A look inside
Public art in Austin, Texas

Public Art

This project is an exploration of the Art in Public Places (AIPP) program here in Austin, Texas. You’ll find an overview of the program’s history, information about the program’s mechanics and a guide to finding out where you can view the art it has produced. Before we dive into AIPP, I figured it would be useful to provide a brief introduction to the concept of public art.

Public art means more than just works of art that are readily viewed in public places. Public art, as it is being discussed here, is the pointed and purposeful production of art through bureaucratic means and with civic-minded intent. In my research for this brief introduction to the concept of public art I spoke with Austin artist, and sometimes university art instructor, Jill Bedgood.

She highlighted the distinct importance of public art programs in the United States. Europe, she pointed out, has a long and rich cultural history that has resulted in the presence of many amazing feats of artistry in public spaces. The United States, as a younger, industrial nation does not have that luxury. Creating a presence for the arts in public spheres has been an action that the United States began taking quite deliberately over the course of the 20th century.

Federal Art Project logo

Bedgood pointed to the Federal Art Project (FAP), a New Deal program, in the 1930s and 40s as an important bedrock of U.S. public art. The public art produced during this era, however, was frequently viewed as inferior. Indeed, public art programs in the first half of the 20th century received critique for being vehicles for propaganda. The artists who produced it were accordingly taken less seriously than artists who created for different venues.

“There was a perception that if you did public art you had to compromise and artists should not have to compromise,” Bedgood said. “public art was often seen as not equal to art that might be in a gallery.”

Public art has evolved significantly since the FAP ended in 1943. Public art programs have become more site-specific. The works that they produced are made to represent the communities within which they will reside. Perhaps it is this shift that has inspired what Bedgood described as a greater acceptance of public art as a legitimate institution from academics and other corners of the art world. One thing that the FAP did provide, however, is a funding structure that is still used to fund public art today: percent for art programs.

Percent for art programs are created as a means to designate funds for the production and installation of public art. They are linked to city construction projects and work by allocating an amount of money, a percentage of the project’s total budget, to go toward a public art work. This is how AIPP is funded.


The AIPP program in Austin was established in 1985. Since then, over 160 works of public art have gone on display throughout the community. Like many public art programs, AIPP is funded by a percent for art funding structure. The funding is structured to generate funds for art anytime the city of Austin undertakes what they designate as a Capital Improvement Project (CIP). CIPs tends to be some kind of construction or renovation of public buildings (libraries, fire stations, etc.) or roads. Two percent of the total project budget for eligible CIPs is allocated to commission, or sometimes purchase, art for the structure that is being built or renovated by the city. The city of Austin was the first city in Texas to adopt a percent for art program.

One impact of the funding structure that governs AIPP is that there is little room to target specific areas as destinations for art. I spoke with Carrie Brown, a project manager for AIPP, about the placement of public art works. She explained that the distribution of public art is tied to the CIP sites chosen by the City of Austin.

“We don’t get the funding and get to decide to put artwork over here because its needed,” she said.

The one exception that Brown highlighted is instances where AIPP is able to pool funding from multiple CIP projects to commission a large work of art that is then displayed in one of those locations.

There are two ways that artists are chosen to become part of AIPP. Typically, the program, once they have a project ready, sends out a call for either proposals or qualifications. Interested artists respond to these calls and then a selection process is undertaken to pick the best applicant. On occasion, however, the AIPP will select an artist from a pre-qualified pool of artists that is available in case a project ever requires the AIPP to expedite the process.

Jill Bedgood is an Austin artist who has multiple works on display through the AIPP. She has also served on the AIPP panel, which is in charge of creating a unique artist selection panel for each AIPP project. As somebody who has been engaged in the AIPP in multiple roles, Bedgood provided me with valuable insight on the workings of the AIPP.

Bedgood sang the praises of the AIPP and the city of Austin and cited their professionalism and genuine interest in serving the community. Such an environment is important for an artist working with the AIPP because the artist is managing multiple sets of expectations. The AIPP, city council, community members and other relevant stakeholders have opinions and desires regarding each work of art that will eventually be on display. It can be challenging for an artist to satisfy everyone.

“A lot of times you take your cues from research and what the community wants,” said Bedgood. “The artist is usually the one that takes all the different threads and puts them together.”

Brown echoed Bedgood’s sentiments and said that the AIPP takes the fact that they are working with tax dollars and in service of the community very seriously.

“What we try and do is create a process and environment that allows for more of a collaborative effort,” she said. “We wouldn’t get to the point of installing something that the community was really unhappy with.”

