Public Art in Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Philanthropic giving
Public Art
Visual Arts
The key distinguishing factor of public art is the manner in which it is displayed: in the public domain and accessible to all. Public art has taken different forms over the course of history. It is often meant to interpret, or is created in reaction to, the history of the location in which it is displayed and its people. Public art can be seen as a form of collective community expression, and therefore it can stimulate public conversation or be political or controversial. Public art may be seen as philanthropic in the sense that it serves a public good. Also, public art is usually funded by foundations and philanthropic individuals.

Authored by Haley Turrisi 


The key distinguishing factor of public art is the manner in which it is displayed: in the public domain and accessible to all. Other than that requirement, public art takes no particular form. It may be permanent or temporary, large or small, and created from almost any medium. Typically, more permanent forms of public art will be either donated or purchased through public funds (i.e., tax dollars), and will receive approval from a governing body before installation. Temporary works of public art may have a limited time period by design, or due to public controversy or to installation without the approval of the governing authority (e.g., graffiti that is removed or covered).

Monuments, statues, architectural sculpture, murals, stained glass, mosaics, landscape architecture, light installations, and public performance are some – but not all – of the forms that public art can assume.  The most common sites for public art include urban centers, such as squares, plazas, and main thoroughfares; and either inside or outside public buildings, such as government offices, courts, transportation centers, airports, museums, libraries, public universities, etc.  However, works of public art may be included in more remote locations (e.g., an arboretum), so long as the site is publicly accessible; or even in locations that are visible only during certain times, such as when lights are projected onto the night sky.


Historic Roots

Public art has taken different forms over the course of history. It is often meant to interpret, or created in reaction to, the history of the location in which it is displayed and its people.  It follows that the prominent societal issues of a given time period are reflected in its public art.  For example, in ancient Greek culture the community’s interactions were organized around a city center.  A famous work of public art in Athens is the Parthenon (c. 447-422 BCE) (, “The Parthenon (Acropolis)”).  The Parthenon is an architectural structure that was built at the center of the city and displayed virtues of religious and social art.  Similarly, cultures that were formed by empires often erected statues and other structures in tribute to their leaders.  While the Egyptian pyramids and pharaohs are given as some of the earliest examples of public art, its history extends as far back as prehistoric cave and rock paintings, drawings, and carvings.

Understanding the history of public art therefore involves an understanding of the history of socio-political issues of a particular location.  A very brief history of socio-political issues of the Western world as it relates to public art follows.  In Europe, cultures which had been previously organized around an emperor or royal family began to include religious authorities in governing society.  Catholicism took on an increasing amount of governing authority in Europe and reached its peak in the Middle Ages.  At the time, much of the population was illiterate and were dependent on religious leaders for educational and spiritual guidance.  With the invention of the printing press came the period of history known as the Renaissance.  Secularism (i.e., the idea that religion should be separate from political and social life) emerged to encourage the belief in freedoms of thought, opinion, religion, and association.  Because of these cultural changes, the Catholic Church began to lose some of the power and influence that it had previously held, leading to the Protestant Reformation.  While still grounded in religion, the secularism called for by the Reformation has had lasting effects on the modern era and defines current political structures in the Western world ( Editors).

Some distinct periods of public art include: Renaissance Public Art (c. 1400-1600); Baroque Public Art (c. 1600-1700); 18th and 19th Century Public Art (c. 1700-1900); and 20th Century Public Art (c. 1900-present).  In the period of Renaissance Public Art, society was experiencing the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.  The church or civic authorities were the sponsors of public art.  Unsurprisingly, these years saw an upsurge in Christian art, which was low-key and austere, emphasizing the personal relationship between man and God rather than the ultimate authority of the Church.  The period of Baroque Public Art was characterized by efforts of the Catholic Church to regain its authority.  Public art depicted key elements of Catholicism and was designed to create spectacle, a sense of majesty and grandeur associated with the Church (, “Public Art”).

During the 18th and 19th centuries, secularism as an ideology had mostly won in Western societies, especially with the founding of the United States on the principle of religious freedom.  Public art was manifested through works of urban architecture meant to define a location or commemorate secular heroes.  Some popular examples include: Nelson’s Column in London; Arc de Triomphe, Paris Opera House, and Eiffel Tower in Paris; Capitol Building and Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.; Statue of Liberty in New York City.  As freedom of speech and religion have become more engrained in modern cultures in the 20th and 21st centuries, the function and forms of public art have expanded dramatically.  Public art plays an increasingly prominent role in the design of cities.  This period of public art has seen the rise of political art, land art, graffiti, and use of mixed or novel media (Ibid.).



Public art can be seen as a form of collective community expression for at least two reasons: 1) as outlined in the previous section, public art reflects and interprets the history and culture of a particular location; and 2) the collaboration between artist, governing body, and the public involved in its creation and funding.  Because it is seen as a collective expression, public art may form an attachment between the community and its citizens.  For example, the Statue of Liberty is most commonly associated with a quote from a poem mounted on the pedestal, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” (National Park Service).  The statue is situated on Liberty Island, which millions of immigrants would have passed by on the way to Ellis Island, an entry port in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  New York City has the reputation as a land of opportunity and diversity; its strength is derived from its diversity.  The Statue of Liberty encapsulates this sentiment, as well as connects the history and community.

Particularly in more recent forms of public art, there is a tendency toward more thought-provoking than solely commemorative forms of public art.  Because these works of art are intended to be interpreted, and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, they may incite controversy.  Messages that are controversial may often be so because they expose an unseemly part of the location’s history or the society’s state of inequality.  The exposition of these topics is generally meant to foster inclusion.  These works of art not only provide prosocial commentary but invite dialogue on the artist’s intention.  Participation in such dialogue presents an opportunity to question our assumptions and heighten our awareness on the subject matter related to the artwork.

