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The Value of Public Art

Communities are reaping the economic benefits of public art
Public art helps define a sense of place.

Editor’s Note: This is a truncated version of a speech Kentucky Arts Council Interim Executive Director Chris Cathers gave to participants in the Kentucky Main Street Program Conference Aug. 23 in Danville.

Public art is everywhere. It doesn’t have to be as big as something like Millennium Park in Chicago or even the major metropolitan areas here in Kentucky. Great examples of public art are all over our state. The Owensboro Health campus features many works of art for its patients, visitors and employees to enjoy. Downtown murals, often collaborative works by groups of local artists or students, prominently grace the exterior walls of local businesses. The giant bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum should be considered a piece of public art.

Public art has been around for centuries across the globe. Egyptian pyramids and ancient temples in South America still stand as examples of art that had function. Europe is replete with examples of great works that came out of the Renaissance, and the Asian nations have their unique style in art, music and architecture.

Americans have always been a creative bunch, and there is probably not a town square in the country that is missing a statue of a local hero or heroine. But in America the first government-supported public art programs were in the DNA of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which created in 1934 the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. The program commissioned artists through competitions to create high-quality art for federal buildings like post offices. It had the benefit of identifying public art as essential and also putting artists to work.

As has been witnessed throughout history, public art can be an essential element when a municipality wishes to progress economically and to be viable to its current and prospective citizens. Data strongly indicates that cities with an active and dynamic cultural scene are more attractive to individuals and business.

We know this is true because here in Kentucky both the current county judge-executive and former mayor of Owensboro/Daviess County, Al Mattingly and Ron Payne, have said that businesses have chosen to locate there based on amenities like the arts and public art available to their employees. And in Berea, where we took part in a national arts conference earlier this month, art is integral to not just the community’s economy, but its identity. Berea’s place as a mecca of creativity is supported by its mayor, Steve Connelly.

The Kentucky Quilt Trail is an example of public art that takes visitors on a journey and highlights our cultural heritage. It is not bolted to the ground in a single spot, but situated throughout the state. Visitors can take in as much or as little as they like along the Quilt Trail, and they stop in our cities and towns to eat and shop along the way. And because it is a trail, it connects Kentucky communities.

How many have visited Chicago’s Millennium Park and taken a selfie at The Bean? That’s an example of interactive public art that attracts tourists and locals. And that kind of art could be anywhere. As long as it’s something that visitors leave town and talk about with their neighbors, or that locals tell to their out-of-town friends, it’s something that can positively impact local economic development.

In the case of Chicago, its $500 million investment, which included both public and private funds, has generated about $1.4 billion in visitor spending and added $1.4 billion in value to the adjacent real estate from its opening to its 10-year anniversary in 2014.

This is arguably a powerhouse in place making, providing real economic benefits via higher property values, higher occupancy rates, increased tourism and more jobs.

Not everyone has $500 million to play with, and it’s fair to ask if public art and creative place making as economic engines are feasible for smaller communities.

The answer is “yes.” Developing a great place in your community can be achieved through temporary events, inexpensive treatments or even encouraging businesses to stay open longer for a monthly event – all of these options produce economic returns.

We have seen this in Franklin County’s Josephine Sculpture Park, former farmland that is now home to diverse examples of sculpture. It’s estimated, based on a formula the state uses to determine economic impact, that the park’s 20,000 annual visitors generate about $1.1 million in additional local spending.

Josephine Sculpture Park opened in 2009, so I would remind you that these are not the kind of numbers you’re going to get overnight, but they are possible if you cultivate the notion now that public art can pay off in the future.

Chris Cathers is interim executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.