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Public art and its impact on our lives

The Bottom Line

  • Public art is accessible to all, outside the conventional museum and gallery system. 
  • It aims to beautify cities, improve the quality of life of residents and enhance communities and heritage. It also aims to animate cities, bring people together and foster engagement and interaction through creative practices. 
  • For a public art project to be successful, community involvement is essential. 

It is well known that the arts in general - music, painting, literature, film, etc. - have beneficial effects on the quality of life of seniors and help reduce social isolation and loneliness. (1; 2) Arts can raise awareness of various situations or issues and change prejudices, for example, about seniors and aging.

However, these studies rarely refer to public art. Public art is visually and physically accessible to the public. It is installed in public space in outdoor and indoor settings. Think of sculptures erected downtown, giant murals on the walls of buildings, ephemeral art festivals in parks... 

Public art leaves few people completely indifferent. It can move, amuse, make people think, confuse, cringe, and sometimes even shock... 

But what does research tell us about the effects of public art on cities, places and people's lives?

What the research tells us

A recent systematic review of 50 articles examined the topic.(3) The studies reveal that public art can have eight categories of effects: 

1. Creating public spaces 

Public art helps make cities inviting and safe places to live, work and play. Community engagement is central to the process of creating works in public space, as the physical, virtual or imaginary spaces created must allow people to identify with them. 

2. Society

Public art can connect the past, the present and the future by fostering collective memory and civic pride. It can help open dialogue, make collective decisions, cultivate community spirit and promote social cohesion and inclusion. 

3. Culture 

Public art can promote access, participatory engagement and appreciation of cultural heritage, its preservation and the transfer of knowledge. 

4. Economy

Public art can contribute to a city's brand image. It can boost creative industries and cultural tourism, which helps stimulate the local economy.

5. Sustainability

Many cities and their inhabitants are threatened by pollution, earthquakes, fires or floods. Artists can promote sustainable living by sharing ecological values and raising awareness of environmental risks.

6. Well-being

Public art can humanize cities and places. It can foster happiness and improve well-being through the creation of social connections and community spirit. It can help reduce stigma and enable sharing among community members, which promotes collective healing, resilience and hope.

7. Wisdom 

Public art can encourage reflection and create educational opportunities by cultivating critical thinking, awakening people to the ways in which they might effect change, addressing collective issues (for example, poverty, violence, climate change) through creative means, and fostering civic engagement.

8. Innovation

Some public art projects can inspire innovation by proposing alternative solutions that change people's lives for the better. Such works transcend disciplinary boundaries and their effects are felt in artistic, societal, scientific and technological fields. Today, public art is displayed in hybrid spaces, both online and offline, including social media, web platforms, mobile applications, digital technologies, and artificial intelligence to enhance the human experience of creation and engagement. 


Public art can have a variety of effects on cities, places and people. It can create experiences that are seen, felt, heard, touched or sensed. In this way, it can transform public spaces and communities. 

Perhaps there is a piece of public art in your neighborhood or city that makes you smile, cringe or scratch your head... Maybe you'll see it in a different light?



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References

  1. Curtis A, Gibson L, O’Brien M, Roe B. Systematic review of the impact of arts for health activities on health, wellbeing and quality of life of older people living in care homes Dementia. 2018; 17(6): 645-669.
  2. Lane J, Julier G, Duffy L, Payne A, Mansfield L, Kay T, John A, Meads C, Daykin N, Ball K, Tapson C, Dolan P, Testoni S, Victor C. Visual art and mental health: a systematic review of the subjective wellbeing outcomes of engaging with visual arts for adults ("working-age", 15-64 years) with diagnosed mental health conditions London: What Works Centre for Wellbeing; 2018.
  3. Cheung M, Smith N, Craven O. The impacts of public art on cities, places and people’s lives, The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 2022, 52:1, 37-50,

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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