"The Soul of a Community" - the importance of public art

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The aesthetics of a city - it’s physical beauty, the availability of parks and green spaces - is one the three top drivers of emotional attachment for residents, according to a three year study in America. The Soul of the Community report, published by John S & James L Knight Foundation, and global polling company Gallup, surveyed around 43,000 people in 26 cities. It found that what attaches locals to their communities doesn’t change much from place to place. Social offerings - places for people to meet each other and the feeling that people in the community care about each other; and openness - how welcoming a community is to different types of people, including families with young children and minorities, were the other top drivers. What surprised researchers is these things rated higher than education, safety and the local economy.

Winter Fountains  (2017) by Jennifer Steinkamp, presented by Parkway Council and commissioned by Association for Public Art. Photo James Ewing Photography.

Winter Fountains (2017) by Jennifer Steinkamp, presented by Parkway Council and commissioned by Association for Public Art. Photo James Ewing Photography.

Philadelphia's Association for Public Art  has recognised the value of physical beauty in communal spaces for well over a hundred years. The city’s touted as a “museum without walls” and is considered a liveable city in part because of its impressive and unique collection of outdoor sculpture. Formed in 1872 (as The Fairmount Parks Art Association before being renamed) by concerned citizens who believed that art could play a role in a growing city, the association is dedicated to integrating public art and urban planning. By commissioning, preserving and promoting artistic works it says it’s creating a legacy and maintaining a heritage for future generations.

“Our work in public spaces has continuously evolved over time in response to current art making practice, and we often develop projects around specific themes or goals that advance community needs or civic issues that would not otherwise be addressed,” it says. It also protects the irreplaceable artistic and cultural assets from pollution, acid rain and vandalism.

One of it’s recent commissions - with support from the William Penn Foundation - is Winter Fountains by renowned video and new media artist, Jennifer Steinkamp. Her four large fibreglass domes are embedded with glitter and  glow with dream-like animated video projections, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s electrical research. The artwork was a centrepiece of Philadelphia’s Parkway 100, a year long centennial celebration of grand cultural boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The metaphorical water fountains were inspired by the fact that fountains can’t run in Philadelphia in the winter because of the freezing temperatures. Steinkamp says the animation of electrified ice particles and steam projected on the curved dome surface create an illusionistic depth. The particles are sculpted and hand drawn a bit like pre-civilisation cave paintings.

Watch the video below to hear more about the work from artist Jennifer Steinkamp. The video has been put up on our site with permission from Philadelphia's Association for Public Art.  

"Winter Fountains" (2017) by artist Jennifer Steinkamp, presented by the Parkway Council and commissioned by the Association for Public Art (aPA) for Parkway 100, Philadelphia. Video by Greenhouse Media, courtesy aPA.