• Sarah O'Brien

A case against arts and economics...

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

The Urban Land Institute's 2012 article that was shared by City Lab and recently shared by a colleague, showcases two public art projects in LA that provided a quantifiable economic benefit. I encourage you to read the story online here. At the end of this blog, I placed the excerpts that caused this rant to be written, just for your convenience. For the record, I love seeing data being used to prove the economic value of public art. However, I’m afraid we just totally screwed public art and once again we have left the public out of their conversation. Damn it.

I don’t even really like “art.” I love creativity. I love artistic people. I appreciate artisans. But “art” as it was traditionally viewed the last century was never something I related to. Truth be told I have always struggled with why. I appreciated those who supported “art” by going to the theater. I was thankful for the art guilds who hosted showcases that bring people to town. And yes I have always been thankful the art appreciators, historians and storytellers that use art to make human connections did what they did. Art that teaches people to heal has always been important to me as well. I’ve always been thankful that someone else was doing all of that because I would rather poke my eyes out most nights then go to a theater performance or a gallery opening.

For many years I accepted the fact that while I didn’t appreciate fine art, I was a fan of other kinds of “art.” Public art was something I was particularly interested in. Unfortunately, at times I didn’t even like that type of art at all, times like when I suddenly had a huge disdain for all things public art after serving as the art liaison for a local government board. Whether I was enjoying public art or not, I never really even though I had an artistic side. But recently I learned that I do. I am a pro at managing creatives and creative processes. I appreciate art as a beautification tool for places. I am a collector and admirer of vintage clothing. The artistic elements of buildings communicate and speak to me as fine art speaks to those at a gallery opening. Oh, and I LURVE functional art, art with an obvious purpose. Gasp. How did this happen? I am supposed to loathe the "arts."

And then this article, a light bulb in my head. So, thank you city lab and ULI, I owe you my gratitude. Thank you for helping me understand myself a little bit more today than I did yesterday. Thank you for showing me why I feel the way that I do about art. I understand now. You see I love art that is created, inspired, enjoyed and accessible by and for all. I support art that tells the story of a place, creates cultural traditions or pays homage to our history. Art that challenges what we know and inspires us to do differently. Art enables experiences and creates memories. Art that connects and engages differently than before it came to be. And most importantly I believe in art and artists whose intentions serve a greater purpose than ourselves. In fact, I have ALWAYS had an artistic side. I have always appreciated art and artisans. But I never realized it because “art” that was around me wasn’t something I connected to.

But "art" as it was known growing up, and is known today in many circles, I can't stand. I hate self-serving and profit-driven public art. I hate art that is enjoyed by the privileged and reinforces prejudice. I hate art that doesn’t connect history or envision the future. And I certainly hate everything about this article and the bullshit it will perpetuate every time it is shared and the bullshit it has probably reinforced over the last few years.

Back to the original story. I’d be interested in seeing the same kind of economic data presented here that represents the community, residents, and users' economic benefit. But what is the benefit of the public for these projects and others in areas where public art is designed with them in mind and funded or supported by the public? All this article does is clearly state that there is a financial case for public art that benefits the developer’s pocketbook and the government’s coffers. I wonder how the residents and employees, the end-users of the space where the public art lives, benefit? If we can’t determine that based on economic data, then surely the intangible benefits of public art can be communicated, especially in this case. So shouldn’t we at least be asking the public, residents, employees, and neighbors, how they enjoy the public art? There is no mention in this article of the people, or the public really. It’s not worth debating whether the project does or doesn’t benefit the public, or even who the public is in this case because the question we need to ask ourselves is why are we telling this narrative? And what the hell is the definition of public art in your community? And who is the government funding public art for?

Or in lieu of questions, you can just scream curse words in your head, as I have done below.

“Coverage was provided on the front page of the paper’s local news and culture sections rather than in the real estate or business sections. This allowed the publicity to reach a more exclusive, cultured audience, elevating the project’s reputation as a work of art, not mere commerce.” So art that isn’t enjoyed by cultured people isn’t art? Its just business? WTF.

“As two projects in Los Angeles show, public art has more than just aesthetic appeal - it can generate income for developers and local government.” So we don’t see the value in the aesthetics, but since it’s going to line the pocketbooks, all in? I don’t want anything the fuck to do with people who say nothing about how NOT OK it is for the financial rewards to drive decision making for their government. I also want nothing to do with conversations around public art that aren’t designed with the public benefit, not private in mind.

“Public art in transit-oriented developments presents a valuable marketing opportunity, both for public agencies and private developers. Dollar for dollar, investments in public art may provide the highest financial returns of any funds committed to an aspect of a transit project.” So we can’t invest in art for the intangible benefits alone but we can and do use government funds to increase our return on investment, NOT for its overall public benefit?

“The intangible benefits of public art—aesthetic beauty, cultural interpretation, education, inspiration, and general improvement of the urban environment—are well-known. But because these are considered "soft" benefits, they are sometimes dismissed as a low priority, especially during challenging economic times. However, experiences in Los Angeles show that public art can be a source of publicity and cash income, as well as beauty.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? So what audience or stakeholder determines its beauty if we are mainly concerned with publicity and cash?

“The images are routinely used by the local transit agency as emblems of the entire transit system, and the site is frequently host to press events and photo shoots. For example, the mayor of Los Angeles often uses the murals as a backdrop during press conferences.” I can imagine many of the residents don’t find this amusing or convenient for their lifestyles.

“The building is now used frequently as a backdrop for feature films, television shows, and commercials, and has been displayed prominently in print publications around the world. Caltrans receives a substantial, ongoing income stream by licensing the entry plaza as a backdrop for still photography and TV/film.” Caltrans is a public agency, so where is that money invested? What level of service is enhanced by such revenue streams increasing?

“Raising an institutional structure to the level of global artistry—and creating an unexpected revenue stream for local government—demonstrates clearly the economic benefits of public art. In this case, the benefits are public as well as private, providing income to Caltrans. Investments in public art are not just for cultural or aesthetic purposes; they also can have a positive bottom-line economic impact,” Well assholes it's not unexpected now. Now it will serve as a driver for decision making at City Halls, decision making that doesn’t include the people for which have to live with the art.

Here is the definition of public art: Public art may include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings, but often it is not that simple. Rather, the relationship between the content and audience, what the art is saying and to whom, is just as important if not more important than its physical location.

So I guess my point is we need to be careful about what we call public art and why we use public funds for its creation and maintenance. It should not be to line the pocketbooks of developers or coffers of government institutions.


Sarah served as a Texas Main Street manager for over a decade and is a proud two-time Past President of the Texas Downtown Association. She lives in Smithville Texas and has worked in local government. community development, destination management and downtown revitalization across the State of Texas. She is a motivational speaker, consensus builder, and visionary problem solver who helps organizations and communities understand their purpose and achieve collective impact.

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All