Public art — What to keep in mind

Public art enriches a city's sense of place and supports the arts community. But placing sculptures, murals and other pieces in downtowns and elsewhere poses an array of questions to city officials, from how to pay for it to where to put the art.

"People connect with it," said Tracy Ramseur, the development coordinator for the City of Greenville and staff liaison to the Arts in Public Places Commission, the body appointed by City Council to evaluate art applications, recommend specific pieces of art and identify potential sites for new public art. The City of Greenville has more than 70 pieces.

Several years ago, the city conducted a public survey about the art pieces.

"For every person who loved a piece, there was at least one person who hated it," said Ramseur. "That's art."

Have a plan — Be thoughtful
Think about locations where the city can use art to enhance the streetscape and create a sense of place.

"You don't want your city to look like every other city," said Ramseur.

"We're at the point now where we're trying to take the art off of Main Street and put it into parks and commercial corridors and residential areas. … We've gotten to the point where we've said, 'Let's look at the entire city for the opportunity for public art. It's not just about downtown — It's about getting art into parks, neighborhoods and making it accessible to the public."

Find the art's purpose
Some cities may use art to beautify a lackluster location or to conceal unappealing spaces and property, such as HVAC equipment. That has not been the focus in Greenville, however." The art should be celebrated," Ramsear said. "It should be placed in locations where it's well thought out, it's integrated into the site, and where it fits that particular site."

Define 'public art'
"We've seen definitions from other cities that are a page long," said Ramseur. "We consider art public if it is located on public property or if it is located on private property, but the general public has the ability to access and view it."

To that end, for public art located on private property, the city gets an easement from the property owner in order to maintain the art and provide public access to it.

"If the city is participating (financially) in the acquisition of a piece of art, that art needs to be accessible to the public. In most cases, the city asks the organization that is commissioning the art to donate it to the city upon installation. Once the city formally accepts the donation, we will maintain and insure the art," said Ramseur.

This tends to benefit all parties, since the developer is typically glad to hand over liability and maintenance responsibilities.

Maintain, appraise and record
Ramseur encourages cities to keep ongoing costs in mind, such as insurance and liability expenses, when considering public art. Some pieces, such as bronze statues, will require cleaning, while other materials may have other repair and maintenance needs.

Find the right way to fund it
The city has tried a few different ways to support public art.

At one point, the city was setting aside 1 percent of the total cost of certain capital projects, such as buildings, bridges, streetscape and landscapes (but not underground utility projects). These funds were then either devoted to public art at the project site or kept in an account to fund a future piece of art somewhere else. This made it difficult to incorporate the art work into a project at the beginning of the site's development, and it was also harder to predict how much money would be available. At another point, the city devoted a portion of the revenue from Sunday alcohol sales permits. Today, the city allocates accommodations tax revenues.

"We believe investing in the arts is a good use of public funds. Most of the time, the city is not paying 100 percent of the cost, said Ramseur. "Rather, a small amount from the city, typically less than $25,000, helps leverage private funds."

She urged cities to keep a detailed inventory of public art with a regular schedule of appraisals and maintenance requirements.