A Public (Art) Notice

How can public art be made more sustainable? This collaboration among the Synthetic Collective, Centre for Sustainable Curating, the Institute for Public Art and Sustainability (IPAS) at Evergreen Brick Works, and The Bentway took place in the warm spring of 2023, and coalesced around a series of conversations with architects, public art commissioners, conservators, artists, curators, and arts managers, leading to in-depth discussion of what sustainability means for public art. The conversations led to this initial list of best practices and an idea that sustainable public art reflects and nourishes the communities that live with it, causing no harm in its making or presence.  

Public art responds and also is responsive to its environs. Temporary or permanent, it is connected to land, air, water, and community. Sometimes it is welcomed for its ability to create place for community. Other times it is deeply critiqued. Public art can be a signal of displacement, upholding developer agendas and, in the words of the artist and activist Judith Baca, providing “something beautiful to stand in for the loss of public space.” In considering public artworks, the colonial histories of the land must be acknowledged. Sustainability must consider all of these elements, with the understanding that public art is many things: a memory made static, a beautiful stand in, possibly a rock where it already is.

This Public (Art) Notice opens a conversation and shares an initial list of best practices in order to encourage sustainable approaches to the making of public art. 

Sustainable choices aren’t always clear. Sharing knowledge is key.

Often, public art is defined as permanent and unchanging. We resist this notion. Increasingly, public art works are temporary or performative. But even monuments and statues are always changing due to exposure to unpredictable weather, as well as the whims of passersby, pets, salt trucks, construction, graffiti, and relentless processes of chemical and physical degradation. Public art works are never static. They disperse, rust, break, crack, and degrade.


“Challenges to sustainability lie in human capacity and human resources, this kind of work requires a slowing down to overhaul a complete system change.”- Suzanne Carte, Artistic Director/Curator, Art Gallery of Burlington / Founder, Artist Material Fund


  • Build capacity (and expense lines!) to support the administration and background labour involved in making projects less wasteful and more sustainable. Making public art sustainable requires system changes in the commissioning, budgeting, and management.
  • Consider the carbon footprint of shipping material choices, especially for large-scale art works. Choose local where possible.  
  • Consider if degradation can be built into the project. How long does the work need to last?
  • Create an afterlife plan for the work: does it tour to locales within a reasonable distance to amplify the artist’s work and sustain them through additional artist fees? Does it get installed again somewhere else in the city? Can local partnerships be forged to donate used materials? Can a circular economy of material exchange amongst artists and organizations be supported?
  • Research the forms of extraction, manufacture and/or emissions that are embedded in materials. 
  • Invest in quality material options that enable repurposing. For example, high-quality screws allow for easier removal and re-use of wood.
  • Reserve some of the budget for a future maintenance plan and/or allow for the use of ephemeral, eco-friendly, and reused materials.
  • Be as involved as possible in the making of the work. Communicate goals clearly with fabricators and actively research sustainable alternatives. Outsourcing to fabricators is often necessary for the scale involved, but it can result in the cheapest method taking precedence over the most sustainable.
  • For performance or event-based works, create budgets, environments, and generate resources that prioritize the needs and safety of performers and audiences.
  • Practice reciprocity. As a traveling artist, do not be opportunistic or extractive of local communities. 

“Understanding the embodied carbon of materials is integral to being able to make holistic choices. We need something like the nutritional facts label on food but for materials.” – Deborah Wang, Architect and DesignTO’s Artistic Director


PLASTICS will not last well (migration of additives, oxidation, hydrolysis). In outdoor environments, weathering can cause discolouration, cracks, and crazing. This includes fiberglass and spray foam insulations.

STEEL and CONCRETE have very high embodied energy (meaning the total sum of energy required throughout all stages of a material’s production). If using stainless steel, high grade 316 lasts the longest compared to lower grade stainless or mild steel. If using concrete, think carefully about how it could be used more minimally/efficiently, or, if structurally feasible, replaced entirely with reclaimed concrete blocks or concrete alternatives (such as natural plasters or hempcrete).

