Mary Nees Blog Pic 2
Mary Nees, retired adjunct from the East Tennessee State University Art Department, is a current member of the Johnson City Public Art Committee. She is also a professional artist; her work embodies the idea of the conceptual landscape and is created through a variety of methods, from mixed media and drawings to paintings and printmaking. In her post below, Nees discusses the origins and evolution of public art. She explains the importance of making art accessible to the public as it can help build communities, beautify surroundings, and impact individuals in a positive way.

Question from a Johnson City-ite: What is this thing called “Public Art” I’m hearing about?

Answer from a JC Public Art Committee member: The idea of “public art” is not new and in fact is older than our hills. Any assumption that ‘real art’ is found only in high-end galleries or on the walls of museums for the price of your admission is actually a modern prejudice.

Consider, for example, the lyrical drawings on cave walls by primitives. There were no wine and cheese fetes set up for the viewing of that work. The images were scratched out and presented for view by locals in their common life.

Or think about the medieval altarpieces and storied frescoes. These were made for simple churches in small towns all over Europe to teach those who could not read about big biblical themes.

In both these historical periods, art served a very public purpose. It’s presence exemplified, and left us a legacy of what each culture considered the root of reality. And all this work was free and accessible.

In the last several centuries (and for a host of political, philosophical and cultural reasons) artwork has been closeted inside expensive buildings under lock and key. Art has become “nice but not necessary” to most, or confusing and elitist to many.

Yet, even in current times aesthetic expression still strives for a public viewing. The amazing mural program in the city of Philadelphia began as an effort to encourage and train spray-can graffiti artists to move from defacing public spaces to enhancing them. When an organized effort is made to put quality artwork “out there” we all win.

Mary Nees Blog Pic

As a committee, we have an expectation therefore that art can move people, that it can improve our common spaces, that it represents common realities and that it can lift our vision as a city. And so, we are investing in work that enhances our public spaces. Look around Johnson City; you’ll see some exciting examples.