6 min readJun 19, 2024
A group of 30 people sits in a circle in a room with a one red brick and two white walls. They are engaged in conversation. A white table with a tape recorder rests at the center. On the walls are various works of art.
Tilt West’s roundtable conversation on Art in Public Spaces: Permission and Freedom. (Photo credit: Mindy Bray).

Public Art and the Unwilling Viewer

By Fred Glick, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Art in Public Space: Permission and Freedom

This piece is offered as a response to the Tilt West guided conversation of May 14, 2024: Art in Public Space: Permission and Freedom. I have avoided direct quotes for fear of mis-quoting, mis-attributing and mis-contextualizing and so what you are reading are my own reflections on what I heard and my own contemplations on that conversation and its subject matter.

I don’t consider myself an artist in that I don’t generally create works that are designed or marketed as art. I do design and implement interventions in the public realm, and these interventions are all designed to provoke a certain response in the viewer, the passer-by — the user.

So while I find myself asking, what is the difference between what I do and Public Art, I’m not sure that’s really an important question. Instead, I find myself questioning what it is that brings together such disparate forms of work under that singular, specific umbrella. Whether we’re talking about graffiti, municipally commissioned and high-budget expressions of civic pride, or developer-bought murals, we’re calling all of them, broadly, public art — with an emphasis on Public.

I’m not sure I believe the creator of public art who tells me that they are doing this for themselves, that they don’t care who the audience is. If the creation is just for yourself, if the audience is irrelevant, why is it in a public place? If the observation of that art wasn’t, at least in some way, part of the point, why does that art ever leave the creator’s basement? Why not paint their own living room walls instead of very intentionally placing their art in the public realm?

Nine people seated in a semi-circle are visible but part of a larger group. In the front of the frame an African-American man with glasses and a grey beard gesticulates with his arms as he speaks to the group. He wears jean shorts and an army green t-shirt. Others listen. Framed artworks hang on the walls behind the group.
Tilt West roundtable prompter, Devin Urioste, introduces the conversation. (Photo credit: Mindy Bray).

What is public art? The City trying to leave convention visitors with a memorable experience — an Instagram-able moment that might prompt them to return. The property-owner communicating to the local graffiti-makers that this wall is no longer available for their musings — and to potential tenants that this neighborhood may be edgy, but it is safe. The frustrated youth who sees that mural as a sign he is no longer wholly welcome in his own neighborhood expressing that frustration by tagging it. The community development agency trying to reassure community members that they still have a place in their own community by commissioning culturally- and place-relevant work. Others signaling who is welcome and who is not — a marking of territory by an American street gang member or a Belfast militant.

We have, in Denver, a few examples of very fine public art which is not visual, but auditory. But isn’t the official sanctioning of (auditioned and approved) buskers simply the auditory version of a municipally-commissioned mural? And perhaps the car with a sub-woofer that makes nearby vehicles shudder in rhythmic harmony is the auditory version of tagging? A statement to passers-by (or those passed by) that I am here and I demand to be seen (heard).

The work may vary, the creators and commissioners of the work may have vastly different intents, but what these all have in common is that the audience lacks agency. Going to a museum or a gallery is a self-selecting activity. Seeing, or hearing, public art is not.

Eight people sit in a semi-circle as part of a larger group conversation. At their center is a man speaking who wears a blue t-shirt and dark blue pants. He has short grey hair. Around him are men and women listening. On the wall behind them are artworks, including one sculptural piece that appears to be a horizontal infinity symbol.
Writer Fred Glick speaks during Tilt West’s roundtable conversation. (Photo credit: Mindy Bray).

I posit that the commonality, what defines public art, is an unwilling viewer.

That doesn’t mean the viewer necessarily dislikes what they see, though they might. That doesn’t mean that they don’twant to see it — they might. And, yes, some viewers might come to a place to see a specific piece of public art, but by and large the viewer comes to a place for a reason other than seeing the art in question and is confronted with it.

Whether in a museum, a gallery or a private collection, art that requires the viewer to enter a space to view it becomes subject to a tacit understanding between artist and audience. Work that is challenging, even confrontational, is still subject to that understanding. The viewer has given their permission to the artist for the exchange. The artist, in return, has created art they expect to be viewed or experienced within certain parameters of control.

Public art, on the other hand, has no such contract. There may be a target audience, but those viewers have no say in the matter. Nor, of course, do the other bystanders who may be but the art equivalent of collateral damage.

That is not to say there aren’t agreements around public art, sometimes explicit ones. These could be the understanding between the makers to respect, and not tag, each other’s work — or the contract between a commissioner of public art and the artist, spelling out payment, placement, and often content. But there is an intent on the part of the artist or commissioner to impose something on the viewer, and without their permission.

That intention drives the art itself, shaping its form, its placement, its message.

Why do we make memorials? We want people to pause in their day to remember an event, a person. We want them to take a moment to remember the youth killed by gun violence. We want them to remember the great deeds of a great leader. And in some cases, we want the viewer to be confronted by things they might rather forget, whether that is the losses of war, as with Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or what their own place in society once was, as with the Confederate memorials which still stain so many Southern cities.

The developer who commissions that mural looks for the artist who helps to complete the brand. Edgy, but safe. Exclusive, but still authentic.

The tagger’s bravado in scaling a bridge earns the admiration of their peers. Their defacing of the developer’s mural earns the developer’s scorn, and just maybe the admiration of fellow victims of cultural and physical displacement.

Public art may have many different ambitions — to bring joy, to provoke, to memorialize, to gain recognition — but it is by definition a public act, a public statement of our presence, our ambition, our love, our pride, our anger. What could be more transgressive than imposing our own vision on others?

Fred Glick is a commercial real estate developer and urban planner working primarily on adaptive reuse projects in Denver’s urban core. Fred is the vice-chair of the Denver Planning Board and a member of the Lower Downtown Design Review Commission. Fred serves on the boards of the Denver Health Foundation and the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Denver Civic Ventures board, Planning and Urban Impact Committee and Urban Exploration Steering Committee. Fred has extensive non-profit board experience, having held leadership positions on the boards of RedLine Contemporary Art Center; the Academy of Urban Learning, a Denver charter school serving unhoused and at-risk students; his neighborhood organization, Clayton United; and the American International School of Johannesburg.

A Denver native, Fred spent twenty years abroad in Swaziland, South Africa, India, Egypt and the United Kingdom. Before leaving the U.S., Fred was an arts administrator for modern dance companies in New York City. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Colorado Denver.

Fred is married to journalist Donna Bryson and the couple have one child.


Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.