Public art, community, and what can we learn from Chicago?

Public art is one of those ephemeral terms that can include many things from large-scale outdoor sculpture and murals, to street performance.  According to Mary Jane Jacob, public art done well can have very tangible benefits for local communities. In her presentation at an Auckland Conversation she raised a challenging question to our city:


Mary Jane Jacob – Sourced Portland State Vangard

“What is happening with public art in Auckland that meaningfully involves and benefits our communities?”

One solution to ensuring public art is salient and tangible to its audience is to put the local community at the very centre of the creative process. This can mean thinking outside of the box a bit in terms of what forms and processes public art can take.  As some recent Auckland initiatives have shown, it is possible to embrace and invite community collaboration while producing exciting and noteworthy results.

In framing her talk, Jacob proposed that before the modern era, art found its natural place as part of family and community life and was not separate from lived experience; not shut away in museums and private collections as much art of the last couple of centuries has tended to be.

The emergence of what we call public art, she theorised, is in reaction to this elitism in art; to make art more accessible and democratic, to bring it more into the realm of the everyday.

Jacob is currently Professor of Sculpture at the School of Arts Institute in Chicago. She has spent her career working in socially engaged art and at the helm of pre-eminent contemporary art museums in Chicago and L.A.

The artist’s projects she presented were extremely varied, for example: transforming an abandoned urban space in St Louis into a bee sanctuary; saving informal housing areas from demolition by developers in Puerto Rico; organising grass roots activism against police brutality and torture in Jacob’s home city of Chicago. Many of these practices fostered long-standing relationships between artists and communities, which unfolded over decades in some cases.

The artists she spoke about, she proposed, had a common tendency to embed their artistic practice within everyday social activity, working in a similar way to how artists might have in various societies throughout the pre-industrial world.

Their projects all had physical artefacts associated with them. Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo painted an informal housing development green in order to make it “disappear” into the surrounding vegetation, while simultaneously making it more visible and drawing attention to that community’s cause. The anti-police brutality activists made banners and commissioned memorials for victims from the wider community.  However, the essential ingredient of creative production in all of Jacob’s examples was the process of community engagement itself.

Nurturing a healthy local

Jacob is not alone in her observation that this kind of socially engaged activity can create tangible benefits for communities. Harvard Professor Dr Felton Earl’s revolutionary research into what makes for healthy local populations, (coincidently also conducted within various Chicago suburbs over 15 years) has found that what he calls “collective efficacy”  is one of the two most significant differentiators for varying levels of health between neighbourhoods (the other being concentrated poverty).

Collective efficacy is the tendency of communities to work together for the good of each other, and particularly each other’s children. That is to say, the greater community collaboration and participation within a neighbourhood, the healthier the population, which leads into a whole swag of other positive social statistics including lower crime and higher education outcomes.

So what can Auckland learn from these two community-minded Chicagoans?

Could community participation in the arts be the pathway to improving the welfare of our neighbourhoods and city?

What is already happening in the Auckland Arts with this intent, and to what end?

Te Oro

Te Oro Music and Arts Centre

Two quite different creative endeavours which currently engage with local Auckland communities are the Te Oro Music and Arts Centre which opened in May this year, and the activities initiated by artists’ collective POP, which have been running since 2014.  Although these projects are quite different in scale and structure, for each their central kaupapa involves a productive dialogue between artists and community.


Pop plinths

Te Oro is a creative centre in Glen Innes designed for youth and the local community.

The facility has recently been recognised for its outstanding design achievement, winning the supreme award, a Purple Pin, at the national Best Design Awards 2015.

The foundation of Te Oro is the building itself. Architecture could be argued as the most pervasive form of monumental sculpture in our urban spaces, as was touched on in the discussion at Auckland Conversations. But the difference between the Te Oro project and many architectural programs and public sculpture commissions throughout the city is that from its conception the architects, Archimedia, engaged with the local people about its design.

