Public Art and the Art of Public Participation

Back to Fall 2019: Volume 108, Number 3

By Jan Brennan

Public art plays an invaluable role in the process of community building. Not only does it establish and beautify public spaces, it expresses and supports a sense of neighborhood history, culture and identity and helps drive economic vitality. One aspect of increasing interest is participatory public art, in which the public plays an active role rather than merely being appreciative viewers.

Public Art Basics
Although we often think of outdoor murals and sculptures, public works of art can take any shape or form, use any artistic medium, including performance, be either permanent or temporary, located indoors or outdoors, and be integrated into the architecture and site design or stand alone. Beautification, enrichment and enjoyment are valuable benefits of public art, but it is also often designed to elevate cultural history, help address urban issues, support economic vitality and build community cohesion.

Public art projects are most often site-specific works triggered by public construction and development projects. The most common funding mechanism for municipal public art are percent-for-art ordinances, dedicating a small percentage of capital improvement building or infrastructure budgets to fund public art associated with the project. State and local budget appropriations, public and private foundation grants, corporate sponsorships and individual donations are also sources of support.

Public art processes are managed by a wide variety of entities responsible for public space, including cultural offices, parks and recreation departments, economic development entities, educational institutions, transit authorities, nonprofit organizations and even private developers. Public art selection processes include direct commissions and selection through a competitive request for proposals or qualifications. Review and selection may be conducted by staff or an appointed selection panel, typically comprising both community members and arts professionals, with final approval from a public art commission or department.

What Makes Public Art Participatory?
The role of the public in the public art process described above is limited, primarily as passive consumers of the finished public artwork. More public art agencies are turning to participatory approaches that increase involvement and make public art more reflective of the communities in which it is located. Artists are being asked to create works responsive to a specific area’s culture, history and residents, rather than proposing artworks that could be dropped into any park or neighborhood.

Public art allows for varied participation, including public engagement in planning, selection, creation, installation, maintenance and collective appreciation. Participatory public art better reflects neighborhood identity, culture and history. The shared experience of creation and interaction with public art builds community cohesion. Participation amplifies the sense of ownership, discouraging graffiti and vandalism while supporting beautification, safety and economic development. At a time when public budgets are stretched thin, there is also a recognition that greater public participation increases voter support for public art programs and investments. 

Strategies for Participatory Public Art

1. Participatory Planning
Municipal and regional planning for public art is the first opportunity for public participation. Plans are typically driven by staff, but public input helps ensure public art programs align with community priorities and values and can help improve public art access and impact.

One challenge of public art planning is the popular percent-for-art funding mechanism, which links new artworks to the physical location of capital improvement projects. This approach may concentrate public art in downtown areas and new developments, leaving established residential and low-income areas as public art deserts. A good opportunity for public participation in planning is to help identify and address inequities in public art across the program geography and constituents. Consider changes to policies which limit use of all percent-for-art funding narrowly to the physical location of capital projects, creation of an alternative public art funding mechanism for areas with little new construction or creation of mobile collections and loan programs that can help get public artworks into under-served locations.

Another valuable impact of participatory planning is to challenge the traditional Eurocentric orientation of many public art collections. Public art programs should monitor the diversity of both their art collections and selected artists to assess whether they are inclusive and representative. Public artworks have also become more diverse in discipline, for example, including more textiles, digital media and performance works.  Public participation can play a valuable role in assessing and planning that increases diversity and cultural pluralism reflected in public art.

A final participatory art planning opportunity is presented by public budgeting. As with other areas of public budgeting, public art is an area in which the public can be invited to direct neighborhood investments and improvements. Chicago residents have several opportunities to direct the investment of public art funding. The Rogers Park Business Alliance highlights local public art projects developed through participatory budgeting.1


  • Gather public input to identify art deserts and generate ideas to improve equitable access to public art.
  • Consider alternative funding mechanisms and mobile collection or loan programs that can help provide public art in areas without major capital projects.
  • Include public input into assessing the diversity and inclusiveness of your public art collection and artists and identifying gaps.
  • Allocate public art funds that can be directed through participatory budgeting to allow residents more input into the artworks in their neighborhoods.

2. Participatory Selection
Current public art models most often include community participation in the selection process. While formal arts expertise is important, most public entities have opted for a balanced approach, ensuring artistic skills and experience while also including locals on site-specific selection committees. Denver Public Art, for example, appoints selection panels with a “balance of community members who live or work near the project site and members who are more widely experienced and knowledgeable about art.”2 This is a beneficial practice, providing the selection committee with local input and heightening the responsiveness of public art to neighborhood context, history and culture.

