Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation

What is “public art”?

Public Art is a term that describes work created by artists for places sited or displayed in the public domain. This usually means outside and accessible to all. Public art is also found in interior spaces, public murals being the most common exception.

Is there a difference between “public art” and “art in public places”?

For example, “art in public places” is placing an existing sculpture on a street corner or in a public building. Where the term “public art” advocates a process of designing a sculpture specifically for that site by considering factors such as its audience, environmental conditions, and the history of the site.

Is public art defined by style or material?

All styles and materials can be found—from realistic imagery to abstract forms to pieces based on time—and made from materials as diverse as bronze and granite to lights, sound, and carefully formed earth.

The field of public art is growing and evolving at a rapid pace. It is not confined to physical objects, but encompasses a much broader spectrum of activities. The field today encompasses place-making, environmental activism, cause-related art, sound installations, interdisciplinary performance events, community-based initiatives, and much more. For example, dance, street theatre, and poetry can be public art.

Why is public art important?

Public art can enrich our lives in a number of ways. It enhances an experience of being in a public space and is a unifying force that helps define qualities of a specific neighborhood. It helps green space thrive, gives character to pedestrian corridors and meaning to community gateways; it demonstrates unquestionable civic and corporate pride in citizenship and affirms an educational environment.

Public art can heighten our awareness, transform a landscape, or express community values, and for these reasons it can have the power, over time to reshape a city’s image.

What are other benefits of public art?

Public art can strengthen the positive reputation of Des Moines in local, regional, national and international arenas. It gives citizens a voice in shaping their civic environment and contributes to cultural tourism.

How is public art funded?

Funding public art is a wide-open endeavor. Projects can be funded by state, local or federal governments. Usually individuals, corporations and philanthropic agencies work together to raise the necessary funds.

Public art has a broad mission with limitless participation and sponsorship.

When did public art begin?

Its roots are in ancient times. Societies and cultures throughout the world constructed monuments to mark or commemorate important ideas, beliefs, people, and events. Sometimes these objects took the form of a soaring column or a triumphal arch (such as in Rome and Paris). At other times, a colossal figure (Leshan Giant Buddha in China, 618-907 BCE) or an elaborate mosaic was the expressive form. In each instance, the object marked the connection of a people to a place’s identifying, signifying, and resonating their histories.

Most of the public art which has survived from antiquity consist of various types of stonework. Greek cities were early advocates of instructing virtues with religious and social art for the community at large. A supreme example of public art in Ancient Greece is the Parthenon (c. 447-422 BCE) on the Acropolis at Athens. This concept of communal aesthetics was vigorously implemented by religious communities. One of the greatest eras for public art was the Italian Renaissance (14th and 15th centuries; the transition between Medieval times and Early Modern Europe) whose artworks were sponsored by the church or civic authorities.


When did public art get started in the United States?

Public art in America, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was typically architectural. Masterpieces like the US Capitol Building (1793 by William Thornton, first of many) and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (1858-79, by American architect James Renwick, Jr.); and The Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor (1886, designed by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi).

Through the first half of the 20th century, the most prominent form of public art in the United States portrayed heroes on pedestals. Cast bronze or carved stone figures could be found in park landscapes, or in and around courthouses and other government buildings.

The mural is another form of public art common in America. Such images depict historical events or illustrate ancient myths, and are often located in national, state or local government facilities such as post offices, state capitols and public schools.

During the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project created more than 200,000 works of art and employed such iconic artists as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn, and Grant Wood. Some works still stand among the most-significant pieces of public art in the country.

Arguably the most novel form of 20th century public art, is Land Art exemplified by the monumental earthworks, such as Spiral Jetty created in Utah (1970) by Robert Smithson. Celebrated large-scale environmental art by Christo (born 1935) and Jeanne-Claude (1935 – 2009) include the encirclement of eleven Florida islands in pink fabric (1983), the wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany (1995), and more than 7,000 gates made of saffron color fabric in Central Park, New York City (2005).

How does a successful public art selection process work?

Like many communities that engage in a public art process, GDMPAF has developed a successful selection process that: 1) is sensitive to community history, assets, issues and aspirations; 2) is community-oriented and site-oriented, i.e. has internal qualities that allow the work to unify, surprise, question, express, engage, elevate, describe, and identify a place; 3) articulates and extends the values and vision of a community and is designed for a diverse audience; 4) allows for artistic creativity and innovation with the added resources of community input, local character and materials.

Who takes care of the art?

It varies according to many factors such as agreements with the artist or donor at the time of purchase or provisions in the city guidelines. Deterioration caused by exposure to the weather is frequently an issue, and occasionally so is vandalism. The GDMPAF has established a conservation fund to care for public art.

Are gifts or donations accepted?

Yes, the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that welcomes contributions. In fact, it relies on financial support from individuals, foundations, and funding from both the public and private sectors.

What can citizens do to participate in Des Moines’ public art initiatives?

You can stay informed about public art activities through the media and encourage City Council members’ ongoing support of Des Moines’ public arts programming. As projects are planned within your community, it is important to participate in citizen panels and your local neighborhood association.

Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation

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