02/17/2011 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking Public Art: Rebuilding Communities

Shannon Galpin, president of Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit that creates education and opportunity for women and girls in Afghanistan, recently wrote about street art in -- of all places -- Kabul.

Street art, stencil art specifically, has popped up on several walls across Kabul over the past year. Under the cover of night they take to the streets of Kabul, armed with stencils, spray paint and cameras.

The youth of Afghanistan' she noted "are finding their voice."

What is happening in Afghanistan is happening all over the world.

So-called "Public Art" -- often street art or even graffiti -- is the vehicle for people all over the world to express themselves. It is also the vehicle that gives a community a sense of place and an identity.

Artists everywhere have been using public art -- some legal, some not -- to express themselves for years. These are mostly artists who, in the best tradition want to see change in the world, change in public perceptions or government attitudes and actions.

From the Berlin Wall separating East Germany from West Germany, to the "democracy wall" in Beijing, people have chosen to demonstrate some of their most poignant expressions, frustrations and concerns about the world.

From JR, who won a TED prize for putting what has been described as "a human face to the most impoverished areas of the world," to BANKSY, a more subversive graffiti artist whose works have been found on streets, walls and bridges of cities throughout the world, artists have been speaking out to the delight of millions.

The way it now works, however, it is not the public who decides how, where and what "public" art is. Rather, the art is chosen for a community. It is government and government-appointed boards that have that honor.

Isn't time for a change in what we call "Public Art"? Isn't it time the public has more of a say? Isn't it time for a truly Public Art Initiative in cities around the world? For starters:

  1. Cities should set aside public spaces for paintings, sculpture, exhibits, poetry or even spaces for rants as well as raves. Anyone living within the appropriate zip code could show their work or post their expressions freely.
  2. Much like Charles Long's 100 lbs. of clay -- allowing children and teens and adults at the Orange County Museum of Art to grab a hunk of clay and fashion something to be posted on the wall nearby -- schools should be encouraged to provide opportunities for student art in the school or on campus grounds.
  3. And there is probably no reason why individual homes and offices cannot express themselves in a similar fashion. In the same way that a homeowner might choose to have a eucalyptus tree in their front yard, they also could choose a statue or exhibit of some kind as long as it was not an eyesore and against the code of the community association if there was one.
As we enter this bold new age of creativity shouldn't our communities find more ways to encourage and foster public art? The goal will be to create places that let the people speak, encourage communication and involvement, and in doing so, foster more livable communities.