The Value of Public Art

By Shuan Butcher

Being a public artist gives nationally renowned sculptor Toby Mendez a platform to tackle works in scales that he wouldn’t normally be able to do. It also provides him with a feeling of longevity.

“It is my hope that these pieces will last generations,” Mendez said.

But public art often means so much more to the community than it does to the artist. If you walk around Downtown Frederick on any given day, at some point you will see residents and tourists alike taking photographs with the “Angels in the Architecture” series, gawking in awe at The Community Bridge, admiring the Lester Bowie mural, and enjoying a number of the other public art installations in the city. 

“When we visit a place, most of our memories have to do with the art and architecture of that place,” Mendez said.

Think how iconic the Statue of Liberty is to New York City, the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Gateway Arch is to St. Louis. There is a certain cultural cachet for communities that have high quality public art. According to Mendez, public art makes our public settings more interesting and breaks up the monotony.

“Public art provides a place with something to see and, in and of itself, becomes a destination,” Mendez said. “It enriches our life without us even knowing it and becomes part of our experience.” William Cochran, whose landmark public art creations include Angels in the Architecture, The Community Bridge, the Dreaming, and other pieces throughout Maryland and the country says that public art is for everybody.

“It has to hold an appeal and sense of engagement for all ages and backgrounds,” Cochran said. “Public art is available and accessible 24/7/365. You don’t have to dress a certain way or you don’t have to buy a ticket, it is always there.”

Economic Prosperity and Sustainability

For any community, public art can perform different roles and can provide a number of benefits to locals and visitors.

Cochran says that public art of high quality can help drive the economy of an area. He points to a study done by the Knight Foundation, in partnership with Gallop, that looked at determining what drives economic development.

“The largest one was community attachment,” Cochran said. “If a community is attached to where they live, is it because of good schools? Public safety? The top three were the opportunity for social engagement, a sense of tolerance, and the design quality of the public spaces.”

In Frederick, the internationally known “Community Bridge,” a trompe l’oeil mural conceived by Cochran in 1993 as an alternative to the original plan of using artificial stone cladding to adorn the bridge over Carroll Creek, was a catalyst for the redevelopment of Carroll Creek Linear Park. 

“That project engaged thousands of residents in a creative process and approximately $350 million in additional investment and redevelopment,” Cochran said. Jim McFarland, a professor of art and design at Hartford Community College since 1990 who also serves as a member of the

Havre de Grace public art committee, highlights the example of Millennium Park in Chicago.

“That area used to be a railyard, but now includes two large and iconic public art pieces (including Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”),” McFarland said. “The value of the properties around that space went up exponentially.” There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate how public art can transform public spaces and increase visitation to a property.

Emily Blumenfeld, co-founder and partner at Via Partnership, a public art consulting firm that has facilitated numerous large-scale art projects, believes that art can drive people to existing businesses and lead to increased foot traffic. “It shows that it is an active place,” she said. “To know a community values public art can set that place apart.”

“When a community is excited to show off the amenities, then you have busy restaurants and vibrant businesses,” Cochran said. “Public art is a strong magnet and showcases a sense of progress.”

Cultural Enrichment and Identity

Art is not a stagnant image, sculpture, or work. “Art is about thought and ideas,” McFarland said. “Art can expand our own knowledge or awareness. It can challenge our

perceptions and expectations. Art opens us to engaging with things that we are not familiar with.” Cochran believes high quality public art challenges the viewer. “Artists are always questioning things, pushing the envelope, and breaking new ground,” Cochran said. “They can engage with the unique character of a place and reclaim the authentic story of the land and bring out aspects of local history that were not well understood or unknown. That builds a sense of pride and local residents realize the place where they live has a much deeper meaning than they realized.”

Art not only generates excitement within a community, but establishes pride and ownership as well. Public art connects people, places, and the past. “It reflects the unique character, history, and values of the community,” Cochran said. “Public art can be synonymous with the identity of a city. Take the Statue of Liberty or the Gateway Arch, these symbolic representations of those communities creates a progressive vision of what it has always been and what it can be.

What is unique about public art is that it can contribute to placemaking efforts more than almost anything else because it is a very direct and personal engagement with the visitor, according to Cochran.

Public Engagement

“Sometimes people almost accidentally discover your work,” Mendez said. “Public art allows individuals to see art outside that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in a gallery setting.”

“As public artists, we want people to step back and think about something they haven’t. Art should provoke thought and reflection. It should get us to ask questions.” Mendez refers to most of his public art creations as monuments and memorials, works meant to celebrate whomever is being recognized.

“It can be educational and informative. My hope is the person seeing it is curious to learn more,” he said. Mendez normally works on two or three installations per year. This fall, he plans to dedicate the Clara Barton Memorial in Hagerstown that will not only recognize her contribution to the aid she gave to soldiers during the time of the Civil War, but will also honor all those who provide immediate care.

Around the same time, a statue honoring internationally known fly fisherman Lefty Kreh, who was born in Frederick and died in 2018, will be dedicated at Culler Lake in Frederick’s Baker Park.

Why is important to invest in public art?

“Public art contributes to a community’s cultural enrichment, placemaking, urban design, economic revitalization, and public engagement. There aren’t very many other elements that can accomplish all of these things. You get a lot of bang for the buck,” Cochran said. “The vision drives the funding, not the other way around.”

Cochran says that there are more than 300 “Percent for Art” programs across the country in which some percentage of the project cost is placed on large-scale development projects in order to fund and install public art. The details vary from place to place.

In addition, materials used in public art projects typically stand the test of time.

“So it is an investment that will last decades or longer,” Mendez said.

Projects also create an opportunity for outside investment, such as grants from the Maryland State Arts Council. In 2013, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that provided an allocation for public art for new state building projects as a Percent for Art program.

This program has now been around 10 years in the state, but the concept nationally has been around since 1957, according to Liesel Fenner, public art coordinator for the Maryland State Arts Council.

“Other localities, including Montgomery County, have similar programs and there have been some in Frederick that have wanted to institute this effort,” Fenner said.

“Marylanders can travel the state and see public art. Art can be gathering places and also share stories and voices of people who have lived there and are living there now. What happened at a particular location can be interpreted through a piece of art.” Mendez points out that when a check is written for a public art installation, the money goes to a lot more than just the Artist.

“A commissioned piece will often employ contractors, engineers, foundry, landscapers, and dozens more,” he said.

Public art is as vital as green space, parks, and other recreational amenities.

Shuan Butcher is a nonprofit professional, writer, and event planner. He previously served as the executive director of the Frederick Arts Council and has been a member of the City of Frederick’s Public Art Commission and the Visit Frederick board of directors