Course Guide: Urban Art

As with all the themes in this course, "Art and the City" is a rich topic with many possible approaches. Our primary goal in this segment was to explore the symbiotic relationship between the city and art, specifically:

  1. How art reflects, represents, and responds to the city.
  2. How art (or the lack of it) affects life in the city.
  3. How the city provides unique opportunities for the creation and participation in various forms of art.
Public vs. Private Art
The arts of the city can perhaps be divided into two categories: those that are public (i.e., displayed in public spaces such as parks, building lobbies, and sidewalks) and those that are private (i.e., displayed in private spaces requiring admission such as concert halls and museums). We began our arts and the city segment by asking students to explore the differences between these two types of art by comparing and contrasting two 2001 Bruner Award finalists, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and the gold medal winner, the Village of Arts and Humanities. These two RBA case studies juxtapose these two forms of artistic creation and celebration in the city.

Although both NJPAC and The Village have as their primary goals the enrichment of the community through the arts, there are some compelling differences between the two projects, including:

  1. the size and scale of the projects
  2. the sources of funding
  3. the amount of funding
  4. the beneficiaries of the project
  5. the type of art created by the project: public (The Village) vs. private (NJPAC)
Of course, some Village projects are private and some NJPAC programs are public, so this distinction isn't [finite]. Still, the traditional concert halls and arts programs offered by NJPAC are largely private arts venues, while The Village's programs are fundamentally designed to create art in public spaces, particularly those that had been left to ruin, such as trash-filled vacant lots. But the size and funding of NJPAC can and has enabled it to make a tremendous impact on Newark's downtown area, affecting a larger population and having a greater impact than The Village can on its "shoe strong" budget. Why, then, we asked, did The Village win the RBA gold medal award? What are the virtues of a project dedicated to revitalization through the arts beyond total impact?

The Value of Public Art
[Rich - add White in this section?]
Public art offers one of the most tangible and accessible interdisciplinary nexuses for this course. Although all art is inherently public - created in order to convey an idea or emotion to others - "public art," as opposed to art that is sequestered in museums and galleries, is art specifically designed for a public arena where the art will be encountered by people in their normal day-to-day activities. Public art can be purely ornamental or highly functional; it can be as subtle as a decorative door knob or as conspicuous as the Chicago Picasso. It is an essential element of effective urban design, one whose importance was reinforced by the 2001 Gold Medal Bruner Award winner, the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia. The Village embodied lessons about the social, aesthetic, and functional values of public art, vividly demonstrating the power of art to transform community, especially when the community itself is intimately involved in the creation of that art.

Our segment on public art focused on exploring three key questions:

  1. What is public art?
  2. Why public art?
  3. What should public art be, and why?
Our quest to answer these questions included hands-on explorations of public art, particularly of the works in the rotating outdoor art exhibits at MetroTech center and the extensive public art exhibits at nearby Battery Park City, and analysis of the Village and New Jersey Performing Arts Center RBA projects.

What Is Public Art?
The more obvious forms of public art include monuments, sculptures, fountains, murals, and gardens. But public art also takes the form of ornamental benches or street lights, decorative manhole covers (see e.g.,, and mosaics on trash bins. As our discussion progressed, students seemed genuinely surprised by how much public art is really around them and how much art they have passed by without noticing. One tangible outcome of this lesson was that students became vastly more aware of public art throughout the city.

Why Public Art?
We asked students to consider why artists create public art. As we developed the answers that follow, students came up with specific examples of public art that fulfills each function.

Public art:

  • educates about history, culture.
  • creates a unique identity for a public place, personalizing it and giving it a specific character. It is a "place-making device" that instantly creates memorable, experiential landmarks.
  • stimulates the public, challenging viewers to interpret the art and arousing emotions.
  • promotes community by stimulating interaction among viewers.
  • beautifies the area.
  • regenerates both the place and the viewer.
What Should Public Art Be? Why?
Finally, we returned to The Village and NJPAC and asked students to consider the goals and purposes of public art and its creation. Specifically, we asked whether the public should be engaged in the design process - if art should be created with rather than for the public. Most students recognized the importance of creating works with meaning for the intended audience, and that this came only with direct input from the community or from an artist entrenched in that community. However, others argued that art created for the community by an "outsider" often added fresh perspective. We looked at NJPAC and The Village as well as local examples of public art (e.g., the rotating art exhibits in the MetroTech Commons, part of Polytechnic's campus) for specific support for both arguments.

Additional Resources
Click here for annotated Web resources for public art