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Public Art: More Than a Background for Selfies

Public art is more than just an attractive decoration -- it is a conversation with the public, revealing a place's or a people's history, values and stories.
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During the busy summer travel months, your Facebook feeds and shared slideshows are likely filled with photos of friends on vacation. Odds are those photos included public art: faces reflected in Chicago's "Cloud Gate" (affectionately known as "The Bean") by Anish Kapoor, beautiful nighttime shots of a Leo Villareal's "Bay Lights" on the illuminated San Francisco Bay Bridge, or silly poses with Wall Street's "Charging Bull" by Arturo Di Modica. We often photograph these pieces because they help us remember a space, because they make that trip unique and because we are moved, inspired or maybe even upset by their presence. Art plays an important part in our tourism experiences and public art especially helps us interact and converse with places throughout the world.

The term "public art" may conjure images of bronze statues of soldiers or busts of presidents. I still stop and learn from these works. But today, public art takes on a wide range of forms, sizes as well as scales and can be temporary or permanent. Public art includes murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media and even performances as well as festivals. Nationally popular pieces include Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005," 7,503 panels of saffron-colored fabric that hung in New York's Central Park in February 2005; the 2-acre swirling park "Connections" in Philadelphia; more than 150 painted murals showing the history and heritage of Joliet, Il. and pulsing LED portraits installed in Boston and its Harbor Islands.

Public art is more than just an attractive decoration -- it is a conversation with the public, revealing a place's or a people's history, values and stories. The work serves as a way for communities to announce themselves as a unique place. Think of the Eiffel Tower or St. Louis Arch. Public art can serve as a tool for governments to dialogue and partner with citizens, showcasing creative uses of space and the spirit of communities. To preserve this conversation, 27 states and at least 300 municipalities annually allocate a percentage of all capital and building costs to acquire and maintain public art.

Additionally, public art is a substantial tourism boon. "The Gates" were estimated to have an economic benefit for New York City of $254 million, attracting over 4 million visitors to Central Park during what is usually its slowest tourism month. "The Bay Lights" installation is estimated to have a $97 million impact on the Oakland Bay area's local economy through 2015. The dollars come in through tourism and job creation, as workers are hired for design, fabrication, engineering, lighting, insurance, security and installation.

As you plan future travel, you can select a destination specifically to see public art (such as Tampa, with its 560 public art installations), make it a point to find public art wherever you travel (like the exhibits of art + technology at San Jose Airport), or even find art in your own hometown. Several public art programs run smartphone apps or online digital maps and databases of their collections. Many collections can be searched by city and state on the websites Public Art Archive and CultureNow. Additionally, Public Art Network Year in Review annually recognizes the country's most outstanding and compelling public art projects -- you can search the database of recent honorees and see photographs of most of the artwork.

As the conversation about public art moves beyond classic statues to ever-changing digital creations, as murals morph from patriotic symbols to powerful found art, we have to ask ourselves: what is the public art of the future? What conversations do we want to have with our cities, our government, our tourists and one another in the next century? The pieces we leave behind will tell our stories of today. The pieces we fund, install and create will tell our stories in the future. That's the power of public art.

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