The City of Tampa, Florida includes both community and arts knowledge in criteria for participation in public art selection panels. Criteria for arts expertise includes “experience implementing public art projects; knowledge of public art trends and artists; knowledge of local, regional and national artists; ability to assess the creativity, design skills and problem-solving abilities of the artists under review; and knowledge of materials and methods of fabrication.” The value of community is also recognized, including criteria such as “experience and interest in working with Tampa’s communities; ability to represent neighborhood where the project is located; and ability to work cooperatively and effectively in a panel process.”

Tampa’s policy also calls for “cultural, racial and gender diversity,” and provides for non-voting participation from “community groups or other interested parties.”3 While inclusion of community representatives in public art selection panels offers some participatory opportunities, such opportunities are typically limited to a few individuals who are recommended for selection panel membership by the public art staff.

Some communities have allowed the public to more broadly participate in public art selection. Wheeling, Ohio, Golden, Colorado, and Seattle, Washington, last year allowed community members to select among finalists from public art commissions. The common approach to balancing expertise and community participation in these cases is to have arts professionals identify finalists, from which the popular vote determines the winner.

In reviewing policies related to art selection panels, improvements might clarify a commitment to public input in the selection process, share benefits of public engagement, clarify how diverse community representatives will be identified and included in the selection process and ensure criteria are in place which values both arts experts and community representation.


  • Review and update your art selection panel policies to allow or enhance community representation.
  • Ensure that community members are aware of opportunities to participate in the selection process and how to put themselves forward.
  • Expand your public art program pool of community representatives to be more inclusive and diverse.
  • Consider opportunities for public selection of artworks through voting. Public voting would typically occur among finalists identified by qualified experts to ensure appropriate design and materials.

3. Participatory Creation
Certainly one of the most exciting aspects of participatory public art is the trend towards engaging the public directly in the creative process. There are three primary models for participatory arts creation: collaborations in which the public works closely with the artist to inform development of the artwork; projects in which the public directly participates in creating the artwork; and projects in which the artwork is only realized through public interaction. Participatory creation is not new, but it is an area of rapid expansion in public art. Public art programs are stepping up to promote and facilitate public engagement, rather than merely relying on the artist to conduct community outreach and research to inform their public art proposal or project.

Let’s examine a few recent public art projects which used participatory creation. Several of the models are drawn from Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network and Year in Review Database,4 a key source for best models of innovative public art.

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has helped brand them as the “City of Murals.” Mural Arts annually engages residents to create 60 – 100 murals. As in many cities, Philadelphia’s mural program originated through anti-graffiti efforts. Fishtown’s newest mural Welcome to the Neighborhood demonstrates several participatory elements. First, the mural design was created through a public contest open to anyone and the selection was based on voting by over 2,000 residents. Going beyond public input and voice, the project included public paint days in which neighborhood volunteers directly participated in creating the mural, which features a collage of current and historic Fishtown leaders and locations.

Pathways to Freedom (Boston, Massachusetts) was a temporary installation on Boston Common during Spring 2018. Sculptor Julia Vogl engaged 1,800 residents at 27 community locations to directly participate in creating the artwork. Each person created a round pin with stickers representing their responses to questions regarding freedom and immigration. Vogl then incorporated the pin designs into a 6,000 ft. public installation covering the pathway around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Over 25,000 individuals visited the art project, which also included audio stories recorded by residents.

Poetry on Buses (Seattle, Washington) featured resident poems on buses, light rail and streetcars through a collaboration of transit agencies, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and King County cultural agency in 2016 – 2018. Community Liaisons conducted outreach and poetry workshops in diverse ethnic communities based on the theme “Body of Water” established by artist Jourdan Keith. Over 1,600 original poems were submitted, from which 365 were selected for the project and 125 were displayed in transit vehicles and stations.

When West Hollywood, California, completed a community-based cultural plan in 2017 Sean Noyce was one of the artists commissioned to create artworks based on visualization of public input to the plan. His Dream Cloud balloons and other artworks show word clouds based on the words that were most often used during the input process. The public not only informed the plan through their input, they had the chance to see their cultural input flying high.

When St. Louis wanted to engage the public with municipal data, they turned to artist Jer Thorpe. His St. Louis Map Room public art project allowed 29 groups of residents to create maps reflecting their lived experiences of the city. Residents mapped their realities, from their routes to work or school and service locations they access, such as food banks, churches and parks, to areas of the city they considered safe and those they considered dangerous. Resident maps were then overlaid with city data, ranging from poverty statistics to bus routes. The project, which has been recreated in other cities, used public art to seed important community conversations, empower residents and allow groups to experience the city through the eyes of their neighbors.

