What makes good public art?

March 5, 2012  |   Events,   Feature,   World
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In Austin, Texas, a group of people — artists, downtown residents, architects, and art advocates — recently gathered at the elongated picnic table to talk about public art.

The table, called "Open Room Austin," is a commissioned project of the Austin’s Art in Public Places program and was designed by Miami-based artists Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar.
Made of powder-coated aluminum, the long tabletop is a faux white table cloth, seemingly made of lace with delicate cut-out patterns draping over the sides. Four red tree-like chandeliers surround the table at each corner, creating an open-air room of sorts — a bit of quasi-intimate domestic space within a public park.
The City of Austin Art In Public Places (AAIP) commissioned artist team, Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar (of Miami, FL and collectively known as R&R Studios) to design and construct Open Room Austin, a permanent public art installation for the mound at Sand Beach Park, as part of the Pfluger Bridge Extension CIP Project. Open Room Austin was conceived as a social sculpture, a place of encounters and stage for everyday life and stories to unfold. The artists' design is an al fresco room surrounded by trees, featuring a long table with a delicate lace tablecloth, benches, and four tree-like chandeliers. It invites visitors to have a conversation, a moment of repose, or to wait for a friend in a space reminiscent of home. Appearing at once real and fantastic, familiar and unprecedented, a slice of domesticity in a public park - the installation is intended to dissolve boundaries between fiction and reality and limits between art and life, suggesting a sense of personal ownership to everyone involved with the event.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman, in Austin, Texas, wrote about this public art salon from this site that inspired the discussion.

On hand was Christina Lanzl of the Urban Arts Institute at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. A public art consultant, cultural planner, curator and writer, Lanzl was in Austin to work with a group from the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which is bringing attention to an underused urban block that is anchored by a small, historic building.

Lanzl advocates “placemaking” — a holistic approach to the design of urban space. Placemaking transcends traditional, static notions of what architecture, urban design and public art might be. Instead of considering just a discrete object of public art or the architectural style of a specific building or plaza, the placemaking philosophy endeavors to consider the totality of urban life. Hence first-rate public art is not merely an aesthetic enterprise. Public health, economic and business development, transportation infrastructure, cultural development — it should all go into the pot to stew together.

And the measure of any successful placemaking effort consists of how busy a place is with people.
“Think of a public space as if it’s your home, your living room,” Lanzl suggests. “Is it comfortable? Is it some place you’ll return to? And if you don’t like it, will you speak up and try to make your opinion heard?”

Crowd-sourcing is important, Lanzl believes. Public discussion and input is key.

“The objective is to strive for consensus, and consensus is hard,” Lanzl says of public art decisions. “And yes, you can have design excellence even when you engage as many issues, as many stakeholders, as possible in the decision. But it’s a difficult process.”


What makes good public art? It’s worthy of discussion.