In New York and More, Public Art Is Taking on Thorny Social Issues

“The return of culture and the return of people to embrace that culture is ultimately what’s going to carry our city out of Covid,” Mr. Speyer said. “Our responsibility to enhance the public art program is greater than ever, just as it was during the Great Depression.”

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art, a nonprofit that commissions and promotes public art in Philadelphia, said viewership likely rose during the pandemic, as it was often the only means for people to safely engage with artworks. “Public art organizers all over the country began to realize that because there was increased use of public spaces, it was an opportunity to call attention to the artwork.”

Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that runs the Public Art Network, said there was increased interest in public art tours in many communities during the pandemic, like Atlanta, Denver and Waynesville, N.C., but it was consistent with the overall growth trend across the country. A survey it conducted found that in 2001 there were an estimated 350 public art programs; by 2017, that number had more than doubled to 728 programs. In a 2018 public opinion survey, 79 percent of respondents said they were in favor of art in parks, downtown areas, and other public places, up from 72 percent in 2015.

In the last decade, at least a half-billion dollars was invested in public art nationwide; most projects were publicly funded, though private funding is increasing, the nonprofit group said. Most public funds support permanent projects, but temporary ones, now about a quarter of all projects, are increasing, and are likely to be privately funded.

The growth of public art is global, said Daniel Tobin, founder of Urban Art Projects, a Brisbane, Australia-based international company that collaborates with artists, curators, and public officials to produce public art. “We have witnessed unprecedented demand for public art in cities and communities around the world,” he said.

Over the last three decades, for example, the public art industry in Australia, Asia and the Middle East has “undergone seismic change,” Mr. Tobin said, as strategies developed for single sites have turned into citywide master plans.

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