Public Art and Public Perception

This week, Now + There announced one of their major 2018 projects, Liz Glynn’s Open House along the Commonwealth Mall near Kenmore Square. Taking the ornate details of nineteenth-century opulence and replicating it in concrete (the everyday material used in everything from city sidewalks to public housing, to our own City Hall), Glynn asks us to consider the history and potential of our public spaces. In placing this contemporary ruin along a busy, iconic thoroughfare, Glynn makes transparent the private powers that shape our populace. An uncanny facsimile of a kind of  concrete “living room” in open, visible space, Open House reminds us how closed conversations can negatively impact generations of Bostonians and how material shifts can shape perception.

Now based in LA, Glynn grew up just outside of Boston in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when (like today) fashion, branding, and identity percolated through mass media advertisements. I find it fascinating (see post 1!) to think about how today’s public discourse, in art and politics, corresponds to that those of the 1980s. There’s a residue of that past filtering through our present, surfacing in our fashion, our music, contemporary art, and (sadly), our politics. The premium we put on public image, and how that preoccupation affects space (read: who gets to use it), connects us to our 1980s counterparts. Perception and how it is cannily manipulated through public images--on TV, the Internet, or via advertising--was  integral to art making of the 1980s. And I think it helps explain how public art making shifted from plop to participatory.

Liz Glynn. Installation view,  Open     House , 2016. Cast Concrete. Installation approximately 83 x 44 x 13 feet. Organized for Boston by Now + There,  Open House  was commissioned and originally presented in 2017 by Public Art Fund in Central Park, New York in cooperation with the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery.

Liz Glynn. Installation view, Open House, 2016. Cast Concrete. Installation approximately 83 x 44 x 13 feet. Organized for Boston by Now + There, Open House was commissioned and originally presented in 2017 by Public Art Fund in Central Park, New York in cooperation with the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery.

Perception and public image stimulated the nation’s public art “revival” of the 1960s. As Harriet F. Senie, a prominent historian of public art cities states, “[cities] desperately needed symbols of civic pride, and establishment institutions badly needed good public relations.” [1] Consequently, administrations of both big businesses and local municipalities started sponsoring large-scale public artworks that often took the form of modern, monolithic sculptures placed in the center of plazas or parks. Such practices frequently backfired, as Senie notes that these projects were sometimes “perceived as an extension of the power structures staking out their claims with territorial art markers.” [2]

Rejecting such power dynamics and hierarchies, artists of the 1970s worked to embed “high” art with everyday life. Aesthetic assumed a useful role within protest movements, as performance and images became tools for social justice. Artists started using space as a material, turning studios, galleries, and earth into artworks. By the 1980s, space, performance, and image converged, giving way to a new kind of public art practice, one that relied on a sophisticated understanding of access and usage of the civic spaces. [3] And, unlike public art of previous decades—usually, monuments, memorials, or enlarged modern studio sculpture—during the 1980s, public art became a vehicle to affect perception, and therefore, social change.

Facing significant social upheavals in the form of urban renewal, economic downturn, and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Boston artists, like their counterparts nationwide, decoded the language of images to deconstruct their power over identity and civic representation. Their generation made art public by evolving how we position ourselves in the public sphere.

In 1985, the City of Boston understood that its cultural sector needed space, and pledged to take a “leadership position” on the issue. [4] By then, Boston had endured several decades of urban renewal projects. Though Boston indeed led the nation in creating democratic recreational spaces (Boston Common dates back to 1660), its track record with housing and transportation access was one of exclusion.

