Public Art: Accentuating the Local Community

Alexander Calder. Eagle. 1971. Located in front of the Fort Worth National Bank. How often do you drive through a city, even your own hometown, and not notice your surroundings?

How often do you recognize the public art located in an around town?

Do you ever wonder what purpose it has for the city?

And what about those individuals who organized those projects, how do they affect the outcomes and what benefits do they receive?

Ultimately, who owns these works of art?

All of these questions are ones that at some point in all our lives, we have most likely asked ourselves. If you haven’t done so yet, take a look around your city and start asking because they are issues that concern all in the local community and its future. The city of Fort Worth, Texas, although small in size has had issues before in this realm of public art, providing a great example of what it means for the local community, art as a business industry, and public involvement in the community.

What exactly is public art?

As defined by Fort Worth Public Art, it is any work of a permanent medium. These artists participating in the creation of public art are considered “professionals of serious intent and substantial ability.” The actual works of art can range a vast spectrum of media from “sculpture, murals, street/bridge designs, and street furnishings such as benches, railings, bicycle racks” and many other objects that adorn a city, but commonly go unnoticed and unrecognized. With this working definition of public art in mind, one can now understand the difficulty and complexity of working on a public art council and working within the demands of a particular city. But how was such and organization created? Sometimes sticky situations, like the one created by an Alexander Calder piece in Fort Worth, Texas, help spur communities into recognizing the major significance of artworks around their community.

As community builds, public artwork can create spaces that provide tourists a location to stop and enjoy the scenery. In the 1970s, the Fort Worth National Bank owned and installed Alexander Calder’s large, red sculpture Eagle in front of their downtown headquarters. For thirty years, the piece was considered a trademark installation for downtown, but no one recognized the consequences of the work not being owned by the city of Fort Worth until it was gone. In April of 1999, the bank building along with the sculpture was sold off to individuals who had no intention of keeping the piece. Following removal of the piece, downtown Fort Worth no longer looked the same. There seemed to be a massive gap in the fabric of the community that could not be replaced. Calder’s Eagle ultimately sold for more than $10 million dollars and was moved to Seattle and the tourists, who set out in search of his work, have since shifted their destination plans from Fort Worth, Texas to Seattle, Anish Kapoor. Cloud Gate. Millennium Park, Chicago, IL. Washington. This situation might seem a bit removed, but examine it from another perspective. What is this same situation were to occur with the Millennium Park in Chicago? Anish Kapoor’s sculpture entitled Cloud Gate has become a staple asset in the Chicago national and international tourist industry as a major stopping point for all those visiting, living and working in Chicago. Designed to “engage the Chicago skyline” in an effort to make the viewer take in the entirety of the city, from the clouds floating through across the sky to the individuals on the ground. But what if AT&T, the company that owns the plaza and gifted the work to the city were to one day remove the sculpture? What would that mean for the local economy and the Chicago tourist industry? Public art not only accentuates the great aspects of the space it inhabits but it also provides a point of pride for the community and another reason for tourists to stop and take a look around.

After the city recognized the consequences of loosing such an integral piece of artwork in the community changes were made including the inception of Fort Worth Public Art and the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County. The city of Fort Worth developed and published, the “Fort Worth Public Art Master Plan”, in which the city set down the standards, rules, regulations and importance they felt public art contributed to the surrounding community. In the “Fort Worth Public Art Master Plan”, public art is described as:

1.     Contributing directly to the economic vitality of the community by enhancing the physical environment, increased property values and cultural tourism.

2.     Enhances public facilities and spaces by engaging artists in civic development.

3.     Enables the expansion of the region’s cultural infrastructure.

4.     All artists, from local to international, are considered for present and future projects, in an effort to extend the community.

These are just a few of the goals that the city of Fort Worth has laid out for the public arts programs, which are similar to others around the nation.  The works of art that have recently been incorporated into the community have also reflected these guidelines laid down by Fort Worth Public Art.

One of the very first works that Fort Worth Public Art commissioned was entitled United We Stand, by artist Eric McGehearty, located in front of fire station #8 in the medical district. At the most basic level, McGehearty’s sculpture is a set of 12 old fashioned, three quarter firefighter’s boot cast in bronze. A sense of continuity and structure is created in the artist’s organization of the 27” high, reflecting the characteristics that are found in the Fort Worth fire department. In the initial proposal for the work, McGehearty justified the city of Fort Worth commissioning this piece by explaining the relevance and meaning of the work as a whole. In his statement, Eric explained that the word “boot”, for firefighters, has many significant connotations including, “old boot” (one who has lots of experience), “black boot” (one who has fought so many fires that their boots are blackened), and “pull up your boots” (indicating that the front flap of the three quarter boots needs to be pulled up). Out of all of the meanings that McGehearty has already applied and explained to Fort Worth Public Art, the most unique part of this piece is that it is open and accessible to public interpretation for those individuals driving down the road. More importantly, this piece, as with others that Fort Worth Public Art has since commissioned, it reflects the beliefs and values held by the local community members and to the visiting public.

Eric McGehearty, United We Stand (2001)Without these public art works, where would these communities, especially ones like Fort Worth, be today? By creating and commissioning works specifically for the city in question, it gives artists the chance to connect with those communities, enhance the communities cultural diversity and heritage while at the same time creating a tourist destination to generate more revenue. The money that a city puts into commissioning public works of art might not pay off immediately, but the fear of loosing a staple work, like Calder’s Eagle or Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, should make those locations realize the importance of creating a connected and prideful community through the presence of public artwork.


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