Why Does Public Art Matter?

There is research galore that proves we can create new synaptic connections in our brain if we alter the most mundane of our daily tasks even slightly. Cross the street at a different corner than you have done before. Eat breakfast for dinner. Use the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Breaking habitual patterns is apparently one of the most impactful things we can do to keep our brains functioning creatively, and stay on top of our game.

If these simple alterations to the infinite-loop of our routine daily thoughts and actions are enough to keep our brains creating new grey matter, imagine the power art must wield. To suddenly encounter something entirely new, entirely unexpected, and entirely unexplainable will have those synapses firing like fireworks, and forming new neural pathways like a sugar-fuelled kid on a Lego tower building binge.

So that should be enough. Art makes our brains better. But there’s so much more.

Art is respite from the heroic struggles we face every day: just getting from dawn to dusk is a battlefield of calls and emails and texts and memos and meetings and presentations and customers and clients and wardrobe and child-care and food-finding and parking and so on and so on ad infinitum. When we encounter a painting or a sculpture or a dance or a piece of music it knocks us out of auto-drive, let’s us stop striving, even if only for a quick moment. For a savoury second or two, or a few moments more, if we are lucky we dwell in another part of our brain, a place in ourselves that is about truth and beauty and wonder and poetry and mystery. Art is a daily gift. A vitamin, if you will, to help us all carry on carrying on.

And right here, I’m going to switch to first-person and tell you what I’ve found to be the most wonderful aspect of art, the most tantalizing thing of all. There are so few questions left unanswered in this world ruled by Google. You can be in the most remote and unlikely place and find out the most remarkable answers to the most obscure questions by punching a few buttons on your smartphone. So to me, it’s worth celebrating the times when you don’t have an answer, the opportunities art gives us to wonder what the hell is going on. When a painting can confuse you, or a sculpture can create questions: that’s a mystery. We have too few mysteries left. I think we should cherish them all.

Now, public art is something we should all embrace even more feverishly, and make sure it’s always high on the agenda of the people who build our cities. Why? Because it’s the pushy cousin at the family Christmas buffet who insists on being at the front of the line. The aggression of public art is truly wonderful: you don’t have to do ANYTHING and you get a free dose of the art-drug. You don’t have to go to a gallery, or buy a ticket, or be a collector, or do anything except carry on with your schedule. The simple act of walking from one building to another will expose you. Driving down the street will give you another hit. If you take even a split second to look at the artwork in our public realm, several times a day you have a no-action-required opportunity to reap all the aforementioned benefits.

If you don’t like what you see, that’s great! At least you saw something!

If you love what you see, that’s great too! It means you had a mental and visual bonbon to make your day sweeter.

If it confuses you or enrages you or makes you smile, those are all good things. Art did something to you. A piece of art changed your mind….literally changed your mind by firing new sparks of electricity on new neural routes.

Art changes us, in ways big and small, physiologically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Another way to think about it? Public art is the jewellery of the city. Some towns wear a little black dress, which can be very classy and elegant, but with the right brooch or pair of earrings can suddenly be stunning. Other towns are enfolded in a grey cashmere sweater, and art is the string of pearls that makes it magic.

So is art important? I’d say it is, for all the reasons we’ve touched on above. But if those cerebral benefits aren’t enough, if you insist on being mired in the quotidian details of right brain logic, there is an answer for you too.

From the most recent data I could source (some of which is, admittedly up to five years old) the arts and cultural sector is the livelihood for over 650,000 Canadians. According to the Conference Board of Canada, for every $1 of real value–added GDP produced by Canada’s cultural industries, roughly $1.84 is added to the overall real GDP. And here, closer to home, the City of Vancouver has determined that every dollar it invests in the arts leverages $11.50 from other sources.

Art is good for our brains. It’s good for our city. It’s good for our economy. It’s good for our personal growth.

It’s just good: all good.

David Allison is the Principal Advisor at David Allison Inc., a consumer culture advisory group based in Vancouver, with clients around the world. In 2004, he founded an award-winning real estate development marketing firm that worked on hundreds of global projects. In 2015, he sold the company to management. He’s written three books on marketing, won numerous industry awards, taught masters and undergraduate university marketing classes, and served on various civic and arts-related boards. He is a frequent speaker, represented by The National Speakers Bureau, and in 2015 was named Editor-at-large by the Urban Development Institute.