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Imagining the Future of Public Art

Arts & Culture | October 23, 2011

The occupy movement has ushered in a new understanding of “the public.”An essential aspect of Occupy movement’s platform is the envisioning of a different kind of culture – one with engaged citizens and a renewed collective ideology. Part of that is the creation of public art and architecture that is community-oriented, accessible, beautiful and imaginative.

Years before Occupants descended on Wall St, one organization was already envisioning new age of public art. In 2009, a UCLA-based urban design think tank called CityLAB created WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture, a design competition that promoted an ambitious reformation for America’s cities and infrastructure.

Though it was inspired by the Works Projects Administration, a gigantic New Deal public works agency that employed millions during the Great Depression, WPA 2.0 strove to meet contemporary needs. CityLAB asked designers and architects to think wildly and creatively about contemporary crises, challenging designers and architects to seek innovative and environmentally sound solutions and propose community-specific policy guidelines for America’s sprawling and energy-guzzling cities. One resulting project idea was a floating algae park that would capture carbon dioxide emissions, while also creating new public spaces. Another idea was to use post-industrial port cites as hubs for recycling out of commission ships and rigs, and turn them into spaces for social programs. The competition inspired dozens of other visionary ideas like these, which prompt the question–how do we move beyond just imagining these designs to actually implementing them?

The recession is not spawning a contemporary New Deal, let alone a real-life WPA 2.0. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated $150 billion to infrastructure ($100 billion of that going to border control) failed to properly inject much-needed public funds into the development of a new socio-economic model. ARRA had so much potential that was totally unrealized.

If Obama is serious about stimulating the economy and creating as many jobs as possible, he should substantially increase federal funding for the arts and architecture. Including the WPA as part of the New Deal was crucially important response to economic crisis; it allowed art and buildings to work for and within communities. With the current economic crisis, increasing public works spending for both public art and architecture would not only allow for visionary restructuring and designing of our cities through public works, but it would also create jobs for laborers, artists, designers, architects and engineers.

Such spending has a lasting benefit – the WPA didn’t just decorate America, it subsidized enormous leaps in graphic design, theater, urban planning and fine art. It even started the careers of important artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, to name a few. Of course, there is also something to be said about the restorative potential of art to reinvigorate communities and restore confidence.

At the same time, comparisons to the WPA can only take us so far. We need to confront socio-political challenges within the framework of the cultural climate today, a climate that is hostile to the very idea of “the public.” Still, the question of finding a balance between public and private lies at the heart of the challenges we face.

Obviously, there are many roadblocks to creating public works and art spending, particularly those caused by partisan politics. Michelle Bachmann has predictably proposed to slash funding for the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. (You’re going to spend my tax money on someone else’s doodles?) The current economic and infrastructural crises provide a rare opportunity. If the Obama administration is to invest in the arts and infrastructure as a form of financial stimulus, then artists and designers of today have the chance to create a legacy, to create work that is truly important and meaningful.