For Boston: A Year of Public Art

At N+T headquarters, public art isn't just what we do. It's the lens through which we experience common spaces. Permanent works like the murals along Centre Street in Jamaica Plain or the historical figures frozen through time on Comm Ave are our landmarks, our guides to Boston. And temporary artworks, like Public Trust's three weeks challenging the value of our words, and the Fort Point SOS Swimmers raising a flag of warning in the harbor, become homegrown discoveries, a reason to explore Boston anew. Public art is a reason and a method to engage with our surroundings and each other.

The Chicago Picasso

The Chicago Picasso

Chicago's no stranger to public art, either. In 1967, Pablo Picasso gifted the city with a monumental Cubist sculpture that's as much a jungle gym as a landmark today. Theaster Gates's practice includes space development, object making, performance, and critical engagement with many publics. His Rebuild Foundation produces artist-led projects to revitalize under-resourced neighborhoods in greater Chicagoland. And there's Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, sometimes called the Bean: part funhouse, part weirdest-selfie-ever, and part feat of engineering and vision that literally reflects everyone who visits. And now, Chicago's doing something incredible: they've declared 2017 the Year of Public Art.

What this means: programming

  • Artists and organizations will work to create temporary and permanent works in Chicago neighborhoods, including site-specific visual art, performances, and events.

  • Education and exhibition opportunities will highlight Chicago's history and promote civic discourse.

  • Programming also includes the formation of a Public Art Youth Corps, Public Art Festival, and tours.

How they're doing it: funding and agencies

With a budget of just $1.5 million, Chicago's Year of Public Art relies on funding from their Percent-for-Art ordinance (instituted in 1978). In addition, the city's Individual Artists Program (IAP) will designate 25% of its grants for public art projects in 2017.

Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs will run YOPA, partnering with the Department of Family and Support Services, Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Library, and Chicago Transit Authority and Department of Transportation.

You know what we’re thinking: Boston needs a Year of Public Art.

As the hub of the universe with beans of our own, YOPA in Boston can be a catalyst for us to organize and make the public art landscape serve communities across the city. We've got the infrastructure, the innovative power, and most of all the artistic talent to create a public participatory art wonderland. And we've never needed this more.


Thanks to Boston's long history of civic pride and dozens of colleges and universities, there are a number of city agencies and private-public partnerships that support the arts in Boston:

  • The Boston Art Commission, an independent board that commissions and conserves publicly accessible art and historical artifacts, develops opportunities like the Pop-Up and competitive Boston AIR (artist-in-residence) programs.

  •  Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, which in 2009 pioneered public art in the parks along Boston's front yard and engages artists from Boston to Iran and China.

  • The vibrant Boston Parks and Recreation Department and Boston Public Library, some of the biggest and best in the country.

  • Philanthropic organizations like The Boston Foundation and The Barr Foundation, which invest in and connect others with nonprofit causes.

  • Universities like MIT, Emerson, and Northeastern, which prioritize public artworks on their campuses.

  • Granting agencies and artist service organizations like the Boston Arts & Business Council, New England Foundation’s Fund for the Arts, Boston Cultural Council, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

  • Residency programs supporting public art like those at the Boston Center for the Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.


Taxing the rich is apparently going out of style. What other sources of tax dollars can we lasso for a year of Public Art in Boston?

Like a politician starting a reelection campaign the day after taking office, nonprofits spend far too much of our time fundraising so that we can exist and create half the programming we dream of. (Psst! Have you donated to N+T’s Annual Campaign? (An anonymous funder will match your gift!) We'll wait.)

  • Percent for Art: Cambridge Arts Council's Percent-for-Art requires that one percent of the construction costs on municipal capital investment be designated for use in developing site-responsive public artwork. In 2015, Governor Baker vetoed a statewide Percent-for-Arts bill.
  • Ballot Questions: In November, Massachusetts voted on two ballot questions about adding a slots parlor at Suffolk Downs and legalizing marijuana. Vice taxes are potential sources of significant income for any community, and whether you're for or against, these questions and changes are opportunities to discuss how tax dollars can be used to benefit the public.

Community and Programming

During the last week of Public Trust in September, as artist ambassadors worked their last shift on the billboard or promise table and said increasingly teary goodbyes, we started to comment that the past three weeks felt like summer camp, or a family reunion. In wind, rain, and the hot sun that sounds rather impossible right now, the twenty of us grew closer and formed some friendships that will last the rest of our lives. We're still writing about it; we're still thinking about the promises that you made, or “that time...”

A Year of Public Art in Boston isn't just the means to turn the city into a true public art destination for tourists or funders. It's a way, and in fact the best way we can think of, to build connections and community. Pop-up dance classes, temporary installations, symposia: they're fun, educational, and visually or aurally compelling. At Now + There we talk a lot about how art needs to challenge us. Let's take a year to challenge ourselves and each other to get to know Mattapan, and East Boston, and all those corners of the city where artists are already living and working to create a more vibrant Boston.

Some of this is already happening, if you look. Here are three of many spaces in Greater Boston where artists of all disciplines assemble to reflect, educate, and serve our local communities:

ds4si Vsion Lab . Courtesy Youth in Action and the Praxis Project's CCHE Initiative.

ds4si Vsion Lab. Courtesy Youth in Action and the Praxis Project's CCHE Initiative.

  • Since 2006, the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) on the edge of Roxbury has been using creative placemaking projects to reimagine social justice and engagement. Currently, they're developing Social Emergency Response Centers, "temporary, emergent, and creative pop-up spaces co-led by activists and artists around the US."
  • BostonAPP/Lab has been fostering artistic collaborations between individuals, organizations, and the public to reflect an inclusive vision for public art in Greater Boston. Since 2013, they've developed 28 workshops and projects, like ArtsCommons, to make it easier to find and participate in public art.
  • Pop-up artist space CityPOP Egleston provides free practice and studio space for artist members, who develop multilingual all-ages programming including yoga classes and printmaking workshops to engage residents of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

Let's support these organizations and artists to create a sustainable public- and socially engaged art landscape. Let's make 2018 the Year of Public Art in Boston. And let's make that year just the kickoff of a new creative and supportive city, a rediscovery of what Boston means to its artists and all residents.

Tell us in the comments and on Twitter and Facebook: what does a Year of Public Art in Boston look like to you? What kind of spaces, collaborations, and events do you want to see? Use the hashtag #BYOPA18 and join in!