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What Is_?Public Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Public Art

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Public Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Public Art is a broad term which refers to artworks in any Media created for and sited either temporarily or permanently in public places. Public places are generally associated with external spaces; however, artworks can be situated outside in private spaces, such as shopping malls and private housing developments, or inside in public spaces, such as publically-funded Art Museum and Galleries or hospitals and libraries. Consequently a definition of what constitutes public space is problematic.

Situating artworks in public spaces enables the artwork to engage with a broader public than an art museum or gallery; however, the context in which an artwork is seen can affect audience expectations and responses. The audience encounter with an artwork in an exterior space, such as a public park or beside a motorway, or in an interior space, such as a hospital corridor, may be fleeting and circumstantial. In contrast, the audience encounter with an artwork in an art museum or gallery involves a decision to enter into a space with the expectation of seeing the artwork.

Public Art involves an artist or artists creating artworks in response to a place. This may involve consideration of the practical issues of situating, performing or presenting an artwork in a public place, such as durability, security, safety, access and visibility. But it may also encompass more complex issues arising from the creation of an artwork informed by, and in response to, the specific conditions of a public place, such as its use, meaning or history. Public Art can take many forms and, in some cases, including Socially-engaged or Participatory Art initiatives, it may take no physical form at all, such as a conversation, a performance or an intervention. Public Art can use any medium and may be permanent, temporary or transient. Public Art can be many things: an aesthetic response to a place or context, a means of engaging audiences or local communities, an enhancement of the designed environment, a critique, a dialogue, a distraction or an ornamentation.


Public understanding and expectations of Public Art are shaped by historical precedents for MonumentsMemorials and Statues, which tend to be large-scale, permanent and figurative. Traditionally made from stone or bronze, these works are usually figurative, celebrating or commemorating key historical military and cultural figures or events. Many of these works still exist in their original sites, contributing to assumptions that Public Art should be figurative, decorative, celebratory or commemorative. In the early twentieth century, more austere and abstract forms of Public Art emerged, particularly in the form of the memorial, replacing earlier figurative and triumphal forms. These forms anticipated, and were informed by, emerging trends towards Abstraction in Modernist Sculpture which emphasised consideration of the formal aspects of the artwork separate from its context. Developments in Minimalism in the 1960s and ’70s, which favoured sculptural forms, contributed to an expanding field of Public Art practice which focused on the material conditions of the artwork, shifting emphasis from representation to experience.

In keeping with the modernist tradition such artworks were situated in public places, often in conjunction with modernist Architecture, but with little consideration of their context. This has been the dominant mode of Public Art practice in Western art in the twentieth century. During the 1960s and ’70s, prompted by social, cultural and political change, new forms of practice, such as Environmental ArtLand ArtInstallation Art and Site-Specific Art, emerged to challenge the dominance and orthodoxy of modernism. Emphasising a consideration of the relationship of the art object to its context, these new forms of practice presented ways to produce and display artworks outside the museum or gallery space. In some instances, such as Land Art, the Site can be the artwork. Similarly, developments across a range of theoretical disciplines, such as FeminismPostcolonial TheoryPsychoanalysis and Critical Theory challenged modernist assumptions about audience engagement with the artwork, suggesting audiences are shaped by their cultural, social, political and psychological experiences and that these experiences inform their encounter with the artwork. Influenced by this discourse, and drawing on earlier forms of Avant-Garde practice, such as Dada, new forms of socially-engaged and Activist Art practice emerged which subverted the objectification of the artwork and shifted consideration from what the artwork represents to what the artwork communicates. These developments influenced the emergence of new forms of Public Art practice, such as New Genre Public Art, which encompassed temporary, performative and participative practice.


Recognising the potential for Public Art to engage a broad audience with issues of social cohesion and regeneration, a renewed urban regeneration agenda in the 1970s and ’80s resulted in the emergence of a range of schemes and support agencies concerned with the commissioning and installation of Public Art. Publically funded programmes, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the USA in the 1930s, established a precedent for such regenerative Public Art programmes. Established as part of a larger Depression-era regeneration initiative, the WPA involved the construction of buildings and roads and also the creation of artworks for a broad audience, often involving public participation in the selection and location of the work. Subsequent programmes, such as the Art in Architecture programme, and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places programme, were the forerunners of the more common Per Cent for Art scheme, which is now one of the main sources of public funding for commissioning Public Art. Through such Per Cent for Art schemes a percentage of government funding for capital projects can be ringfenced for commissioning artworks.

