IEDC: In placemaking, formerly subversive “street art” delivers visible public value

By Robert Pillow, IEDC intern, University of Arkansas

Economic developers increasingly recognize the value in building a sense of place. The arts are a particularly potent placemaking tool, and that includes formerly disdained “street art.”

Popularized by Britain’s Banksy, street art – when properly sanctioned – is a form of expression that the entire community can enjoy. Not only does street art serve as a substitute for graffiti, but it can also express the spirit of a community for all to see on buildings and infrastructure. Once sanctioned, street art essentially becomes another form of public art.

Although harnessing street art for public benefit is not without its challenges. Shepard Fairey, one of the most famous “stencilists,” was commissioned by Quicken Loans chairman and real estate mogul Dan Gilbert to paint an 18-story mural on one of his buildings in downtown Detroit. But Fairey decided to make the most of his time in a new city and began “tagging” other buildings without authorization and was arrested (Detroit Free Press).

Still, street art continues to enter the mainstream, and more public agencies fund underground artists to depict their visions legally in public spaces. After all, the tradeoff for placing restrictions on such iconoclasts is the expectation that public funds will underwrite these projects.

Some U.S. municipalities attach percent-for-art rules to capital improvement projects to create a dedicated funding stream for artwork on or near a development (Project for Public Spaces). Other funding sources include taxes on hotels or casinos, lottery revenue, grants, TIF revenue, or general purpose funds. Sometimes, developers will underwrite street art as public amenities on private property.

Regardless of funding source, community support is vital. Although art is intrinsically valuable, it is important to make the case for the project’s contribution to the public good, e.g., through increased property values, tourism, backdrops for events and festivals, marketing tools, etc.

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