Last month, Ben’s Chili Bowl unveiled a new mural. The display brought a crowd of people outside to reflect on the bright colors, cultural touchstones, and iconic images that represent DC, U Street, and the history of the local black community. It also got me thinking about how public art fits into public space.
Public art is one of the ways that an area can define itself, investing and creating images that represent things that residents find important, beautiful or fun. It is a cornerstone of the concept of “placemaking,” which envisions public space as a destination that strengthens the community and adds affirmative value, rather than being a dead space.
A great example of what that could look like is GGWash editorial director Dan Malouff’s call to add murals to Metro stations in order to brighten up the featureless concrete.
Public art is widely popular because it both emphasizes and adds to an area’s unique character. A good piece of art takes something great about the community— its history, its people, its artists, its vibe— and reflects that, thereby making the community greater. The best public art, therefore, is rooted in the place where it comes from. That specific sense of place is what sets a mural apart from a framed classic in a museum.
I asked GGWash contributors to talk about their favorite murals, pieces of street art, and sculptures, and to discuss what makes art “public” and whether art should be considered part of city infrastructure.
Contributor Justin Lini compared two sculptures in his neighborhood. For one of them, Washington Glass worked with members of the community to create a glass and steel arch.
“It's a great piece because it’s both beautiful, and it has lots of community involvement,” said Justin. “It's become something of a symbol of the community.”
Another nearby piece from a New York area artist is pleasant to look at, but according to Lini “it doesn't say anything about/to the community. It's just kind of there.”
The arch that students created, and pieces like it, also remind us that public art is more than only murals. While beautiful walls are fun to look at and great to post on Instagram, there are more tactile and engaging pieces that can touch residents’ lives deeply.
Abby Lynch described her favorite art in the city, the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza:
“It's not the one I would pluck from its context and install in a museum because of its great beauty, but it's something that I see as a unifying piece of public infrastructure in my community—it's where the farmer's market happens, it's where families bring toddlers to playing the fountain when the weather gets hot (something that I 100% would have wanted to do at age 4). I've seen salsa performances, petting zoos, and community fairs on the plaza. You could do a lot of that on a blank concrete or gravel plaza, but the design - a fountain, mosaic patterns, seating, landscaping, and the radiating circle design that extends out to the street and sidewalks around it, make the space unique.”
More than just aesthetics, design impacts the way that people live. Redesigning a neighborhood to be more beautiful to look at makes it into a place that people want to be. Art can be combined with public transportation to inject interest into a new project. When a new highway or a trail seeks community input on not just the project, but the design and the murals that will decorate it, people are more likely to be engaged and it creates a sense of local ownership. It can even be a functional part of the design.
The Barnes Dance intersection in Chinatown filled the crosswalk with animal images to encourage people to use the unusual diagonal crossing pattern.
Some murals go beyond the present and place a history lesson on their walls. Just down the block from Ben’s Chili Bowl, you can walk up an alley and learn about the life of Paul Robeson, a famous actor, singer and civil rights advocate. Across the street from these two is the site of the True Reformer building which once featured a mural of DC’s native son and jazz legend Duke Ellington.
No mural is guaranteed to be here forever
Murals, even the most significant and the most beloved, are vulnerable to weather, wear, and new construction. Lots of development accelerates this process, and as buildings come up artwork can be torn down, or hidden from view – which is exactly what happened to the True Reformer portrait. Even though some developers will fund new art on their buildings, when public art becomes a part of the community, it’s a major loss to have it fade or vanish.
The loss of community murals runs parallel to neighborhood change and the displacement of longtime residents. Perry Frank, a DC murals historian, chronicles some of this process in her documentary, Painted City.
Murals fade or are built over, and except for historians like Perry Frank who seek to photograph and preserve their image, they are often replaced without significant upkeep. But when a city builds something for its residents, in some ways it becomes a piece of infrastructure. It’s true that crumbling artwork does not present the kind of serious health and safety risks that you would see if the roads or the electrical grid were falling apart, but there are consequences all the same.
Public art has many great benefits— creating and strengthening community identity, making an open and welcoming space, bringing people together, and making urban design easy to understand— and if it degrades or falls into disrepair those benefits are completely lost.
How does public art come to Washington?
In Denver they have public pianos, and in Philadelphia there is a murals program which has created thousands of murals over 31 years. But how do big public art pieces happen in the greater Washington area?
While graffiti is still undoubtedly popular, there are official channels to put up fully sanctioned artwork as well.
Counties in Maryland and Virginia, and the city of DC all have local offices or affiliated nonprofits that locate places, choose artists and designs, and fund art installations.
In the District, Murals DC has sponsored over 50 works of art, including the Ben’s Mural. The program is a collaboration between the Department of Public Works and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities that was originally founded ten years ago as a graffiti prevention initiative.
In Montgomery County the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County administers a Public Arts Trust. The Prince George County Art in Public Places Program works from a “percent for art” principle, where one percent of county building construction costs is put towards art projects. The county’s Department of Public Works also sponsored a Hyattesville project to paint traffic boxes around the city this summer.
In Virginia, Alexandria’s Office of the Arts and a Commission for the Arts work together to distribute city grants. The office also runs the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, where a former munitions factory was converted into studios and galleries for local artists. Arlington, which has a Public Art Committee, is in the process of updating their Public Art Master Plan, which was written in 2004, when Arlington first allocated county funds to art.
Area residents also have access to a publicly funded, world class art collection from the Smithsonian, which has seven museums dedicated to different varieties of art.
Of course, not all public art is paid for with public money. Private individuals and companies can create or sponsor art that is free to see or experience. The beloved watermelon house on Q Street is a shining example of one single family home making itself into a community landmark.
Public art can define a place, and it almost certainly can beautify a place. If there’s great art near you, let us know! Share your favorite local art in the comments.