A programme of open consultation involving the Glen Innes community was undertaken in order to conceptualise the design from the outset. Common themes emerged from both Maori legend and the area’s colonial name. Ruapotaka Marae is associated with the legend of Parehuia, which refers to a grove of karaka trees on nearby Taurere – Mt Taylor.

The name Glen Innes has Gaelic origins which refer to islands of space within a grove of trees.  These associations were incorporated into the overall structure of the building as a floating geometric canopy supported by a series of timber trunks.

Te oro at matariki

Te Oro – view from Ruapotaka Marae

The building houses a 200-seat performance space which opens out onto a stage for outdoor performances; workshops and teaching spaces; a dance studio; a music classroom; recording studios; a digital editing suite; a beat-making studio; bone-carving and jewellery workshops, and visual arts classrooms.

Te oro 6

Te Oro sign made using tukutuku panel

te oro 4

The tukutuku panel on the wall of the lobby of the building is made up of a repetitive interlocking triangular pattern representative of not only the binding together of these various artistic practices, but also the weaving together of a community.  The tukutuku panel won a Gold Pin for the Maori design award and was created by Alt Group in collaboration with Ngāti Pāoa with the endorsement of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and Ngāi Tai Ki Tāmaki.

This distinctive pattern appears again in the Te Oro font, which also won a Bronze pin for design craft.  The motif of intersecting triangular shapes is repeated in various ways throughout the building in design details, such as on the ceiling panels.

Te Oro gained recognition across two further categories at the design awards; a Silver Pin for brand identity, and a Gold Pin for its website.

Te oro at matariki 2

Celebrating Matariki at Te Oro

te oro at matariki 3

Te Oro exemplifies the concept of community participation in a major creative endeavour at all levels.  From design consultation, right through to the huge range of youth-relevant, community-specific arts activities which are now offered under its canopy, it is the culmination of and now also a catalyst for community participation in the arts in the Glen Innes. Te Oro also demonstrates that community engagement in the design process can produce outstanding and cohesive design outcomes.

POP, on the other hand, draws on a loose network of local artists, musicians, performers and others who engage the public in their creative events in somewhat more piece-meal, de-centralised ways.  However, their broad intent of engaging with the community directly could be described as very similar to Te Oro’s. (Interestingly, POP was created by Alt Group, the designers who collaborated on the tukutuku panel at Te Oro).

As their website explains:

“POP’s mission is to create happenings, things, spectacles, ideas, performances, connections, and experiences in your neighbourhood.”

“POP exists to make fun, unite strangers, fuse creativity and create an instant community on every street corner. Some of these projects are annual, some monthly, others infrequent and anytime, all are designed to create a crowd, and for you to enjoy the moment.”


POP Plinth

In a recent POP event, various percussion instruments were affixed to poles around the city.  This transformed everyday functional infrastructure into an opportunity to make music.  Musicians and artists performed alongside passers-by.

Past POP events have ranged from ping pong games in public places, to a hands-on educational beekeeping demonstration, reminiscent of the beekeeping project in St Louis Jacob referred to. One ongoing project, Hauora Garden by artists Richard Orjis and AD Shierning, aims to connect urban dwellers to the natural environment.

Art that engages with everyday people and communities directly is only one of the numerous strands of artistic activity that could be termed as public art. And as Te Oro and POP demonstrate, this community engagement can take numerous forms and take place within various structures.

But putting community and lived experience at the centre of artistic practice in order to benefit people, and perhaps lift the health and other quality of life factors within our communities, is surely one of the things that Public Art is good for.


POP Plinth


Thinking Public Art Design? You may want to consider the following outcomes:

  • Unique and distinctive: a work should respond to what’s unique about the local people and the place where it will be situated.
  • For all Aucklanders and visitors: the work ideally delights, welcomes, challenges or inspires those who engage with it.
  • Known for its artistic quality, variety, depth and innovation: the work should deliver a new level of cultural richness and creativity that is of an international standard.
  • Making a difference: the work helps to transform Auckland’s public places to make them a more attractive place for the community to meet, hang out and play.

For more information check out: Guidance for Public Art Policy


Article by Prue Cunningham

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