By Rachel Foyer Published Dec 29, 2021 at 7:29 AM

This article is in a series by emerging creatives at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) who explore the many forms of art in the Milwaukee area.

Milwaukee is home to many pieces of public art of all kinds, both large and small. But what is “public art”? It’s definition is all in the name—public art is simply art that is out in the open for all to see. It can be anything from murals to sculptures, which often do, but don’t need to, have an underlying message. In many public artworks, this deeper meaning is tied into its location.

“It enriches a built environment,” is how Polly Morris, chair of the public art subcommittee of the Milwaukee Arts Board describes it.

One example of art enriching, or at least acknowledging, its environment is the Third Ward artwork “JOKESTER,” previously displayed for 1 1/2 years as part of a Sculpture Milwaukee exhibition. It’s often better known as “The Red Solo Cup,” because that’s what it is: a massive, crumpled red Solo cup, lying on its side. 

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PHOTO: Twitter

The first impression of this work might be that it’s just an odd, random sculpture, but there is in fact a deeper meaning behind the piece.

JOKESTER’s location, near the Summerfest grounds, was no coincidence on the part of the artist, Paula Crown. Crown has been working to bring attention to waste, like single-use plastics such as the Solo cup; waste that large party events like Summerfest inevitably bring about. The crumpled cup sits as a reminder that for every action we take, there’s a consequence, and someone has to clean it up. Crown’s website states that it encourages people “to pause and examine how we shape our world, how our world shapes us, and the marks we leave behind in transient moments.”

Not all public art has such a clear message, though. For instance, another Third Ward sculpture “Hand Heart” by Jason Pickleman. This large, graphic sculpture, instead of having a specific message, alludes to iconography, writing, and communication. Pickleman writes in the artist statement next to the piece that the sculpture uses universal symbols to convey “compassion and empathy that goes beyond language to become universally communicative across lines of age, race, gender and culture.”

Public art in Milwaukee is not regulated.

“If you’re a corporation and you own your land, you can put whatever you want there, if you don’t obstruct the right of way,” says Morris. “There honestly isn’t a process for public art in Milwaukee.”

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There is however a yearly $25,000 fixed amount for funding public art set by the city, which in terms of art, isn’t much at all.

Proposals for public art can be sent in to the city’s Public Art Subcommittee to receive some of that money. Fortunately, there are also organizations that support public art around Milwaukee as well. Sculpture Milwaukee is one of those organizations, and has been working to bring memorable exhibitions to the city since its first in 2017. 

Milwaukee’s public art may seem eclectic, and that’s because it is, more-or-less by default, according to Morris. “There were many plans to put together a public art plan for Milwaukee, but none of them ever gained traction,” she says.

Unlike other cities, Milwaukee’s requirements for public art remain open. While that creates an interesting mix of pieces, it also means that there is no overarching plan for what the art itself is meant to achieve.

There’s also been cases where public art hasn’t been well-received.

“If you’re looking for public art for a positive effect, you need to involve the community,” says Morris.

It makes sense that in order for something to enrich a community, the community has to want it there first. There have been plenty of examples of people pushing for changing or removing public art. One such example is “The Calling,” also known as the Sunburst by locals, made by Mark di Suvero.

Located in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which owns the large, orange artwork, the piece has been criticized for its location – for actually blocking direct views of the art museum from the west – appearance, cost, and design. Despite the controversy, The Calling remains.

Public controversy isn’t the only reason public art is moved or taken down. Art can be expensive to maintain, and unwieldy to transport if a business or owner is moving locations. The Milwaukee Public Arts Subcommittee often receives art from people and businesses who can’t handle the upkeep for it anymore.

But, for all the difficulties public art can bring, it’s still an important part of the city. 

“I think a city without any public art would be missing a lot of historical context,” says Morris.

Memorials, sculptures and other pieces of public art can be testimonies to the history of the area they’re placed in, and can tell stories about the people, wealth and community they belonged to years later.

Milwaukee is a city with a rich history, and its public art helps illustrate this history. From monuments to murals, public art helps connect a community to the past and present. Next time you’re taking a walk, stop and think about the art you see. You might just discover a deeper meaning.