Community Identity

Bringing Diversity to Public Art Programs


Public art—which is to say, art displayed in public places, often outdoors—has become an important commodity for communities of all sizes, from large urban centers to small, rural towns. It can be permanent or temporary, and takes on many forms, including sculpture, murals, architectural work, digital media, community art and more—including music and performances. In many instances, public art might reflect the history of a place or its people, or even address social issues.

And while public art may be artist-driven or self-funded, more often it is developed and managed by either a municipal agency or a private entity such as a nonprofit arts organization. Founded in 1960, Americans for the Arts is a nonprofit working to advance the arts and arts education. They believe that public art instills meaning and a greater sense of identity for communities, stressing that it's been found to "provide a positive impact on communities by supporting economic growth and sustainability, attachment and cultural identity, artists as contributors, social cohesion and cultural understanding, and public health and belonging."

But to truly attain these goals, it's important for the agencies that implement public art—including city planning, parks and recreation and economic development departments, as well as the communities themselves—to practice diversity and inclusion, making sure all voices and backgrounds are reflected and represented. "Americans for the Arts provides professional development and resources to help organizations who make the arts happen in their communities," said Patricia Walsh, Public Art and Civic Design senior program manager at the organization. "We do this through online trainings, research and providing connections with others doing similar work. 'Cultural Equity in the Public Art Field' is one resource we've developed to begin to address these issues of representation and diversity."

Other programs initiated by Americans for the Arts include the Arts & Culture Leaders of Color (ACLC) program and the Diversity in Arts Leadership (DIAL) program, which is very popular, according to Nikki Kirk, who is program manager for Equity in Arts Leadership at the organization. "The program just completed its 29th year in New York City, and its third year nationally. This summers' applicant pool increased by about 245% for our virtually held national program in New York City, Nashville and New Jersey." Kirk said other cities are also inquiring about the program, and mentioned the Arts & Culture Equity Studio as a new program launching this winter.


On their website, Americans for the Arts recognizes that "many existing systems of power grant privilege and access unequally, and that equity is crucial to the long-term viability of both the arts and culture sector and communities-at-large." They developed a Statement on Cultural Equity, and Ruby Lopez Harper, vice president of Equity and Local Arts Engagement at the organization, said the statement is an aid in codifying the work they're committed to doing and acts as a guide as they continue to build other tools like the language bank and a resource center. "But it's the actions we take resulting from the statement that matter most. Equitable access to the arts and distribution and participation in resources are an ongoing focus of the work we do."

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, it seems that many communities have taken a closer look at the way they're represented via public art. "Every community is at a different spot in this change; some have been working on these issues for a while, and some are only just beginning to understand how representation may affect their public art programs and projects," offered Walsh. "For example, places like Houston and Charlotte have done a review of their collections to see if the demographics of the artists selected to make the works is similar to the demographics of the city."

Forecast is a nonprofit arts organization founded in 1978 by and for artists working in public space. They connect artists with cities, institutions and communities, while supporting them with funding, training and workshops. They partner with decision-makers and stakeholders on arts and cultural planning efforts, and help others find, select, curate, fund and commission public artists, emphasizing access for artists of color, indigenous artists and groups that are traditionally excluded. They offer pro bono and in-kind services in communities of color, rural communities and Native American nations. They provide key knowledge about managing public art projects, working with community members to envision creative places and collaborate with artists. "We have a mission to activate public art that advances justice, health and human dignity in the community so we model equitable behavior in our processes," said Jen Krava, director of Programming and New Initiatives at Forecast. "So even if it's not something that's important to municipalities when we're working with them, it's still ingrained in how we approach our work."


Krava said it's important to consider the different media and criteria that public artwork takes in a specific place, pointing out that if a policy only allows for permanent, object-based artworks, that takes a very certain set of skills that not all artists have had access to learning. "Keeping the definition of public art narrow discounts many mediums and artists right away; think about textile artists, social practice artists. Many artists are self-taught, so placing emphasis on higher education degrees or how many shows/exhibitions an artist has been involved in will also be severely limiting. Also, keeping track of this data…and reviewing the collection, policies and processes on an annual basis will be incredibly important to continue bridging gaps."

Mark Salinas is a senior project manager at Forecast, and he explained how municipalities and communities should consider their role in educating the public to better form and inform its own relationship to the arts through their media (radio, social media, news, etc.)—not only in the lead-up to cultural calendar events but in the long term. "Maintenance of a collection can extend beyond surface cleaning and label signage, and into year-round online marketing/support/promotion of the artist bios and profiles in the collection. To create placement of diversity in collections is progress, but that momentum can be lost without year-round social maintenance and responsibility."

A new initiative at Forecast is the Change Lab, which examines new thought processes and tests new approaches to "creatively disrupt the status quo to advance justice in the field of public art." Their Change Lab research fellowships are based around a specific research topic, and are open to graduate students, recent college grads, doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, artists and public art professionals. Their second research fellow will focus on indigenous visibility in public art. Reports developed by fellows will become models of change for public art programs, policies and processes.

Forecast also offers Collection Equity Audits to identify inequities in public art collections as related to race, gender, immigration status and more. This helps program administrators, committees and communities prioritize initiatives, set targets, assign accountability, measure the impact of initiatives and identify gaps, whether it's who is creating the art or who is deciding what art should be created. "Understanding where barriers exist for BIPOC communities (black, indigenous, people of color) to be engaged in public art can help municipalities to change how they're doing things in order to make projects more equitable and representative of their communities," said Krava.


She offered other questions that the audits help address: "How is the artwork reflective of the community in which it's located? Does it offer subject matter that connects to residents and that they can engage in dialogue around while feeling safe? Are (the artists) representative of the community in which the artwork will be located? Do the artist eligibility requirements match with who should be making the artwork? Are artwork budgets fair across all projects, or are some artists being paid more than others?"