PAINT is often a form of plastic and can fade and break down into microplastics over time. If it must be used, can it be repaired and sourced in the future?

POWDER COATING is plastic-based and chips easily. Repairing requires the entire piece to be sandblasted and coated again in a specialized facility; spot-touches are not possible.

ANTI-SLIP measures are a requirement for certain public artworks that get walked upon. When designing pedestrian surfaces, avoid the use of coatings by integrating anti-slip treads and patterns.

NATURAL MATERIALS can have a big impact. Local rock is an excellent example of a long lasting, low maintenance, sustainable alternative. Mass timber is also gaining in popularity (although it involves polymer-based glue and industrial processing). Consider reclaimed hardwoods from damaged trees if available.

“Early collaboration and coordination between disciplines is key to ensuring that sustainability is prioritized. I think having sustainability as a driving principle at the onset of a project is also important because you can always refer back to that when facing a roadblock ie. in project budget / schedule / design conflict.” – Allison Tweedie, Landscape Architect

~~~ Conservation Considerations on Sustainable Public Art ~~~

By conservator Melissa Allen 

Relating to graffiti and other forms of damage:

Some research has demonstrated that the most effective way of preventing graffiti is removing it as quickly as possible (Teng et al., 2016). This has led to the opinion among some practicing public art conservators that to leave or embrace graffiti will encourage the addition of more graffiti. That is to say that if a person sees that graffiti has been applied and not removed, they are encouraged in the thought that their intervention will also remain intact and visible. However, these types of reactive measures aren’t considered effective long term solutions (Shobe and Banis, 2014), and the reality is that many graffiti removal techniques and/or coatings are damaging to the environment.  For this, among other reasons, there has been a push in the field towards proactive as opposed to reactive management tactics (Huntington, 2018). 

There are, of course, many different forms of graffiti that will require different means to address them, some of which hold more potential for embracing the damage caused than others. There is encouraging research on the concepts of prevention through design and the balance of accepting ‘use damage’ such as that caused by skateboarding on public art (Wiggin and Bicknell, 2011). This relates strongly to the ideas put forward considering if degradation can be built into the project; “sustainable public art is probably not that which lasts unchanging.” This concept is key when considering a conservation perspective because the goals of an art conservation effort are greatly impacted by the intentions of the artist and other stakeholders.  

However, there will also undoubtedly arise some occasions where proactive and/or preventative graffiti management fails and interventions are deemed unacceptable. The reality of these outcomes should not be ignored. If, for instance, the graffiti is profane or relates to hostile targeting of a person/culture/religion it needs to be removed immediately. It will therefore still serve the community to consider those factors relating to which products may be the most appropriate for graffiti removal. Despite their issues, anti-graffiti coatings are generally divided into two broad categories of sacrificial and semi-permanent or permanent. They are both used as ways of reducing the need for economically and environmentally taxing removal or replacement if these products aren’t used. Further it could serve to reinforce the importance of following best practices regarding waste management and disposal when using more ‘traditional’ solvents or alkalis for graffiti removal.  

Protective Anti-Graffiti Coatings
Generally considered not very economical, effective or environmentally friendly (Huntington, 2018) (Teng et al., 2016) (Baalousha et al., 2016)
Sacrificial (intended to be removed with cleaning)often polymers like acrylates, biopolymers   and waxes (Huntington, 2018)Semi-Permanent/Permanent (not intended to be removed with cleaning) often polysaccharides, polyurethanes, silicon resins or fluorinated polymers (Huntington, 2018)
Cons: needs to be re-applied regularly Cons: can cause undesired changes in appearance of the work (such as colour) 