Sculpture with a 'D'  by Sam Gilliam for  Arts in Transit  | Photo from the MBTA

Sculpture with a 'D' by Sam Gilliam for Arts in Transit | Photo from the MBTA

Arts on the Line Handbook

One project intended to grow the cultural sector and provide space for art was the Arts on the Line, funded by the MBTA and executed by the Cambridge Art Association. A precursor to UrbanArt’s Arts in Transit, this program was the first of its kind; Arts on the Line implemented public artworks within the four new stations that extended the Red Line from Cambridge to Somerville in 1978. A “pioneering effort to humanize subway stations through public art,” Arts on the Line was completed in 1985 with installations meant to be permanent at the Harvard, Porter, Davis, and Alewife stations. [5] Nationally known artists such as Sam Gilliam and Joyce Kozloff contributed sprawling, vibrant installations (Sculpture with a D in Davis and New England Decorative Arts in Harvard, respectively). A more Boston-centric artist’s contribution was Mags Harries’ graceful Glove Cycle in Porter. Later, Arts on the Line was expanded to include a series of temporary projects. These were specifically meant to offer communities negatively impacted by subway construction some relief by employing the edifying and beautifying effects that public art projects can bring. These projects were far from static, including performance, poetry workshops, or Jersey barrier painting days.

We Deserve Scheme Z  by Joan Brigham; 1990 | Source: Reclamation Artists: A Report from Boston

We Deserve Scheme Z by Joan Brigham; 1990 | Source: Reclamation Artists: A Report from Boston

In addition to initiatives like Arts on the Line, which used public art as a tool to create goodwill and offer a frustrated community a positive aspect to their relationship with a utilitarian public space, there was also a movement afoot to harness public art as a tool for social commentary. In 1989 A collective of artists, designers, and architects banded together to form Reclamation Artists to respond to the impact of burying of the Central Artery (aka, the Big Dig) was having on the city. Gathering over monthly communal dinners, Reclamation Artists believed that site-specific art projects could encourage more social inclusion and environmental sensitivity in Boston.

“We want to ensure that the needs of commuters and truckers will not destroy the environment, physically and psychologically, for those living nearby,” wrote Joan Brigham, a member of the collaborative. [6] Brigham notes that through their dinner discussions, the collective realized that the project was “more threatening to larger segments of the population,”and “what would be lost in more intangible ways—the fragile connections between people and the place they know.” The group problematized the Big Dig by “reclaiming” areas designated empty or abandoned by presenting projects that evoked Bostonians of the past and future.

Re-Viewing The Charles River  by Lajos Héder | Photo: Mag Harries & Lajos Héder

Re-Viewing The Charles River by Lajos Héder | Photo: Mag Harries & Lajos Héder

Considering projects like Open House in context with Reclamation Artists’ work, it’s heartening to see a lineage of public artworks dedicated to repossession of public space. Like projects before it, critical to Open House is the belief that people’s power is a matter of perception, and that agency can be cultivated through the “reclamation” of space through public art practices.

Then, as in now, Boston has a ways to go to provide accessible transportation and equitable, affordable housing to all residents. So it’s unsurprising that many of today’s public art initiatives tackle the same issues as projects (both permanent or temporary) mounted in the 1980s. The changing cityscape, space, identity, and equal access inform these projects, each of which aims to transform the perception of public space.

And like Reclamation Artists before her, Liz Glynn sees promise in the ability of this new installation of Open House in Boston to offer space for conversation. Says Glynn, “The installation is designed as a living room for all, and I’m particularly excited about the potential for local artists and community members to activate the site as a gathering place for conversation and performances.”  Let us take heed and consider the values and perceptions that shape our shared public spaces.


[1] Harriet F. Senie, Contemporary Public Sculpture, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1992), 93.
[2] Senie, 95.
[3] Kate MacNeill, “In the Streets Where We Live.” In A Companion to Public Art, edited by Cher Krause Knight and Harriet F. Senie (John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 164.
[4] Jeff McLaughlin, “The Highs and Lows of 1985,” Boston Globe, December 29, 1985.
[5] Arts on the Line: A Public Art Handbook (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston, 1987), 3.
[6] Joan Brigham, “Reclamation Artists: A Report from Boston,” in Leonardo, 26: 5, 1993, 380.