Not only can a work of art itself promote a message of inclusion, but processes for the installation of public art are critical to successful inclusion.  For example, heeding this fact, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture has held a Public Art Boot Camp which is focused on artists of color.  The art world – including artists, administrators, consumers, curators, and policymakers – is predominantly white; the structure of the Public Art Boot Camp is designed to provide equal training and opportunities to artists of color (Seattle Office of Arts and Culture).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Funding for public art may be provided through grants from nonprofits, such as National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.  Historical societies and commissions, arts councils and advisory boards, and museums may also engage in the funding of public art.  In the realm of corporate philanthropy, private companies sometimes contribute funding to the creation of public art, or may engage in public/private sector collaborations in which they display public art on their private property.

Aside from the economic ties to the philanthropic sector, public art can also be seen as philanthropic in the sense that it serves a public good.  It holds a unique position in the art world, as it is free, casual, and open.  There is no dress code or formal etiquette to contend with, making it truly accessible to all even beyond monetary concerns.  In addition, even controversial works of art which may expose an unfavorable truth about the location’s past or the state of society create a dialogue.  These thought-provoking art works invite us to engage with each other in a civil manner and are opportunities to educate ourselves.


Key Related Ideas

Governmental Percent for Art Programs.  Municipalities may institute laws by which a certain percentage of publicly funded capital improvement projects is used to fund and install public art.  There are over 350 municipalities with public arts programs (Kansas City, Missouri Municipal Art Commission).  Additionally, some states have public art programs.  These types of programs may be on the ballot, so it is important for the city’s public art committee to take this into consideration when choosing projects.

Public Art Committee.  The processes for choosing works of art can foster inclusion.  It may be even more likely to do so if the public art committee itself is inclusive.  This is particularly important to consider with regard to public art, because a common use of it is to give voice to marginalized people.

Zoning/Permitting.  A governing authority decides not only what works of art will be displayed, but where those works can be displayed.  The site of a work of public art may have an impact on its message.  It is also important to consider the implications and legality of public art displayed from private property (e.g., a mural painted on a privately-owned building downtown).


Important People Related to the Topic

Venda Louise Pollock – Professor Pollock is the Dean of Culture and Creative Arts at Newcastle University, as well as Director of Newcastle’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice and a Professor of Public Art within Fine Art at the University.  She is on the management board of Newcastle’s Institute of Social Renewal.  She is widely-published in the area of public art.

Margaret J. Wyszomirski – Professor Wyszomirski is a faculty member at Ohio State Univeristy in both the Department of Arts Administration, Education, and Policy and the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.  She is currently chairman of the Research Task Force of the Center for Arts and Culture.  She has previously served as director for various departments at the National Endowment for the Arts and as director of the Graduate Public Policy Program at Georgetown University.

Martin Zebracki – Professor Zebracki is an Associate Professor of Critical Human Geography at the University of Leeds with expertise in cultural geography, public art, sexuality, and inclusivity.  He has specialized in the processes of inclusion and exclusion in arts practices in urban public spaces with emphasis on socially marginalized populations.  He is an editor of Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity (2017) and The Everyday Practice of Public Art: Art, Space, and Social Inclusion (2016).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Association for Public Art (  The nation’s first private nonprofit organization dedicated to commissioning, preserving, interpreting, and promoting public art in the city of Philadelphia.
  • Americans for the Arts ( houses:
  • Public Art Network ( which is the only professional network in the United States dedicated to advancing public art programs and projects through advocacy, policy, and information resources to further art and design in our built environment.   
  • United States Urban Arts Federation ( which is an alliance of the chief executives of arts agencies in the nation’s 60 largest cities.
  • National Endowment for the Arts (  Independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.


Reflection Questions

Public art relies on the freedom of speech in order to make effective commentary. At the same time, the approval of artworks by a governing body for public display is inherently political. What should the guidelines be for determining whether the message of public art is permissible? 

Should there be a process for removing public art which sends a message or promotes practices that society no longer agrees with?



  • Cherbo, Joni Maya and Margaret J. Wyszomirski. 1999. “Mapping the Public Life of the Arts in America.”  Presented at the 1999 ARNOVA Conference, Arlington, VA, Nov. 4-6, 1999.
  • Green, Jared. 2012. “Why Public Art is Important.” The Dirt, Oct. 15, 2012.
  • Hall, Tim, and Iain Robertson. 2001. “Public Art and Urban Regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates.”  Landscape Research, Vol. 26, No. 1: 5-26.
  • Editors. 2009. “The Reformation.” A&E Television Networks.  Updated September 1, 2018.
  • Kansas City, Missouri Municipal Art Commission. 2014. “A Brief History of Public Art Policy-Making and Legislation in the United States and in Kansas City, Missouri.” 
  • National Endowment for the Arts. “Community Art: A Look at Public Art in America.” NEA Arts Magazine, No. 2, 2018.
  • National Park Service. 2018. “The New Colossus.” (citing Lazarus, Emma. 1883. “The New Colossus.”)
  • Project for Public Spaces. 2008. “Funding Sources for Public Art.”
  • Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. 2018. “Capacity Building for Racial Equity in Public Art.” Sept. 2018.
  • Sharp, Joanne, Venda Pollack, and Ronan Paddison. 2005. “Just Art for a Just City: Public art and social inclusion in urban regeneration.” Urban Studies, Vol. 42: 1001-1023. May 2005.
  • 2019. “Public Art: Definition, History, Types” in Encyclopedia of Art.
  • 2019. “The Parthenon (Acropolis)” in Encyclopedia of Art and Classical Antiquities. 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.