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Public Art: A Worthy Investment Of Tax Dollars?

It’s always hit or miss with public art projects. Sometimes, such as the case of the iconic Cloud Gate in Chicago (also known as the Chicago Bean), a piece of art does what it is intended to do and draws attention, public interest, and adds some character to a city block. Other times, what looks like a good idea on paper ends up being a trashy eye-sore that does little more than obscure the view.

While there are certainly a number of benefits to funding public art, many critics question just how much art can actually contribute to a community. There is definitely a financial gain to take into consideration. Investing in the aesthetics of a community can make it more presentable and attractive to commuters and pedestrians, attracting local business and customers alike. In fact, Los Angeles actually has a law stating that at least 1% of the cost of a building project must go towards public art. That’s a lot of money when considering multi-million dollar contracts for high-rises and skyscrapers. So, there must be at least some good business strategy behind that kind of spending.

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An article by City Lab highlights the financial gains experienced by a real estate project after developers decided to spend money on a couple of murals as part of the project. The murals brought huge publicity and interest, resulting in a marketing opportunity for the developers. This is an example of how “good art is good business” and can often have an even greater return when used strategically in marketing strategies.

The obvious benefits are the visible ones. Public art makes a space look nicer. It gives the impression that someone cared enough to add a little creativity and put some time and effort into cleaning up an area to make it a little nicer. Think of a green park that’s well taken care of and compare that image to a plain, industrial, concrete road. Studies show that public spaces designed for human interaction and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure make people measurably happier on average. While green space and trees may contribute to this atmosphere, a small touch or art, be it a modern art sculpture, a statue, or a fountain, can increase these benefits twofold. American journalist Charles Montgomery wrote in his book that urban design should contain public art in order to create happier places. He also makes a great case for the placement of public art, saying the location is just as important as the actual artwork.

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Then there is also the question of appropriate funding for public art. Where should the money come from and where would it best be allocated? In cases such as the real estate company investing part of its budget towards murals, art proved to be a strategic marketing gold mine. So should local governments follow suit and begin investing more of their own budgets towards art? If not for the proven financial gains, why not for the increased happiness levels of our communities?

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