This Contest Will Put Millions Into Ambitious Public Art

After a rousing success in creating public displays that help citizens focus on important issues, Bloomberg Philanthropy’s Public Art Challenge is looking for more cities with big artistic ideas.


Several years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched a competition to award struggling cities $1 million each for trying a novel approach at revitalization. It was called the Public Art Challenge, with the goal being that each place should think up some big, unifying, and life-improving masterpiece.


That effort has paid off beautifully. According to Bloomberg’s math, the four winning projects based in Los Angeles; Gary, Indiana; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and a triumvirate of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy in New York generated $13 million for those four places, both in terms of new jobs, related neighborhood investments, and visitor spending. More than 10 million people are estimated to have viewed those works, which not so subtly encouraged water conservation, culinary job training, better-lit public spaces, and improvement to blighted buildings, respectively.

Bloomberg Philanthropies head Mike Bloomberg liked the idea so much that he green-lit another round. Any city with a population of 30,000 or more may apply for the 2018 Public Art Challenge, part of the American Cities Initiative, which launched last year to support local-level leaders, artists, residents, and entrepreneurs finding new ways (and policies) to improve civic life. At least three winning metros will earn another $1 million a piece for a concept tackling some critical issue inside city limits. Bloomberg has pledged to cover “project-related expenditures including development, execution, and marketing,” although cities will be expected to share some of the other costs, according to a press release.

The winners will be announced later this year, at which point civic auteurs will have up to 24 months to execute their creations. As Fast Company has reported, the initial wave of exhibitions was ambitious. In Los Angeles, artists created a series of installations related to the theme of water conservation amid concerns of drought and storm water waste. In Gary, the community founded ArtHouse, a “social kitchen” to bring people downtown for art displays and culinary classes that work like job training.

Arthouse: A Social Kitchen, Theaster Gates. Gary, Indiana. [Photo: courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]
In Spartanburg, police and neighborhood groups helped build fun light displays that also created more safety in public places. In Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, officials and volunteers mapped out and then lit up stacks of vacant buildings—places that were otherwise hidden in plain sight—as ripe for revitalization. The project both spruced up the surrounding neighborhoods and clearly illuminated for officials and investors where future civic bright spots might be.

Overall, Bloomberg estimates that its four previous winners built community another way, too. In addition to the 820 full- or part-time jobs these projects generated, more than 1,300 volunteers joined forces to make them happen. In the end, that’s a good way to help neighbors meet and forge closer-knit communities, complete with an obvious conversation piece.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.