That’s the question asked by John Metcalfe in this silly-but-kind-of-not photojournal in The Atlantic Cities, The Atlantic magazine’s online urban planning spinoff. Metcalfe spends most of the piece rehashing a 13-year-old broadside by a group of Philadelphia artists against that city’s Mural Arts Program for the “amateurish” quality of its paintings. As it turns out, though, Philly’s famous murals have been attracting a fair share of local bile recently, with commentators questioning the city’s annual $1.5 million investment in the program relative to other priorities. (There’s an interesting comment thread attached to the article linked in the previous sentence that’s worth checking out as well.)

Characteristically, MAP founder and champion Jane Golden has fought back against the bad vibes, and frankly, $1.5 million $1 million a year in city money for a program that has now produced over 3000 murals and contributed considerably over time to Philly’s identity and reputation strikes me as a pretty ridiculous bargain. But rather than get too deeply into the merits of MAP here, I’m more interested in this broader notion of “bad” public art.

Mural by Jane Seymour (yes, that Jane Seymour) and Cathleen Hughes

A few years ago, I had this fantasy of starting an anonymous photoblog featuring user submissions of ugly public art. (I guess if I do it now, it won’t be so anonymous!) Think a Regretsy for public art – and judging by the number of my artist friends who are fans of that website on Facebook, I’m guessing there would be an audience for it. Because, let’s face it, not everything we do in this field is drop-dead amazing. And sometimes, the ravages of the elements can take their toll on outdoor artworks over time. In the worst cases, I do believe that public art can actually be (or become) a form of blight in its own right. Having a forum for people to call out the prime offenders encourages us to raise our game, or alternatively, invest in needed funds for maintenance and repair.

But more than that, I sometimes wish we wouldn’t take what we do so damn seriously all the time. Maybe this is coming from someone who’s spent too much time on Roadside America, but I think that by pretending that all artwork is sacred, we unwittingly make failure (acknowledged or not) unacceptable. Of course art is subjective, but that’s precisely the point. Maybe it’s okay to hate a specific piece of public art, if that’s one’s honest response. Maybe we should be encouraging honest responses. Especially to public art, which, unlike a bad performance, is still there the next day and, unlike bad museum or gallery art, is visible to you whether you want it to be or not.

Anyway, don’t worry, I’m not going to start that website. But no guarantees that someone else won’t – Huffington Post has already got us started down this road, and given the success of Regretsy it’s probably only a matter of time. Even if you hate this idea, you might not be able to escape it. Kind of like bad public art.

[UPDATE: in the comments, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer clarifies that the city’s annual investment in MAP is closer to $1 million, not $1.5 million as has been widely reported.]

  • Art isn’t subjective, people are. We need to remember when there is bad public art installed somewhere that it isn’t “Arts” fault it’s the person or people who picked something bad that they thought was art. And more and more now the politically safe means to selected art projects, creative placemaking, and public art commissions is via a consortium of community leaders, arts organizers and lay people who may or may not have any real knowledge about art or the ability to select something stimulating and vibrant over something trite and ineffective.

  • I have been thinking a lot lately about this issue of how we disagree in our evaluations of art and what does or does not count as beauty. I think that when we call things out as ‘bad art’ we are obviously applying a particular standard of how its supposed to measure up. What counts as bad for a gallery oriented professional may have little to do with bad in a crafts fair, farmers market, or on etsy. And in Public Art this judgement is perhaps even more onerous. We are judging it to be appropriate for this particular use in this particular space for the entirety of its potential audience. As you say, public art is “visible to you whether you want it to be or not.” The open marketplace of opinion will rarely get you consensus, so why should we expect it?

    But if its true that others can find the same things enjoyable that we do not, is it always the case that they are wrong? Are they mistaken about the possibility of beauty? Are they seeing it wrong? It seems more true that we spend too much time confirming our own biases and not enough in exploring what it is that other people see. We settle into our self satisfaction all too easily and we wave the flag of our personal judgements like they were the only truth. We become very good at defending our positions, but not nearly as good in venturing beyond what we already think we know.

