Reading Guide For Investigating Public Art Through a Social Science Lens

The first three sources are from the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the spatial turn in the social and the critiques of modernism and planning at the time. At this time the emphasis on literature was the production of public art, namely the public for whom artwork is intended, how we think of artists and artistic production, and what processes (artistic or of urban development) produce public art. These sources are foundational and cited frequently in contemporary sources. Since then, there has been a renewed focus on public art in tandem with the wave of interest in entrepreneurial cities and arts’ role in making a city liveable, attractive, and marketable. 

More recent literature emphasizes the consumption of public art, namely who interacts with public art, how public art is used by cities, and what effect public art has on urban space.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, colloquially known as ‘the bean’ in Chicago, USA, image retrieved from choosechicago.com

Deutsche, R. (1996). Evictions : art and spatial politics. Chicago, Ill.: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Deutsche uses public art as a means through which to critique urban revitalization and uneven development, primarily in New York, in the 1980s. Her critique centers on the idea of ‘publics’ and ‘publicness’. Deutsche questions what public was being reached through public art and who constituted the ‘public’ envisioned by commissioners/artists/developers/public authorities for public art. She extends this criticism to the places where these artworks are located; by nature they are supposedly public, but really have no public per se. Deutsche illustrates her point through the example of  sculptures in plazas adjacent to high rise buildings in New York city, where, by providing a small public area with a sculpture, developers were given higher height allowances. She notes that these areas appear to be public, but are in fact private, allowing the owners to displace ‘undesirable’ people, such as people experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, the plazas are frequently empty. To summarize, Deutsche critiques the notion that art becomes public by placing an artwork in a site of open public access.

Puppy (1992) by Jeff Koons. This sculpture is located outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Image retrieved from culturetrip

Miles, M. (1997). Art, space and the city : public art and urban futures. London: Routledge.


Malcolm Miles is frequently and persistently cited in the public art literature. The definition of public art provided by Miles is still consistently used in contemporary sources: “work commissioned for sites of open public access; the term ‘site specific’ is also used, both for art made for installation in a given site, and art which is the design of the site itself” (5).  Furthermore, Art, space and the city provides a valuable overview of the origins of public art in public statuary and monuments (chapter 3 “The monument”) and public art’s role or use in the development of cities (chapter 5 “Art in urban development”).

Charging Bull (1989) by Arturo Di Modica. Located on Wall Street in New York, USA. Image retrieved from SureApp

Lacy, S. (1995). Mapping the terrain: New genre public art. Bay Press.


This book was edited by Suzanne Lacy and is where she established the term ‘new genre public art’: a type of public art that is intended to integrate the public into the process of creation. The emphasis of new genre public art is on process rather than final product – namely integrating the public into the process of art-making and in direct response to the perceived shortcomings of modernist conceptions of public art. Lacy offers new genre public art as a response/solution to the criticism of Deutsche and Miles (that much of public art is not truly public) through integrating the public into the artwork to ensure its ‘publicness’; the term was intended to create scrutiny around the interaction between space, art and the public and to complicate the idea that through locating an artwork in the public realm is automatically public. This book also includes chapters by other notable scholars who have written about public art including Patricia Phillips and Suzie Gablik.

Tilted Arc (1981) By George Serra. This sculpture was located in Foley Federal Plaza from 1981 to 1989 when it was removed as the result of a federal lawsuit stemming from complaints from workers in the area that is was disruptive to their daily routines. Image retrieved from historyofsocialpractice

Sharp, J., Pollock, V., & Paddison, R. (2005). Just art for a just city: Public art and social inclusion in urban regeneration. Urban Studies, 42(5-6), 1001-1023. 

In this article the authors explore a series of public art projects in Glasgow, Scotland that were installed in 1999 as part of the city’s year as the UK City of Architecture and Design. The artworks integrated the ideas and processes advocated and discussed by Suzanne Lacy and the critiques of modernism made by Deutsche and Miles. Essentially, a new genre approach was used and the artworks discussed integrated the communities or ‘public’ into the artmaking process. Through the case study of these artworks, Sharp et al.,  reveal how a ‘new genre’ approach to public art can downplay the materiality of the artworks. The study found that the artworks and spaces created exist long past when the people who contributed to the creation of the artwork have moved on or the programming around the artwork has finished– leaving many of the pieces to essentially revert to a conventional or ‘modernist’ artwork. This article demonstrates the beginning of the next wave of public art literature that focuses more on specific case studies and the effect or legacy of public artworks in place.

The Millenium Hut (1999) by Studio Kap Architects and Claire Barclay. This piece is located in Glasgow and was part of the Millenium Spaces project. Image retrieved from southsidehappneings

Zebracki, M., Van Der Vaart, R., & Van Aalst, I. (2010). Deconstructing public artopia: Situating public-art claims within practice. Geoforum41(5), 786-795.

This article is part of the interest in contemporary scholarship exploring the effect or consumption of public art. This article compiles and names the loose set of claims regarding the benefits of public art, termed by the authors the public artopia; it has been claimed that public art enhances the physical environment, creates a sense of place, contributes to community cohesion, social health and wellbeing, attracts economic investment and tourism, fosters a sense of local identity and civic pride, attracts citizens and employers, raises the quality of life and reduces crime (Public Art Online, 2020; Zebracki, Van Der Vaart and Van Aalst, 2010; Mathews, 2010; Hall and Robertson, 2001). These utopian qualities attributed to public art are often used to make the case for the funding of more public art; this article questions whether these claims are true, calls for scholarship to attempt to measure public arts efficacy (a concern with how much art is being consumed), and contemplates the role of these claims in urban development.

-Ariel MacDonald (University of Alberta)

Hall, T., & Robertson, I. (2001). Public art and urban regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates. Landscape Research, 26(1), 5-26

Mathews, V. (2010). Aestheticizing space: Art, gentrification and the city. Geography Compass4(6), 660-675.

Public Art Online: The leading public art resource. (2010, January). Retrieved January 22, 2020, from http://www.publicartonline.org.uk/resources/research/current_research_jan2010.php.html

Zebracki, M., Van Der Vaart, R., & Van Aalst, I. (2010). Deconstructing public artopia: Situating public-art claims within practice. Geoforum41(5), 786-795.