Be specific in choosing sculpture sites

Penn’s campus has a variety of artworks — some created specifically for a location through a public art program, such as Claes Oldenburg’s “Split Button” in front of the library or Alexander Liberman’s “Covenant” over Locust Walk, and others donated or purchased that must be sited. The value of this collection does not lie in how or why the work was created or acquired. It’s more about the way art works once it is in place.

What issues should be considered? Art, like any material object, communicates meaning. When art becomes part of Penn’s campus, it communicates a visible set of judgments about Penn’s place in the cultural world and expresses the breadth and depth of the collective knowledge that the University embodies.

There are two sides to the choices the institution makes. Penn can gain cultural capital by seeing value in and supporting a new voice, or it can lose by being behind the curve of aesthetic opinion. Whether or not one agrees with the critics, at one level Penn’s choice of art participates in this constantly changing set of judgments.

The experience of art on campus is different from art in a museum. There we expect to encounter art. Art on campus works at the edge of people’s expectations. It is encountered in the routine of life and over and over again in daily patterns. So siting is incredibly important. Not only must the location be chosen relative to understanding campus routines and territories, but it must also be transformed into a place where art, site and campus community work together.

Installing art without attention to site risks reducing it to decoration and undercutting its potential to help the campus community see its everyday campus world in a new way. Art on campus can be a powerful catalyst for changing our perceptions and interactions. At times, the art might disappear into the fabric of a place and work in a subliminal or subversive manner to affect ideas and provoke people’s responses. In other instances, the work can be alien to its surroundings, bringing with it an overt new trajectory that challenges the status quo and realigns our vision to a different world outside the campus.

Susan Nigra Snyder, a partner at Company for the Civic Arts, teaches in the architecture and fine arts departments at GSFA and is a member of the public art committee for the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia.


Originally published on March 23, 2000