Ask anyone on the street how they define public art and they will inevitably refer to it as a sculpture in a park or on the street. That’s been the definition of public art for quite some time.
In 1991, artist, educator and activist, Suzanne Lacy, proposed the term new genre public art to define work that engages the public but may not in fact end with a sculpture. She first coined the term in a public performance at the San Francisco Museum of Art and later in her book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. She defined it as art for activism, often created outside the typical art institution, and which the process had the artist engage directly with the public or audience in discussing and creating action around social and political issues. In her own words, new genre public art is “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism.” (1)
Emerging out to the 1990s were these alternative definitions for public art such as contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogic art, community-based art, activist art, and the comprehensive new genre public art. Artists began moving from the art institutions into the realm of civic activism. Instead of reflecting social or political issues through metaphors in public art, new genre public art aimed to engage the regular citizen, specifically those from marginalized groups, in creating solutions for these issues.
Examples of this can be seen in the work of Mark Dion and his Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. Dion, who believes that art and ecology can be fruitful partners in creating solutions for environmental conservation, along with a group of youth from two schools in Chicago, traveled to Belize to learn about the conservation initiatives the country was implementing. They then returned to Chicago and researched the work of different art and ecological initiatives in the area and how the issues of the Belize tropical ecosystem parallel to those of their own environment. This culminated in establishing an experimental field station that would be the site for future art/ecology experiments, guest speakers and future activities. It also acted as the base of operations for weekly community clean-up and restoration projects. (2)
One of Suzanne Lacy’s works, Silver Action, brings women from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds to discuss the role that women played in political protests of our time. It explored issues that were relevant in British media at the time around aging. Workshops were held with women who participated in the miner’s strikes, disability, ecology and feminist movements. Four hundred women then participated in a five-hour performance split into three tableaux. Each hour one hundred women were seen conversing at small tables. (3)
New genre public art challenges the idea of commissioned public art. Does public art have to be sculptural when in fact the work is for the public? It also challenges the relationship between the viewer to the art piece. Is the relationship the viewer is having withe art the only relationship? And, finally, it challenges the possibility of perspectives. Is the art work suppose to mean only one thing — that which the artist intended it to be. Ultimately, new genre public art aims to engage the public in the creation of an art work that does not necessarily end with a sculptural or typically visual aesthetic and instead engage the public in bringing about change through art.
Knight, Cher Krause (2008). Public Art: theory, practice and populism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-5559-5.