Art as Public Activator

Porter Arneill
Director/Public Art Administrator
Municipal Art Commission
Capital Improvements Management Office
Kansas City, Missouri

"It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." - William H. Whyte (1917-99), American sociologist and journalist

A History of Public Art Programming in the United States
Art and aesthetics have been integral to humanity since the dawn of time. From tribal cave paintings to Egyptian pyramids to the prodigious artwork of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, an affinity for visual art has been part of public infrastructure throughout history, allowing cultures to identify themselves through unique elements of art, design and craft.

In the United States, formal public art and urban design programs are rooted in the late nineteenth century. As the U.S. population tripled from 31.4 million in 1860 to 91.9 million in 1910, towns and cities formed expeditiously. By 1910, almost 46% of Americans lived in cities with populations of more than 2,500 people. Cities were no longer just centers of commerce; they were becoming diverse neighborhoods and communities. To enhance urban life, city founders recognized the value of art and design. The efforts of civic leaders, in concert with citizen concern for community aesthetics, comfort, safety and "the good life," evolved into the Village Improvement and City Beautiful Movements. By 1900, there were more than 3,000 Village Improvement and City Beautiful associations across the country. Their task was to balance the weight of industrial impact in urban environments and make places more beautiful and livable.

Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones, Polarities, 2003-04, Kansas City International Airport Terrazzo Floors (Photo Credit: Mike Sinclair). Artists Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones of New York City created the floor design that welcomes travelers throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area. The three terminal floors represent continuous bands of sky, offering travelers a perceived aerial view as they walk through the terminals. According to the artists, the new floor hints at the infinite depth of space through a collection of brass plus and minus symbols. These symbols characterize wind and water currents and global magnetic fields. The fine green lines are reminiscent of the lines on a map or an air traffic control radar screen. The narrow black and white borders suggest the mapping and measure of space. Interspersed throughout the floor are insets of mosaic "medallions" and other colored terrazzo images. The phenomenon of flight, dramatic shifts of perspective, and the mapping of air, sky and land inspired the design.

From the 1890s to the 1930s Americans developed eclectic and sometimes contradictory tastes for historic European embellishments and the contemporary visions of people such as landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (a champion for the City Beautiful Movement) and architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan—pioneers in establishing new philosophies and sensibilities in the aesthetic composition of American society. Over time, with issues of taste, socio-economics and outcries of elitism, these movements also became the basis for the framework of aesthetic policy making and legislation.

From 1935 through 1943, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Program, the federal government converged with the arts. As part of Roosevelt's New Deal Cultural Program, the WPA was established to generate federal, regional and local worker relief during the great depression. In compliance with this effort, the Federal Art Program employed artists to create artworks for federal properties. Although the WPA was terminated in 1943, more than 8.5 million people were employed during its tenure, including approximately 6,000 artists and artisans. The work of this creative force included more than 2,000 murals, 17,000 sculptures and 100,000 paintings that adorned (and still adorn) many federal buildings throughout the country. Never before—or since—has the American public enjoyed such prominent exposure to the arts. Indirectly, the WPA art programs led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 and the Government Services Administration Art in Architecture program in 1972.

These federal and city programs led to a proliferation of city, county and nonprofit arts agencies and related policies and legislation in response to art, aesthetics and design in daily life and, significantly, the evolution of new business models for the arts.

Mandated Money for Public Art
Philadelphia passed the first one-percent-for-art ordinance in the United States in 1959. Over the next two decades, many other cities established mandated programs and even the federal government followed suit when the Government Services Agency (GSA) established the Art in Architecture Program in 1972, which allocates one-half of one percent of the budget for new or substantially expanded federal buildings for commissioning artworks.

Today there are more than 350 locally-sponsored public art programs in the United States. Additionally, many private nonprofit organizations sponsor permanent and temporary public art programming to support and exhibit the work of artists and to enhance urban environments.

"Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity." - Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81), Russian composer

R.M. Fischer, Sky Stations, 1994, Kansas City Convention Center (Photo Credit: Linda Misenheimer). Transforming the city's skyline with sci-fi imagery, R.M. Fischer's aluminum sculptures tower over 200 feet above the Kansas City Convention Center. Four ornaments atop pillar supports emanate light throughout a two-mile radius at night. As futuristic interpretations of the streamlined 1930s art deco style, prevalent in adjacent downtown buildings, Sky Stations evokes the optimism of a bygone era and represents a bright hope for the future. Interior decoration completes the synthesis of old and new parts of the convention center with 48 hanging works, including a giant clock, illuminating the lobbies, pedestrian passageways and conference center. Not only has Fischer's art become one of the most talked-about public commissions, but also one of the most recognizable symbols of Kansas City.

Process Equals Success
With the continually growing popularity of public art across the country, it's ironic that few people have a true understanding of the process behind the product. Typically, the public art program administrator develops an independent, volunteer selection panel for each project. Panels include project architects, stakeholders, building users, arts professionals and community representatives. The panel determines the best overall plan for the public art project and, with the help of city staff, develops and distributes a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to artists and arts administrators across the country. Any artist may submit their qualifications for review by the panel. Through a series of meetings, the panel narrows the candidates to a group of finalists who are invited to review the project and are paid to develop site proposals. The finalists present the proposals to the panel and the panel selects the artist or artists who they believe will create the strongest artwork for the project.

The process of selecting artists and including public art in a construction or capital improvement project opens it to a broader, healthy scrutiny and helps planners discover more innovative solutions and better results. It also invites practical public participation that increases the understanding and appreciation of the final product. As evidenced by the number of cities with public art programs—some 350 across the U.S.—it's clear that public art is recognized as a valuable instrument for cultural tourism and economic development.

Public art bolsters the outcome of capital improvements in a number of ways. Architects are trained to solve problems related to the design and construction of buildings while artists are trained to solve aesthetic problems related to human experience. Combining these perspectives allows both artists and architects to explore and complement each other's methodologies and sensibilities. A good public artist is also an effective collaborator. Magic often occurs when an artist and architect agree to complement and challenge each other to move past their individual limitations.

Facilitating an inclusive and methodical process from start to finish and maintaining communication between architects, artists and the public will, more often than not, result in a successful public art project. Ideally, public art is an amalgam of science, creativity and democracy. By demystifying public art and fostering an authentic sense of ownership for public art projects, pessimism often turns into appreciation.

John T. Scott, Jazz Pantheon, 2002, 18th and Vine District (Photo Credit: Linda Misenheimer). John T. Scott is an artist and teacher living in New Orleans, Louisiana. His work refers to the celebration of life and captures the ritual of the artist's cultural heritage. Mr. Scott researched historic Kansas City and discovered a wealth of information in its people and its musical heritage. In the untitled piece behind the 18th and Vine complex, Mr. Scott layers silhouettes cut from stainless steel to portray African-American life in historic Kansas City. A man playing a guitar sits on a bench and seemingly invites someone passing by to stop and listen. Another man playing a piano sits atop one of the end columns of the work. Figures of men and women are seen dancing, making music, riding a horse, and walking. There are buses and automobiles along with floating musical bars—all framed in the abstracted form of a house-like structure. Each figure seems to capture a nostalgic moment in time and tells a story of the people and events that took place in Kansas City many years ago. The shiny stainless steel surfaces also act as a mirror, reflecting the images of contemporary people within the images of the past.

Public Art/Distinguishing "Place"
Increasingly, U.S. municipalities are competing to attract businesses and citizens. Studies indicate that corporations and individuals are attracted to communities that offer basic comforts along with unique amenities and identities. To compete in today's world, municipalities have to think and act holistically. In addition to building and maintaining the physical infrastructure of a community, civic leaders in the twenty-first century must continually bolster the ever-evolving vision and identity of their community. While public art is not singular in this endeavor, it is a mainstay in the success of numerous municipalities in the United States.

Porter Arneill can be reached at (816) 513-2538 or For more information about the Municipal Art Commission go to