Graffiti Melt: paraffin wax sacrificial coating, does not appear to be sufficiently researched to fully support biodegradable claims at this time Conflicting research into the nanomaterial-based antigrafiti coatings as to if they could be an ‘ecological’ graffiti coating remover (Bartman et al., 2023) or may pose latent threats (Baalousha et al., 2016). 

Some specific material considerations: 


  • Generally accurate that they do not last well, especially outdoors. Of course, that will vary based on type of plastic and environment; some will have better longevity than others. Both fabricators and conservators should be consulted when considering plastic materials for outdoor works 

Steel and Concrete  

  • High embodied energy (Lenzen and Treloar, 2001)  
  • High grade 316 stainless steel often selected for outdoor sculptures due to higher corrosion resistance as compared to lower grade stainless or mild steel (Considine et al., 2010)

Paint and Powder Coatings

  • Considerations around touch ups are relevant and important 
  • Sometimes extra paint is saved for the purpose, or as is mentioned knowledge of where to source more is noted. However, also relevant to consider is the reality of how a weathered paint will differ in appearance than the same paint freshly applied 
  • See list of resources for as it applies to specific materials and what is required for needed for treatment 

“What I found in talking to a lot of artists is that many artists shied away from public art because they felt that their work couldn’t be reflected in [a monument] format, or that the category was alienating and tends to speak to certain types of art making. That led me to research temporary public art works as a practice, as an anti-colonial practice, a feminist practice, and thinking about that in respect to property and ownership.” Kari Cwynar, Curator



Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), 1982-86

Diane Borsato, ORCHARD, 2019 & Article on ORCHARD in BlackFlash Magazine

T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss, x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林, 2019-2025

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991 – ongoing

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, 1982

Laurie McGugan, Circle of Trees – Time Piece, 2000

Jarrett Mellenbruch, HAVEN, 2014-ongoing

Mike MacDonald, Butterfly and Pollinator Gardens, 1995-2003 (revival by Finding Flowers Project

Waard Ward, Roses for Thorncliffe Park, 2022-ongoing

Sculpture and Installation with Salvaged or Reclaimed Materials 

Leeroy New, Balete Bulate Bituka, 2023 & A Conversation between Leeroy New and Kelly Jazvac

Betty Beaumont, Ocean Landmark, 1978-1980

YoHA and Critical Art Ensemble, Graveyard of Lost Species, 2016 

Don Russell, Circle Mound at Donald Forster Sculpture Park

Augustas Serapinas, 5 Sheds, 2022

Infrastructure, Stewardship, and Claims

Alana Bartol, Orphan Well Adoption Agency, 2017 – ongoing

Hayden King & Susan Blight, Ogimaa Mikana: Reclaiming/ Renaming

Peter von Tiesenhausen, Lifeline, 1990-ongoing

terra0, A tree; a corporation; a person. (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA), 2022

Performance, Gesture, and Participatory

Rebecca Belmore, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991-ongoing

Jeremy Deller, Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, 2007-2017

Maura Doyle, A Public Monument to All Boulders in Vancouver and On Planet Earth, 2005

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Braided Grass, 2013

Outdoor School (Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell), Mycological Foray 

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013 & Art21 Video Feature 

Monument Lab, Proposals, 2017

“We’re interested in pushing back against the idea of monumentality, the Western illusion of permanence. When there is a municipal call for a public artwork, it tends to derive from this classical process to ‘create this thing that goes in that place’. We would love to be able to propose something with the inverse model. An ongoing investment by community collaboration with a municipality, but their procurement and budget models don’t tend to work that way.”
– LeuWebb Projects, artist & public art consultants

~~~ Bibliography ~~~


Baalousha, Mohammed, Y. Yang, M.E. Vance, B.P. Colman, S. McNeal, J. Xu, J. Blaszczak, M. Steele, E. Bernhardt and M.F. Hochella Jr. 2016. “Outdoor urban nanomaterials: The emergence of a new, integrated, and critical field of study.” Science of the Total Environment 557-558 (July): 740-753. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.03.132

