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Three Reasons Public Art is Good Even When It Is Bad

I love public art. Not all of it; some I find tasteless or ugly or boring. But I'm supportive of it all on principle and want more of it. I define public art broadly to include murals and bronze men-on-horses, as well as the Bubble Car with the fantastic bubble-wand-waving-man in the Willy Street Parade.

The Cap Times recently celebrated a crop of new projects in an article in its weekly paper. The piece hails the projects and the resulting art products as "people's art" that take inspiration from the community. This is a great point, and one of the things I like about public art, but not the only reason public art is of value.

Many of the projects in the article were unknown to me. I was excited to read about them but frankly would have been way more excited had I stumbled upon them. And that is what I love most about public art: the discovery! Being surprised by the sighting of some public art can transform how I see the place and change the tone of my day.

The newly installed CommuniTree was the cover image for the article by Lindsay Christians. This life-size tree was built with the help of community volunteers, has a time-capsule buried beneath it, and was funded, in part, by the Marquette Neighborhood Association.

Now there is a yellow dot on the trunk of the CommuniTree. The yellow dots are all over the City marking Ash trees that are slated for removal in the City's plan to deal with the Emerald Ash Borer invasion. The yellow dots-of-death are all over my neighborhood and I wish they were not.

People are buzzing about this 'act of vandalism' that supposedly makes a statement about the art itself (that the CommuniTree should be removed?).

Whatever. Like a friend who covered the yellow dot on the tree in his terrace with brown paint to hide the tree from the cutting crew, I personally thought the 'act of vandalism' was clever. I wish I didn't need to make this clear, but I will: I really like the CommuniTree and love Erika Koivunen's work.

Public Art is like that: Open for interpretation. And here are three more reasons why public art is good, even when it is bad:

1. Public art is fun. Just last week, released its rankings for 2015 and Madison is number one. Livability is about quality of life, which means that we are having a pretty good time of it. Public art is different from high art, the kind that hangs in museums, in that it is out there having a good time with the people. And people want to be where the art is (developers know to follow the hot chefs and the artists). And that is my criticism of the CommuniTree: you cannot sit under it. I had to cross two lanes of traffic and stand on a traffic island to get close enough to see the beautiful detail of Erika Koivunen and Aaron Howard's work. That's not fun.

2. Public art is collaborative. The artist commissioned to do a piece has to work with the people who want the art. The artist with an idea for a piece looking for a public stage has to work with the city and neighbors to get permits and permission. And the artist living life artistically (like the man in the Bubble Car making the bubbles) is engaging with the community. This engagement is really healthy for a city and underscores the point that artists make valuable collaborators on projects of all kinds. When artists are part of a project team, alongside the other specialists, the project generally ends up being more accessible to the community and ultimately more effective.

3. Public art generates conversation. Whether it is "I saw the neatest thing today" at the dinner table or "That pillar of footballs looks phallic," I'm solidly behind an enhanced urban landscape that inspires further expression. One of the more exciting conversations I had with my four-year-old was in response to an art installation that was part of Reflections from the Banks of the Yahara. She wanted to talk about how the piece was made, what the artist was thinking, and what kind of art she would like to create. I co-curated the temporary installation, so was thrilled that the public art was working.


Have you heard about the murals? Have you seen the latest in the Little Galleries? Have you ever witnessed all those Santas caroling on State Street? These are things to experience, and talk about!


  1. Thanks for the mention, Jessica! I like the discovery of public art, too. It's like finding an Easter egg.

    I see your point about the location of the tree sculpture. I'm a fairly distractible person, so my first thought when I saw the CommuniTree in person was: OMG I'm going to be in an accident.

    That probably wasn't the goal.

    1. I know, I think I probably nearly caused an accident as I veered from the bike path onto the grassy island to get a closer look!

      Thanks, Lindsay, for doing such a great job of shining a light on some of the best stuff going on around town!