Many Public Art projects, whether temporary or permanent, are large in scale. This may relate to the physical size of the work, the concept, the ambition, the audience engagement or the duration of the work. The commissioning of Public Art may require substantial funding and resources to address matters relating to research, planning, consultation, materials, construction, facilitation, documentation and maintenance. The level of funding required can also influence expectations with regard to the final outcome, where a permanent, large work made in traditional materials, such as stone or bronze, can be understood to represent value for money. Under such circumstances, it can be difficult to secure funding for temporary, nonobject based, participatory or experimental work, especially where there is no tangible outcome. Where there are many stakeholders, agencies and public constituencies, the communication process around the commissioning, development and siting or staging of Public Art is considered essential to securing and sustaining support for innovative, experimental and challenging practice. The role of intermediaries, such as Local Authority Public Art Officers and independent Public Art agencies, can play an important part in supporting the artistic autonomy of a Public Art commission and in promoting experimentation and innovation.

Contemporary Public Art may be commissioned through the Per Cent For The Art Scheme by a Government Department, a publically-funded agency, such as an Arts Council, a Local Authority or a transport or healthcare provider or, in some cases, in the context of a public-private partnership. Public Art is also commissioned by privately-funded agencies, such as a business or housing development. Similarly, there are a number of independent agencies, such as Artangel in the UK, SKOR in the Netherlands and the Public Art Fund in New York, which function as intermediaries, providing support and practical input, in the form of administration, advocacy, mediation, public relations, documentation and funding. These agencies seek funding from a range of public and private sources and tend to prioritise support for the artist’s intentions and the artistic outcome.

In the twenty-first century, the art museum and gallery continue to play an important role in the display and consideration of Contemporary Art, but the expanded field of arts practice and the emergence of alternative fora, such as BiennialArt FairArtist-Led and Collaborative Art initiatives, have contributed to an increasing volume and variety of art situated in internal and external public places. Concepts of public and private continue to be contested and debated and Public Art contributes to that debate by pushing out the boundaries of what is possible in terms of arts practice and audience experience. Facilitation, information provision and opportunities for reflection are considered essential for further development and expansion of this area of practice.


Reading List

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994.
Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis (eds.), The Practice of Public Art, London: Routledge, 2008.
Ruth Charity, Reviews: Artists and Public Space, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005.
Alex Coles (ed.), Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn, London: Blackdog Publishing, 2000.
Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, Place, London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Claire Doherty (ed.), From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.
Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2001.
Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.
Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
IXIA, Desirable Places: the contribution of artists to creating spaces for public life, London: Central Books, 2004.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
Jeffrey Kastner, Tom Eccles and Anne Wehr (eds.), Plop: Recent Projects of the Public Art Fund, London: Merrell, 2004.
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicultural Society, New York: New Press, 1997.
Florian Matzner (ed.), Public Art: A Reader, Ostfilfern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004.
Malcolm Miles, Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, London: Routledge, 1997.
W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.), Art and the Public Sphere, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Public Arts, Wakefield, Making Places: Working with Art in the Public Realm, Public Arts, Wakefield, 2001. Arlene Raven, Art in the Public Interest, London: UMI Research Press, 1989.
Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 2000.
Sara Selwood, The Benefits of Public Art: The Polemics of Permanent Art in Public Places, London: Policy Studies Institute, 1995.
Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster (eds.), Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London: Verso, 1989.
Alan Sonfist (ed.), Art in the Land, New York: Dutton, 1983.
Julian Stallbrass, Pauline Van Mourik Broekman and Niru Ratnam (eds.), Locus Solus: Site, Identity, Technology in Contemporary Art, London: Blackdog Publishing, 2000.
Erika Suderberg, Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Gerrie Van Noord, Off Limits: 40 Artangel Projects, London: Artangel and Merrel, 2002.




We invited curator and writer Cliodhna Shaffrey to write an essay titled What is Public Art? This essay provides an overview of Public Art highlighting some of the critical issues which inform this complex and diverse area of practice. This essay also includes various examples of artists and artworks, some of which are drawn from IMMA’s Collection. In doing so we hope to draw attention to the potential of IMMA as a resource for further exploration and consideration of this subject.




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June.  A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. While we prepare to open our next exhibition Hilary Heron: A Retrospective on 24 May, there are two exhibitions to see Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s gardens and café are open to the public.