Bartman, Marcin, Sebastian Balicki, Lucyna Hołysz, Kazimiera A. Wilk. 2023. “Graffiti coating eco-remover developed for sensitive surfaces by using an optimized high-pressure homogenization process.” Colloids and Surfaces A: Physicochemical and Engineering Aspects 659 (February). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.colsurfa.2022.130792

Beerkens, Lydia, and Tom Learner. 2014. Conserving Outdoor Painted Sculpture: Proceedings from the Interim Meeting of the Modern Materials and Contemporary Art Working Group of ICOM-CC, Köller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, June 4–5, 2013. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute. http://hdl.handle.net/10020/gci_pubs/conserv_outdoor_painted

Considine, Brian, Julie Wolfe, Katrina Posner, and Michel Bouchard. 2010. Conserving Outdoor Sculpture: The Stark Collection at the Getty Center. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute. 

Eds. Croft, Catherine, Susan Macdonald and Gail Ostergren. 2019. Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Fife, Gwendoline R., 2021. Greener Solvents in Conservation: An Introductory Guide. London: Archetype Publications Ltd. 

Herriges, Marina. 2022.“Climate Change: Conservation Education is Key to this Agenda”. IIC News in Conservation, no. 89 (April-May) 52-56.

Huntington, David. 2018. “Sustainable graffiti management solutions for public areas.” SAUC-Street Art and Urban Creativity 4, no. 1 (November): 46-74.

Lenzen, M. and Treloar, G., 2002. “Embodied energy in buildings: wood versus concrete–reply to Borjesson and Gustavsson” Energy Policy 30, no.3 (February): 249-255, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0301-4215(01)00142-2.

Nagy, Eleonora E. 2004. “The Maladies of Mill-Produced Metal in Modern Art.” Studies in Conservation 49 (2): 67–72. https://doi-org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1179/sic.2004.49.s2.015. 

Naudé, Virginia and Glenn Wharton. 1995. Guide to the Maintenance of Outdoor Sculpture

Washington, DC: American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. 

Pozo-Antonio., J.S., T. Rivas, M.P. Fiorucci, A.J. López, A.Ramil. 2016. “Effectiveness and harmfulness evaluation of graffiti cleaning by mechanical, chemical and laser procedures on granite.” Microchemical Journal 125 (March): 1-9. 

Sanmartin, Patricia, Francesca Cappitelli and Ralph Mitchell. 2014. “Current Methods of Graffiti Removal: A Review” Construction and Building Materials 71 (August): 363-374. DOI:10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2014.08.093

Shobe, Hunter and David Banis. 2014. “Zero Graffiti for a Beautiful City: The Cultural Politics of Urban Space in San Francisco” Urban Geography 35, no. 4 (April): 586-607. DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2014.900961

Teng, Hualiang, Puli, A., Kutela, B., Ni, Y. and Hu, B. 2016. “Cost and Benefit Evaluation of Graffiti Countermeasures on the Nevada Highways. Journal of Transportation Technologies 6, no.5 (October 2016): 360-377. doi:10.4236/jtts.2016.65031.

Van Oosten, Thea B. 2022. Properties of Plastics: A Guide for Conservators. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. 

Van Oosten, Thea B., Lydia Beerkens, Ana Cudell, Anna Laganà, and Rita Veiga. 2022. “Front Matter.” In Properties of Plastics: A Guide for Conservators, 1–4. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. https://doi.org/10.2307/jj.4908205.1.

Wiggin, Vanessa Roth and Leanne Bicknell. 2011. “To us these things are more: skateboarding and public art.” AICCM Bulletin 32 (1):163-170, DOI: 10.1179/bac.2011.32.1.020


Baca, Judith F. 1996. “ Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society” In Suzanne Lacy (Ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, 131-138.

