An eternal question: What is “public art?”
The definition of public art continues to evolve, but at its most basic level public art can be defined as “work created by artists for places accessible to and used by the public.” In other words, there’s no velvet rope ‘twixt the art and the patron. It’s worth noting that the art/public art field distinguishes between “public art” and “art in public places.” The former term implies a contextual, often collaborative approach to the creation of art that takes the site and other local factors into account, while the focus of the latter is on the art itself, not where it will be sited. Put another way, “public art” is site-specific, or designed for a particular environment – for instance, a university campus.
“UCSD may not have a football team, but it does have the Stuart Collection.”
– A UC San Diego student
Established in 1982 by retired businessman James Stuart DeSilva, the Stuart Collection of public art at UC San Diego is unique in several respects:
Whereas other collections – for example, UCLAs Murphy Sculpture Garden – consist of acquisitions, all works in the Stuart Collection are commissioned; prominent contemporary artists are invited to survey the campus and develop proposals based on their site selection. Proposals are reviewed and approved by an Advisory Board, and most of the works are constructed on-site rather than in a studio.
The Collection also differs in its funding model. Other collections, such as the J. Michael Bishop Art Collection at UCSF Mission Bay, typically rely on a percentage of construction budgets (1% is common) allocated for public art, but the Stuart Collection is entirely self-funded by grants and donations.
Variety of Forms
An unusual emphasis on variety is another hallmark of the Stuart Collection. Unlike a conventional sculpture garden the works span a variety of forms, materials, genres, etc., and are often “one of a kind” in relation to the artist’s body of work. As the pieces are varied, so too are the artists themselves, ranging from painters (Elizabeth Murray) to installation artists (Nam June Paik) to composers (John Luther Adams). Several of the artists who’ve created pieces for the Collection are not otherwise known for public art (John Baldessari, William Wegman, Terry Allen).
However varied in their form and function, all of the pieces in the Stuart Collection share a common goal. They don’t proselytize or attempt to define “good art” but, in the words of artist Bruce Nauman, they do ask the viewer to “pay attention,” to regard their familiar environment in a different way and, in the process, perhaps see themselves in a new way as well.