    And maybe part of the reason why the Arts get such a hard time in the mainstream is that folks are not encouraged enough to be open minded. If they know what they like they are too often incurious about the possibility of other ways of seeing things. If everyone has their own right opinion it starts to look like the Tower of Babel. So of course it often looks like the arts are mere dabblings in subjectivity and fail to prove their lasting value. Is it any wonder the bean counters and pencil pushers have a hard time being convinced that or why the Arts are important to our culture?

    What I would suggest is that if other folks are NOT wrong to like the things they like, then the more time we spend discovering what it is they see and the less we spend trying to tear them down the better. I think mostly this comes down to our curiosity, whether we are still interested in finding out new things about the world or not. And it seems that creative types have a natural advantage in this (as long as they are not engaged in proselytising only their own vision). The willingness to investigate the beauty that surrounds us means finding all its hidden places. It means finding out what others know and not being afraid of the unfamiliar. It means acknowledging that the world is filled with the possibility of beauty and that we are not wrong to search it out.

    Maybe some art is truly ‘bad’, and maybe some art is inappropriate for certain audiences. Maybe that just says more about the audience than the art…. But perhaps this disagreement is just the challenge that is needed to open our eyes to other possibilities. And THIS is why the arts are important. Because Beauty is NOT a lie. Its not a subjective phantasm and its not only in our heads, the eye of the beholder. Its only when we keep to our narrow visions of what beauty and art are supposed to be that it looks like a baffling sea of controversy.

    Isn’t the true miracle that Beauty can live in so many places? What is the point in claiming otherwise? What is it that we gain by limiting our choices? Its not wrong to have favorites, but how is our life enriched by only a steady diet of what we already know we like? How certain are we that our convictions are the only right way to see the world?

  • Sorry that was so long! I guess I needed to get some things off my chest….

    The only other thing I would say is that as an artist I am aware of the need for mystery in the world. Its the only open door through which discovery can be made. If our minds are already set, then creativity has died.

    My fear is that so many of us are more familiar with beauty as a product to be consumed than something to be actively pursued and created. And this takes the responsibility for beauty out of our hands. Curiosity is no longer as important if we are content to let other people show us what things count as beautiful. Without this curiosity it is simply much easier fall in a rut, be led along by our noses. We let others decide the visual fate of the world and we soak it in as docile complacent consumers rather than as struggling producers.

    Maybe this is why I am so bothered about the lack of support for the arts in education. We fail to nurture the creative talents of students and in doing so we tell them its alright to only be consumers. And when it comes to our responsibility for making the world a more liveable place, well, as consumers its obviously in other people’s hands. Denying creativity is an out for our apathy in how the world falls out. If we don’t care enough to help create the world how can we really care about how it turns out?

    So I see nurturing our creative capacity as almost a moral duty, and curiosity as the necessary light to show us where to go. Curiosity helps us avoid the pitfalls of prejudice and close mindedness. I think THIS is why art matters, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

    Sorry again for the ramble!!!!

    • J

      It is inconceivable that you would feel the need to apologize for the length of your very fine treatise. I am so grateful to you for it.

  • Katherine

    This also points to the lack of clear evaluation tools for public art, and systematic ways of gauging public response. Sure, people may have strong opinions about whether a work of art in the public realm is “artistically” interesting. But there is also a lot more that goes into it–for example, how the work interacts with an entire public space, and interacts with the people who typically inhabit that space. An artwork can also have an impact on the people and organizations involved in its creation. For example, some community murals may follow a rather artistically-formulaic design but are successful in other ways because they engage community participants around an important message, benefit youth who help paint, and become loved by neighborhood residents. However, a major problem Ian points out here is that often these murals, especially if artistically un-striking and limited to one particular community or time-sensitive issue, lose their relevance over time and thus get tagged or fall into other disrepair. I actually do have issues with cities that are arguing that all murals should be restored when there’s evidence of graffiti or lack of community investment. Maybe they should be replaced with newer, more relevant artworks instead…

