The Power of Art in Public Places

Can art in public places change the way we experience a city? 15 Kingston artists who participated in a one-day installation entitled “Dear Kingston” think so. As part of Kingston’s Water Access Group’s Shoreline Shuffle — a 7.7KM walk/paddle/cycle along the shores of Lake Ontario on June 22nd — these artists “drew reference to place, community desire, and the need for change along Kingston’s waterfront.” The installations were temporary, playful invitations to imagine the waterfront in new ways, as well as a call to action for the city to create a plan for its waterfront and making it more accessible.

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The exhibition’s small DIY gestures led me to reflect on the successes and limitations of larger public art installations. Public art, it seems, oscillates between artistic showmanship and public engagement. Consider Chicago’s Millennium Park — a conscious attempt to use public art to improve the city’s waterfront. Crown Fountain by Catalan Artist, Jaume Plensa, streams faces of Chicagoans onto 50 foot brick towers covered in LED scales. Each face spouts water onto a granite splash pad below where children play, tourists snap pictures, and pedestrians pass by. The faces, curated by the Art Institute of Chicago, constantly blend and morph into one another, giving onlookers a hope of finding themselves in the changing faces of the city.

Elsewhere in the park, Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, commonly called the Bean, similarly invites viewers to find themselves and the city in the sculpture’s undulating, reflective form. The park now hosts festivals, concerts, races, and tours, and visitors and citizens alike can visit anytime. Millennium Park, broadly speaking, uses art to bring the city together and enjoy public space with a variety of uses, thereby also contributing to the city’s sense of place.

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The Encana Corporation in Calgary recently commissioned Plensa to create a sculpture for its new office tower, western Canada’s tallest building, The Bow.” Plensa’s Wonderland, like Crown Fountain, is an interactive work that encourages passersby to move through the sculpture and experience the city from new perspectives. The cage-like sculpture suggests ideas about frames, grid systems, dichotomies of work and play, youth and adulthood, “wonderland” and reality.

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The sculpture is, on one hand, a coup for downtown Calgary, heralding the city’s maturity: For Mayor Naheed Nenshi the Bow represents “an optimistic city, a city on the rise, a city with its face turned firmly towards the future.” Wonderland, then, is like a reliquary for the city’s new cosmopolitanism. For others, like journalist, Richard White, the sculpture lacks Millennium Park’s ability to connect the city with its inhabitants. It is not enough, White argues, for a city to find famous “artists to create an artwork and plunk them down on an office plaza. We can do better. We should demand better.” Public art, for White, needs to offer more opportunities for interaction: “The beauty of public spaces is that they have both loud and quiet areas, with plenty of places for people to sit, look, listen and linger.” Wonderland, sits in a busy space on Monday to Friday. On the weekend, when corporate Calgary retreats from downtown, it, unlike Crown Fountain, sits empty, with the quiet imperative: “do not climb.” It seems unlikely, then, that Wonderland will have a lasting impact on the city’s sense of place.

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Little remains of “Dear Kingston”– a faded red shoe here, a smudge of charcoal there — but the event produced a working group that will explore a plan to develop Kingston’s waterfront. In this case, art, although temporary, may have a lasting effect on its community. Imagine what a permanent installation could do.

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