by Richard Serra to go in a particular location, a design concept called site specific. In other words, it would not look right in any other location. Tilted Arc was designed to be placed across the plaza of a government building in New York. Basically, it was a curved wall 12 feet high and 120 feet long, made of steel.  Complaints began as soon as it was being installed. It intersected a route that was used by many employees. Going around it took people longer to get where they were going and people worried that it was a potential shelter for rapists and muggers. A letter writing campaign ensued and it was decided to move the sculpture. Serra claimed that to move it was to destroy it because it was site specific. And, if it was moved, he would no longer want his name associated with it. Serra sued to keep it installed where it was but he lost his case and lost an appeal. A lot a questions arose about artists’ rights and whether the public determines the value of an artwork. Tilted Arc was cut into 3 sections and taken to a scrap yard. Serra didn’t really lose by its destruction as the controversy was great publicity and he got other commissions, but it did leave a bad taste in his mouth for public art. He said, “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people”. His comment leads us back to history where the art we consider to be the greatest at the time it was done, and has maintained is position of greatness in our eyes today, was always commissioned by one person who hired an artist of genius to carry out the commission. So in that way, its conception was a private matter though the art was destined for a public space.

Perhaps the reason most of us enjoy and accept the murals, sculptures and art surprises we encounter in often unexpected public places, is because most artists are given freedom within art in public places programs to be true to their instincts and what they express emotionally in their art.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

Cow Trail Art Studio - Silver City, NM

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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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