As a result of the AIPP’s various responsibilities, the selected artists are sometimes required to make changes to their artistic visions. Bedgood has had experience with this outcome. She recalled an instance where she wanted to use glass but the city had concerns over the durability and safety of the material and she was required to use metal instead.

“You have to be able to take criticism and analysis and either change or defend your position,” she said, before pointing out the benefits an artist receives even when they have to make concessions. “It does give you a way to make artwork that you probably could not make because of the scale and your audience is much larger.”

Indeed, works of public art do not disappear after a limited time. Unlike a work in a gallery, public art pieces can become permanent parts of a community’s fabric. As a result, people are able to form attachments to public art, even if they would never step into a gallery. The ability of Austin’s AIPP to do this is particularly important given that the program was started by a citizen initiative and in 2002 citizens banded together again to increase funding for the program.

Bedgood highlighted the importance of public art programs like Austin’s as a way to legitimize art in the eyes of the community, and specifically children and young adults.

“If they see an artist working within the community installing artwork or being present it offers them the idea that they too could do that kind of work that it’s a profession that should be taken seriously.”

How does AIPP work?

A step-by-step guide

Once a CIP construction project is approved by voters, 2% of the project's budget is allocated for an AIPP project. The AIPP then begins to work with other relevant city organization to draft a process of artist selection. Part of this process is the creation of a project-specific panel that will ultimately select the artist and guide them through the creation of a work. The proposed panel and selection process developed by the AIPP must be approved by both the AIPP panel and the Austin Arts Commission.

Once the selection panel and process is finalized and approved a call is made to artists. Different projects attract different numbers of applicants. Some calls get 20 responses and others can get 500. The calls include the goals of the project and specify the skills needed for the type of project that the panel has in mind. Some calls are open only to local artists, while others allow for applicants from other parts of Texas or the entire country if the budget is big or a very specilized set of skills is being sought.

Typically, the selection panel spends about 4-6 months reviewing the applicants. If the call was a request for qualifications rather than proposals the panel may resuest proposals from some of the applicants. They may also request interviews. At the end of the deliberation an artist, as well as an alternate, is selected.

Once an artist is selected and has accepted the job, they get to work desigining. They meet with the selection panel, community members and other relevant stakeholders to ensure that what they design satisfies everyone involved. Along the way, their progress is evaluated by the AIPP panel and a final design is eventually approved. Once approved, the production and installation begins as construction on the CIP project allows. Depending on how long a given CIP project takes to complete, an Austin AIPP project can take up to ten years before it sees the light of day!

Where's the Art?!

The charts below are representations of the distribution of the Austin's public art. The chart on the left is a breakdown of where the art is distributed along economic lines. Using the median household income of ZIP codes and counting the number of works of public art in each ZIP code I determined how many works of public art are on display in areas of particular economic status. On the right is a chart that represents the number of public art works on display in ZIP codes according to the growth they are projected to experience between 2010 and 2040. The information regarding the median household incomes and projected growth across the various ZIP codes was gathered from the census fact finder and the City of Austin's plan for the Capital Improvement Program respectively.

When examining the distribution of Austin's public art along economic lines it is important to first recognize that Austin's AIPP program does not have providing economically disadvantaged communities with public art as a stated goal. I am taking it into consideration because of the proven benefits of public art programs in alleviating poverty and increasing both civic engagement and community solidarity. As you can see, the City of Austin is doing a good job of not catering exclusively to more affluent communitites. Almost half of the public art is on display in areas with a median household income between $30,001 and $40,000, well below the cities $63,572 median household income.

The AIPP program is designed, at least implicitly, to provide art to areas experiencing high levels of growth. CIP projects are designed to provide construction and rennovation of structures in areas that will experience the most growth by 2040. Since AIPP projects are funded through CIP projects and tied to their locations, they are supposed to provide an artistic presence in high-growth areas. Again, on this front, the City of Austin is doing well. Almost 75% of the public art is on display in locations expected grow by more than 70% by 2040.

The information above shows that the City of Austin is doing a good job of servicing public art to both high-growth and economically disadvantaged communities. As always, however, there is room for improvement. There are multiple ZIP codes in Austin that have both high growth projections and median household incomes well below the city's. The 78724 and 78742 ZIP codes, for instance, have median household incomes of $36,776 and $35,700 respectively and yet they have a mere two works of public art between them. They represent areas of the community that provide the City of Austin with an opportunity to both prepare for its growth and serve communities that deserve some attention.


Select and submit any of the ZIP codes below to see a map of the public art in that area


The data regarding the locations of the works of art in the AIPP program can be downloaded from the City of Austin.