This Post Will Make You Rethink Public Art

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The other day I saw Daan Roosegaarde of Studio Roosegaarde speak about public art.

I attended in good-natured ignorance, having no idea that he had won the London Design Innovation Medal, the INDEX Design Award, Platinum A'Design Award 2017, D&AD Awards 2017, Core77 Design Awards 2017, Dutch Artist of the Year 2016, the World Technology Award, two Dutch Design Awards, the Charlotte Köhler Award, China's Most Successful Design Award, was selected by Forbes and Good 100 as a creative change maker, and has given multiple TED talks. If you get a chance to see him speak, run to grab a front-row seat.


In his straightforward, pragmatically Dutch and often funny talk, Daan shared a selection of public art projects he and his team had created. What impressed upon me was not the remarkable creativity, the impressive scale or sheer beauty, but rather the compelling business case for having truly grand public art.

Visitors will spend money to experience it

60% of Studio Roosegaarde's projects are commissioned by entities - often cities or regions - looking at art to solve problems.


The French city of Lille invested considerable effort in restoring their main cathedral, but almost nobody came to see it. Daan's team created a Lotus Dome made of thin metal "flowers" that open and close in response to human activity. Not only did it bring out the locals, but it drew visitors who stayed and ate in local hosts and restaurants; people who otherwise would not have visited Lille, and certainly not the beautiful but deserted Renaissance building. Daan remarked that years later he still receives love letters from 16 year-old girls talking about the Dome.

In the UK’s Peak District, the National Trust wanted to draw attention to a 50M year-old mountain pass that virtually no one visited. Studio Roosegaarde created a light installation that drew 12,000 visitors – three times the expected draw – and generated a 6-hour traffic jam.

While a giant traffic jam is not the optimal outcome, these examples demonstrate that compelling, wondrous public art will bring people. Why? I think people want to be surprised. They want to see something that is different, remarkable, something they can talk about with others. And they will spend money to do it.

Public art can solve environmental issues

In the Netherlands, Studio Roosegaarde created a 600 metre bicycle path made with light-emitting stones in the swirls of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Not only stunning, it provides a safe, lit bicycle path without the use of electricity. In China, as a self-commissioned project Daan created the largest vacuum cleaner in the world, a clean air temple for sucking in smog at height and delivering up to 70% cleaner air at ground level. He then converted the smog carbon granules into smog-free “diamond” rings that are sold to finance further smog vacuums (and are part of at least two marriage proposals every week). As he commented, good design can change the world. And for those skeptics wondering if the efforts to create the art outweigh the environmental benefits of the output, Studio Roosegaarde is very conscious of their processes and ensuring the right partners are selected. Fond of quoting Marshall McLuhan, Daan notes “On spacecraft Earth there are no passengers. We are all crew.”

Public art is the catalyst for new ideas > creative solutions

For Daan, public art is about making places where people feel connected, the private and the public, connected to each other and to new ideas and solutions.

In Amsterdam his installed Waterlicht, a sobering reminder employing LEDs and lenses to demonstrate how water will rise with global climate instability.  As he circulated through the crowd on opening night, he overheard multiple conversations where people discussed how they would – will – deal with rising water levels. Questions like, "Can we create floating cities? Can we harness rising water levels for energy?" The role of public art, he noted, is to create a collective experience where people are curious and are willing to think ahead of the world we will live in.

In China he extended the smog vacuum cleaner into an idea for a smog-cleaning bicycle. Rather than trying to develop a prototype as a confidential project, he literally tossed the idea into the Chinese media – without copyright or even a press release, to the horror of his Communications Director – to see what would happen. Five weeks later he was approached by the largest bike-sharing platform in China to work on a prototype, currently underway. 


Can the funds for public art be spent in other ways? There’s no question that worthwhile expenditures on housing, health, security and other areas are valuable. But there are real economic benefits to public art. Not to mention that it makes for a more interesting place to live.