by Minnie Elwood

“What is public art?”

I hear the question often, usually right after I tell someone of my internship at an arts and culture organization. Put simply, any artwork openly displayed for people to see and experience—excluding those behind the walls of a private collection or museum—qualifies as public art. Public art can be found all over our parks, schools, libraries, airports and streets.

1. Public art visualizes a message or idea

Public art is far more than simple decoration. In fact, the underlying intention behind artworks and installations vary tremendously. Some pieces recognize specific issues, or celebrate important causes.

It encompasses a wide range of compelling topics that everyone interprets differently, allowing people to share opinions and experiences that may otherwise go unfelt.

Jaume Plensa’s Tolerance in Buffalo Bayou Park, as an example, exemplifies the unifying qualities of public art. The seven huge metal figures represent the seven continents, celebrating our unique differences as humans but emphasizing our central desires for peace and prosperity between nations.

Inside Houston Police Department’s South Gessner Police Station, Tara Conley’s You Have The Right To Remain Silent fills the hallways with various bronze cast phrases. Lines like “They held me to my highest possibility” and “I miss my good friend” provoke thoughtful consideration for a profession as emotionally challenging as it is physical, honoring the men and women that work to keep Houston’s streets safe.

Murals like John Biggers’ The Quilting Party, currently found at Wortham Theater Center, illustrate a complex narration of black women in the south and their influence on history as well as the artist himself.

It’s the bronze statue that has stood for longer than you can remember – like Hermann Park’s Sam Houston Monument or the standing sentinels of an entryway – like the futuristic Radiant Fountains at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Public art exists to enrich our lives or educate, and can more often than not be recognized by one of three functions.

2. Public art honors people, places and events

Some public artworks memorialize important historical events or celebrate the lives and sacrifices of historical figures. These artworks keep us connected to the past, the people and the events that shaped our present world, encouraging us to build a better future.

Hermann Park’s iconic memorial of Sam Houston (by Enrico Cereacchio) is universally recognized by all Houstonians and stands as a reminder of the hard work it took to found our city.

Hermann Park’s Centennial Gardens is home to statues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Confucius, and other influential historical figures. These statues allow park visitors to remember these individual’s lives and consider the impact they made on the world.

Larger installations like Houston Heights’ World War II Memorial commemorate the hundreds of Houstonians that served and lost their lives in the Second World War.

3. Public art serves a practical purpose

Public art often solves a functional, physical need or creates a spatial activation.

Chris Sauter’s Somewhere Between Here And There functions as both art and seating. Giant cement letters spell out the piece’s title and compliment the airport’s role as an intermediate place between destinations.

Back in Hermann Park, Jesus Moroles’ Moonscape Bench overlooks McGovern Lake, giving park visitors a dynamic lounge for relaxing under swaying pine branches, or feeding ducks.

At Discovery Green, Margo Sawyer’s Synchronicity of Color houses stairwells that lead to underground parking garages – both Red and Blue in a complex pattern of colorful squares.

Regardless of an artwork’s function, at the heart of every work is an artist working to enrich the life of everyday people, no matter where or who they are. It’s worth appreciating and celebrating.

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