  • Addresses the question of monuments and what a community chooses to memorialize. Critiques the role of development and the accompanying funded public art projects as a tactic of gentrifying and forcing out communities that already existed in these places.
  • LINK to Essay

Blackwell, Adrian. 2014. “Tar and Clay: Public Space is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World” In Gediminas Urbonas, Ann Lui, and Lucas Freeman (Eds.), Public Space? Lost & Found. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  • This essay engages with the activism of Black Lives Matter as well as the work of Theaster Gates as examples of resistance to contemporary neoliberalism’s conception of public space as that which “promotes government expenditure on the policing of space that serve as infrastructure for consumption” (23). 
  • Blackwell proposes a political definition of public space as a physical space in which private citizens come together in order to question both the state and the economic concerns of society. The essay uses Gates’ work to exemplify the way public space is framed through six common political oppositions: affinity and antagonism, presentation and re-presentation, human and non-human, materiality and immateriality, privacy and publicity, and polis and urbs.

Felicia G. Bock. 1974. “The Rites of Renewal at Ise” Monumenta Nipponica 29 no.1 (Spring): 55-68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2383463 

  • Article about the history of the Ise Shrines in Japan which are rebuilt every 20 years since the seventh century. This process is one of ritual as well as a way to ensure that certain traditional building techniques are continually practiced and taught to younger generations.
  • A counter example to the idea that public sculptures need to exist and be self-sufficient “forever.” Here sustainability becomes something beyond preserving an object/sculpture but as a way to make the work continually activated as well as a way to teach specialized artisanal skills. 

Demos, TJ. 2016. “The Art and Politics of Sustainability” In Decolonizing Nature,   Sternberg Press, London, 31-62.

  • “Traces the conflicted notion of sustainability via scientific, political, and cultural discourses since the 1960s, examining how the term often functions as a privileged instrument of greenwashing and how it might be mobilized otherwise”
  • PDF Download (6.35MB) from Are.na 

Krause Knight, Cher. 2008. “Conventional Wisdom: Populist Intentions within Established Paradigms” In Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, 22-47.

  • An orientation text on Public Art. Highlights important moments in the history of Public Art and raises issues that surround the subject, both from the artists that have made the work and public responses and concerns. Topics include monuments, art as amenity, art parks/gardens, art as “pilgrimage”/tourist attraction, and public art as a place to gather a community.

McBay, Brian. 2016. “Real Estate vs. Art: A Vancouver Dilemma”. Canadian Art Online. 

Raymond, Yasmil. 2013. “Desegregating the Experience of Art: A User’s Guide to Gramsci Monument.”   In Stephan Hoban, Yasmil Ramond, & Kelly Kivland (Eds), Gramsci Monument, 10-27. New York, Dia Art Foundation.

  • An overview from one of the curators of the Gramsci Monument. The essay explains Hirschhorn’s art practice, the idea of making monuments dedicated to philosophers, and the specific ways Hirschhorn works to develop a relationship with the site and the community.

Swenson, Kirsten. 2022. “From Gravel Pits to Sculpture Parks” Art in America (Online).

  • On Robert Morris’ “Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)” and the idea of using art as land reclamation. 
  • In 1977, the US Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, levying a mandatory reclamation fee on mining companies to fund the restoration of devastated lands “to a higher or better use.” Morris was critical of the idea of making art that simply makes the abused land beautiful again and as such raises both aesthetic and moral questions around the idea of using art in to bypass the challenges of ecological rehabilitation of toxic and depleted sites.
  • LINK to article


Materials Information & Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA)  


Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO)


The Future Materials Bank


Healthy Materials Lab




~~~ Acknowledgments ~~~

The Centre for Sustainable Curating and Synthetic Collective would like to acknowledge the following:

Melissa Allen, Emily Cadotte, Suzanne Carte, Sarah Charette, Kari Cwynar, Anna Gallagher Ross, Andrew Hoekstra, Ella Hough, Charlene K. Lau, Christine Leu, Katie Lawson, Celeste Meledath, Allison Tweedie, Deborah Wang, & Alan Webb