Neighborhood Public Art: Bringing Public Data Together

Project background

How does a city create space for a vibrant arts community? What is the role of public art across a city? How does a city support the development of inclusive public art — art designed by and reflecting residents and neighborhoods?

It’s hard to answer some of these questions without a good overview of how and where public art is created, and one of the best ways to get that overview is through the creation and collection of data about public art. There are a wealth of organizations in Boston producing and gathering data about public art in the city, and through the Boston Research Center we hope to help gather and share this data in a public, collaborative space.

Public art has enriched Boston’s parks and buildings since 1850, with the installation of the first piece, a statue of Christopher Columbus, in a private Beacon Hill yard. Soon after, in 1856, the first major sculpture of Ben Franklin was installed in front of the Old City Hall. Many public art statues, monuments and plaques followed, some by popular subscription and others as private donations to the City.

In the latter half of the 20th century, federal and local funding began to play an expanded role, from the federally-supported Percent-For-Art program in the 1970s to Boston’s establishment of the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund for permanent public art, first awarded in the 1980s. Throughout the ebbs and flows of each mayor, each bringing a different focus on the arts — as well as the shifting landscape of foundation, local, state, and federal funding — there has been an ever-increasing focus on public art in the neighborhoods. Recent inventories have counted almost 800 statues, memorials, plaques, and murals across the City.

With so many organizations supporting the creation of public art, our goal at the BRC is to help surface and bring together, in a publicly shared space, current and historical data showing Boston’s rich landscape of neighborhood public art.

Project plan

Neighborhood Public Art has three main goals. First, we will start with aggregating a list of public art pieces in two Boston neighborhoods: the South End and Roxbury. Many organizations, such as the Boston Arts Commission and City Office of Arts and Culture, already keep records in this area, and we hope to expand on this pre-existing work. By establishing and maintaining the Neighborhood Public Art in Boston WikiProject, we hope to document our approach in a way that makes it easy for anyone to participate.

Second, we will test a process of transforming lists and spreadsheets into a standardized format that can be uploaded to a public, global, shareable database that anyone can edit: Wikidata. Third, we (and others!) will then be able to visualize and share this data in multiple ways, and in the BRC we will particularly focus on developing a location-aware map that can support the development of location-aware walking tours of public art.

This map of pieces in the South End and Roxbury can support later in-depth “research deep dives” about each piece, such as creating interview recordings and transcripts, plus potentially photographs, manuscripts, and other archival records pertaining to each piece. Through that we can explore both where research sources reside, and how to create technological systems to more easily bring that research together. When COVID distancing measures have been reduced and it is safe to do so, a temporary physical exhibition may be shown in selected branches of the Boston Public Library.

We have already started enhancing publicly available Wikidata about public art in the South End and Roxbury, with 150 new or modified items about public art pieces, and 87 new or modified items about public art creators. Our next phase, in Spring and Summer 2022, will be to work with interested groups to create a location-aware map that can support the development of walking tours of public art.

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