The glory of public art

Inspiring pieces from local "Percent for Art" programs -- from Florida's "flying saucers" to Roanoke's giant comb

Published August 5, 2011 12:58AM (EDT)

Some would say that the best art is transporting, affording viewers the chance to escape into an imaginative reverie.

But one could just as well argue that truly significant works of art ground viewers in a particular place -- altering and improving the landscape where they are built, and becoming staples of everyday life. At Salon, we know the best public art can do just that.

A certain proportion of publicly funded art comes to fruition through local "Percent for Art" ordinances, which order that a specified amount (normally no more than 2 percent) of the budget for major local construction projects be set aside for art. Official Percent for Art measures have been in existence since the late 1950s; several hundred operate across the nation today.

Not all the works funded by these ordinances are show-stoppers or headline magnets -- in fact, some might escape your notice entirely, if you didn't know to look out for them -- but those that are not visually arresting often gently enhance their general vicinity, or serve a clear functional purpose.

In the current economic climate, one might expect to find Percent for Art programs struggling. Indeed, this summer alone, Wisconsin's program has been repealed. However, Liesel Fenner, public art program manager for Americans for the Arts, says many others are thriving. "Some cities are being more cautious, [for instance] postponing projects until better economic times," Fenner told Salon on Thursday. But despite this occasional wariness, there has been no "major reduction" in general support -- and most programs are actually "faring well" -- "a testament to the role strong public art and design plays in our community."

In the following slide show, we've featured works that excite and inspire us from Percent for Art programs in Broward County, Fla.; Roanoke, Va.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Wisconsin; Seattle; Minnesota; and Maine -- only a small sampling of the cultural riches on display in various regions of the country.

By Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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