The struggles of creating public art

Last night I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation on public art at the Central Library in Minneapolis. While much of the conversation was spent discussing the benefits of having public art in your community, we also looked at the many hurdles an artist or a neighborhood has to go through to get permission and funding. What follows are a few of the points I found most interesting:

1. Safety First. Members of the panel (which included not just an artist and a city planner, but an engineer, a neighborhood organizer, and Minneapolis Public Arts Administrator Mary Altman) could not stress enough the importance of public safety when designing public art. A steel sculpture with pointy edges is never going to fly, because there's too much potential for human injury. That's why much of the public art you do see is either flat (murals and sidewalk poetry) or very rounded (like, say, a sculpture of a bunny).

2. Make it last. Much of Minneapolis' public art is funded through bonding, which means the loan is paid off over a matter of years. The art has to last long enough for the debt to be paid, and preferably years beyond that. Minneapolis Public Works Department's Paul Ogren is an expert at what materials will stand the test of time, how to protect murals from grafitti, and how to maintain public sculptures so that they aren't deteriorated by our rough weather. The more difficult a piece is to maintain, the more expensive it is for the city, and so the less likely it is to get approved.

3. Be Creative. Not just about art, but about funding. Mary Altman says much of the public art that's being funding in Minneapolis is not being paid for by the arts budget, but by other departments, such as the "division of solid waste and recycling." Your neighborhood mural could be funded with money from the city's grafitti prevention program.

4. Find a Partner. Artists and neighborhood organizations working together have a much better chance of getting their project approved by the city. In essence you've already done a lot of the work by finding one another. So if you're an artist looking for a canvass, take a tour of your neighborhood and get to know the people in it. If you're a neighborhood looking for a mural or a sculpture, go on a treasure hunt for the ideal artist to fit your needs. Chances are they could use the money, and will be happy to help.

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