    I guess the larger issue is we need a way to measure not only how many people think an artwork has artistic merit, but how its site and community continues to engage with it over time. I have faith in the ability of things like interactive websites, social networks, smartphones, etc. in beginning to provide some of these metrics, as I’m about to write in an upcoming article for this blog. Maybe we also need a site like the Regretsy to track people’s more negative responses to public art as a point of comparison…or at least determine whether a work of public art has the ability to get people talking! Maybe if no one says anything about it at all, that’s also a bad sign…but of course, that also opens up the uncomfortable question of whether public art should be given the same treatment as, say, youtube videos, with their un-mediated comments by internet “haters…”

  • As the head of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which has oversight of both the City’s support of the Mural Arts Program, and of the City’s public art/percent for art program, I decided it was appropriate for me to weigh in. The “Mural Arts backlash” seemed to begin with a Philadelphia Daily News editorial some weeks ago, which I already responded to in a letter to the editor which was published (

    So couple of points I wish to make here: 1) a debate about the need for quality in public art is a healthy one. Many of the challenges are not about differences in taste but about structure. Most city percent for art programs have trouble getting the artists involved early enough in the process, fostering too much non-integrated “plop art”. Also, often the systems don’t allow for % funds to be used for temporary public art or to be consolidated; as a result projects sometimes have budgets too small to execute quality public art, or do not allow for the exciting element of temporal public art. Also, to be blunt, today’s failure could be tomorrow’s huge success. When they were first installed, the Oldenburg “Clothespin” and Lipchitz’s “Government of the People” were reviled by many, yet today they are considered major works in our public art collection. Also, sometimes public art does NOT stand the test of time and it is OK for it to go. Recently in Philly a project required relocation of a piece not especially loved – when contacted the artist’s response was “melt it down and install a new piece of art” – he recognized it was not his best work and welcomed a chance for a new work of art by a different artist to take its place. On the other side we are now restoring and reinstalling a great early work by Rafael Ferrer that has been in storage for years; not so beloved when first installed, removed for park renovations and not reinstalled until now: a great work re-emerges.

    2) the Mural Arts issue muddles public art with the use of art as a vehicle for community and civic engagement and transformation. (City operating support for Mural Arts is in fact well under $1 million, by the way, not the $1.5 million that has been widely reported.) While everybody has their own opinions about which murals are great or mediocre art, I think even Mural Arts would admit some have not stood the test of time and are not great art – but other projects are iconic and have become renowned and beloved. Also, even the “mediocre” murals (by public art standards) generally involved a citizen engagement process, employment of youth, job training, engagement of ex-offenders to reduce recitivism, and those struggling with various behavioral health issues – all of which have enormous social value. Increasingly at the organization there is a focus on prioritizing quality over quantity, curating their existing collection, engaging great artists and executing their singular vision, etc. (without losing sight of their core value of art as an agent of community transformation). Recent and current projects include Steve “Espo” Powers, Kenny Scharf, the “favela painters” Haas and Hahn, Dread Scott and Meejin Yoon.

    Look forward to more healthy debate on this subject but lets not make it about Mural Arts – it is a bigger issue than that.

    • Thank you very much for this extremely informative and insightful comment, Gary! I agree that the debate shouldn’t be about MAP, and in the post I tried to walk the line of using it as an entry point for discussion without making it the focus. Your points about the relevance of structure/process are extremely well-taken. In all honesty, though, I’m not sure the selection/creation process for public art can ever be “perfected” – it seems inevitable to me that some pieces will end up becoming iconic and others will be dogs no matter what. What if there was a standard term of “planned obsolescence” for public art, say, 20-30 years, after which works are retired/removed unless overridden by either popular demand or a panel of experts? Not exactly sure how it would be put into practice, but it seems like that might help ensure ongoing vibrancy.

  • I like your idea for a site for bad public art.
    Have you seen the blog about bad art in parent’s homes? That is very funny – and is all about this difficulty of taste! (


    Reuters recently did a story about top ten examples of poor public art.