The city of Tempe, Ariz., oversees a diverse collection of permanent and temporary public art, aspiring to "cultivate a unique community identity that advances Tempe as a vibrant and progressive destination." Their collection includes artwork integrated into multi-use paths, sculptural artworks in city parks, murals on city-owned buildings, functional artworks like custom bus shelters and unique landmarks in community spaces.

Rebecca Rothman is the arts administrator with the city's Public Art Division, and she explained that the conversation around diversifying public art collections has been occurring on a national level for many years, far before the protests of 2020. "In Tempe we've been building and implementing policies to be more inclusive in our artist submission and selection processes in an effort to build more diverse perspectives into our collection."

Rothman said that inclusivity is essential, beginning with the selection process. "We strive to bring new voices to each artist selection process, thereby allowing submissions to be viewed with fresh perspectives every time. Other ways to ensure diverse participation is through outreach to underrepresented artist populations and communities. There are several email lists, social media posts and web blasts, but a direct note to a neighborhood chair or organization leader can also really make a huge difference."


She said that while their staff facilitates the artist selection process, they don't vote in the process, but they do ask the selection panelists to consider diversity in their recommendations. "When the request for (artist) qualifications opens—typically every two to three years as staffing resources allow—we provide outreach to artists through pre-submittal workshops and application assistance in an effort to increase participation by artists who have been underrepresented in the collection."

"Each public art project is unique in terms of what the constraints call for," continued Rothman. "What is important is to consider the site where the artwork will reside. What is the intended purpose of the artwork? Who will engage with the work on a daily basis? How will the artwork impact this location and what is the environmental situation in this surrounding?"

The city of Eugene, Ore. administers a robust public art program, with nearly 200 works of art located throughout their downtown and other parts of the city, representing a variety of media. Their website describes the program as being committed to the pursuit of cultural equity, which requires "continual examination of our own practices and programmatic history." In 2009 the city began work on its Public Art Plan, assisted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and guided by the Eugene Public Art Committee and a citizen volunteer steering committee, with assistance from a consultant team.

Kate Ali is Eugene's public art manager, and she explained how people have begun to realize the important part public art plays in making public spaces feel more inclusive. "Municipal public art departments across the country have been taking a hard look at their collections, policies and processes to do the work to ensure their selection processes, community outreach and art collections align with their city's race and social justice initiatives. We are charged with ensuring all artists, partners, community members and cultural producers have access to platforms, resources and agency to amplify their stories, heritage, art and culture, where race does not predetermine access or success."


One of the major barriers to this goal is that public art is a tough industry to gain experience in, according to Ali, as it often requires knowledge and resources that are only attainable through mentorships, partnerships or enough financial stability to take large risks. "Most Public Art Selection Committees won't consider a studio artist without prior public art experience. Temporary art exhibition opportunities in public spaces are an excellent way to create an entry point for artists to gain experience and share perspectives across cultures within a community to help facilitate a sense of belonging and open dialogue."

"Another important part of ensuring a diverse public art collection that reflects the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the many communities that make up a city is to examine the makeup of your selection committees," said Ali, who added that most percent-for-art programs require selection committees to be made up of an architect, a construction manager, facility users, artists and community members. "It's important to consider the intersectionality of those selection committee members as well so that people of color and LGBTQIA+ community members have a voice in the goals and themes set for their cultural landscape."

"Community involvement in the process is very important; otherwise we have art in public rather than public art," said Krava. "We look at where the artwork will be installed, and on a hyperlocal scale, who will be most affected by it." She said this includes making sure someone from the neighborhood where it's being installed is part of the selection process, or that community engagement activities are done prior to determining the criteria for the artwork, so that it's coming directly from the community members themselves. "Also, defining 'community' is an important step; is it geographically based, is it race, ethnicity, heritage, professional affiliations?"

Salinas agreed that community engagement is critical. "I have found that individuals will have different degrees of engagement in this process, and they see their thumbprint on the project in very different ways. While some attend and participate in every convening or survey, others may seek ways to roll up their sleeves to volunteer, and still others may opt to donate resources or materials. In all these active to passive manners, people feel that what is made is then theirs."

For each public art project in Tempe, Rothman said they host a unique selection panel comprised of a Tempe Arts & Culture Commission (TACC) member, stakeholders who represent the community, a city staff member from a partnering department and artists/arts professionals who can provide expertise in advising the process. "We ensure that the panels are comprised of a diverse set of perspectives and experiences with regard to culture, gender, age and ethnicity. Aside from the TACC member and city staff, we ensure different perspectives by inviting people to serve as panelists only once every three years or more."


It's also important to use outreach and get input from neighborhoods and community members regarding new art initiatives. "We engage with our commissioners regularly and they represent the larger Tempe community as advisers to all things art-related," said Rothman. "We also work with our partners in the city to gage public art-related insight through the use of surveys as they relate to specific projects."

Walsh said that having a decision-making body that is inclusive of and representative of the community being served is one way that communities can ensure diverse participation and representation in public art on an ongoing basis. "Another way is to build an inclusive program that helps and encourages community voices within the project itself. In some cases, this looks like identifying artists and other creatives from the community directly or making the process to apply for a project more accessible. A lot of this takes time in building trust between the program and the community and effort to develop and implement new systems."

Public art can also be a vehicle for other goals, according to Krava, not just art for art's sake. "What are the issues or challenges most important to the neighborhood? How can that be reflected in the artwork? What are some assets that can be amplified? Understanding what's important to the people living in close proximity to the artwork will help create something that resonates with community members." RM