This fall, Old Town Alexandria (Virginia) has featured an interactive public artwork Mirror Mirror, commissioned by the City’s Office of the Arts. The 25-foot long, eight-foot tall installation is sound-responsive. Viewers clap, stomp and shout to produce bright rainbow hues, posing for selfies and enjoying local music performances that take advantage of the space. This is an example of an artwork that is intended to be activated and realized through public interaction with the work.


  • Review public art policies to ensure they allow or encourage new technology and innovative art forms that facilitate public participation and interaction.
  • Provide mechanisms to make the public aware of upcoming public art projects and solicit their feedback.
  • Craft upcoming public art requests for proposals or qualifications to prioritize participatory and interactive public proposals.
  • Offer a workshop for prospective public artists to increase their understanding and use of participatory and interactive approaches.

4. Participatory Maintenance

Maintenance of public artworks is a fourth opportunity for public participation. Public art staff are often challenged to monitor the condition of large public art collections distributed throughout a city, region or state. Programs can benefit by facilitating participatory monitoring and data collection. Seattle’s Office of Cultural Affairs Public Art Program maintains a tip line to report works in need of repair and offers workshops in artwork stewardship for interested volunteers, guiding them in inspection, reporting and some routine cleaning. By offering proactive workshops, the Public Art Program hopes to discourage well-intentioned, but often damaging attempts by the public to remove tagging from artworks.


  • Create and promote a phone line and email for the public to report vandalism or damage to public artworks. This should be coordinated with graffiti reporting.
  • Create a community workshop to help volunteers effectively support condition assessment and simple cleaning of public art.
  • Establish a public art volunteer group to systematically monitor and report on the condition of works in the public art collection.

5. Participatory Collective Appreciation 

A final area for participatory public engagement is through activities and events that promote collective enjoyment of the artworks and use them as a platform for community-building. “More than ever before, public artworks are stimulating and inviting active dialogue rather than just passive observation,” notes the Project for Public Spaces, “thereby fostering social interaction that can even lead to a sense of social cohesion among the viewers.”5

One aspect of collective appreciation is to drive understanding of artworks and how they reflect neighborhood culture and history. Public art programs don’t stop once an artwork is installed. The public needs education and opportunities to appreciate the artworks, particularly as a community. You might draw inspiration from this National Arts Marketing Project video How to Look at Public Art: A Six-Year-Old-Explains.6 A community mural highlighting historic figures and events can be the platform to provide interpretive information that builds shared community identity and civic pride. The Association for Public Art promotes Public Art Lesson Plans.7 Apps, maps and databases are key aids, linking public artworks to additional online content. Staff and volunteer docents can enrich the experience by conducting public art tours, with many communities adding bicycle and scooter tours.

The act of coming together as a community to engage with public art drives placemaking and builds relationships and social capital. It is challenging to gather a group of residents to interact with a painting, but participatory art is intended to provide rich engagement opportunities. Building programming and events around public art themes and spaces allows for richer, collective community experiences.

  • Provide on-site and online interpretive materials, maps, apps and searchable databases that provide the public a greater appreciation of the artworks and their community context.
  • Solicit and train diverse public representatives to offer guided experiences of artworks and promote these opportunities to all communities.
  • Develop and promote lesson plans and educational materials aligned with themes in the public art collection.
  • Organize regular community events that engage residents collectively with public artworks.

Participatory approaches can increase the appreciation and impact of public art, honor the history and culture of neighborhoods, provide collective cultural experiences and build residents’ sense of ownership and pride.

But participatory public art only works effectively when it is broadly and inclusively participatory. Public art programs can fall prey to including a few “usual suspects” and fail to reach and include audiences who are currently disengaged. Participatory public art is also only one small component of community-building. “Public art projects will be most effective when they are part of a larger, holistic, multidisciplinary approach to enlivening a city or neighborhood,” observe Kent and Niktin. 8

Jan Brennan is a Senior Fellow of the National Civic League and Mountain West Director for the Campus Election Engagement Project. Jan’s passion is to promote civic learning and engagement, from the classroom to public space, drawing on her experience as the Director of the Denver Office Cultural Affairs and Project Lead at the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement. 

1 Rogers Park Business Alliance. Public Art: Participatory Budgeting. Retrieved from

2 Denver Public Art, FAQ, City of Denver, retrieved from

3 Tampa Public Art, Art Selection, retrieved from

4 Public Art Network. 2018 Year in Review Trends and Themes: Participatory and Performative. Retrieved from

5 Kent, F. & Nikitin, G. (January 22, 2012). Collaborative, Creative Placemaking: Good public art depends on good public spaces. Project for Public Spaces, retrieved from

6 National Arts Marketing Project. How to Look at Public Art: A Six-Year-Old Explains. Retrieved from

7 Association for Public Art. Public Art Lesson Plans. Retrieved from
8 Ibid vi

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