The role of public art in tourism policy and promotion

Tourism continues to be one of the drivers of the global economy. On average, tourism has a 3X impact on spending, and a 3X – 6X impact on employment. City states like Dubai & Singapore have developed tourism products and integrated them into overall policy planning and promotion with great success. Yet the role of public art is often overlooked. This paper explores some iconic public art and how it has contributed to overall visitor demand.

How does a tourism product evolve?

For any tourism product to evolve there are several key success factors.  Transportation & aviation infrastructure is critical; there must be adequate hotel capacity across segments; and there must be sights, sites and experiences that can be developed into an overall product. Several countries are blessed with a rich heritage and tradition, where multiple historic sites and monuments help create several tourist attractions. Yet, one of the trends emerging is where consumers are continuously looking for new tourist experiences. Public art is one domain that can often help create tourism products for the local and the tourist population.


(Picture: Federation Bells; Melbourne Australia)

What is public art?

While there can be no set definition of public art – it traditionally refers to art that has characteristics as below

  • Art that is displayed in the public domain
  • Usually the art is exhibited outdoors
  • Traditionally it is large scale installation art

Public art often becomes a tourist attraction thereby influencing visitor demand. The cost of public art can range (usually from 100,000 dollars to several million dollars). Most importantly, public art can be funded by a variety of stakeholders and has shorter gestation periods.

Historically, temples, churches, places of worship and monuments constituted public art. Countries with monarchs often served as patrons or large scale art work.  In the modern era (1900s onwards) overall there has been a decline in commissioning of large scale art work. As a result, most modern public art is either in the form of buildings (Dubai being a prime example).

The cost of public art 

As is the case with any project, the funding of public art is a challenge. Interestingly, public art costs can vary from a few thousand dollars (such as painting the walls with murals – popularly found in the Mission District in San Francisco) to constructing a hotel costing half a billion dollars like the Burj Al-Arab. Land acquisition issues aside, funding of public art can involve diverse sources of funding. Due to the “public” nature of the art, traditionally, involvement of government in one way or the other is seen which often acts as a catalyst.

Recent examples of public art

 With the 2012 Olympics, London took the lead in commissioning the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which is the United Kingdom’s largest piece of public art. This undoubtedly will generate significant income and employment for the local population, in addition to being an additional tourist experience in London.


Name ArcelorMittal Orbit
Artist / Architect Anish Kapoor
Location London
Commissioned 2008
Completed 2014
Cost USD 36mn
Visitors* 800,000

*Numbers are estimated

Previously, Chicago with the installation of the sculpture Cloud Gate in 2006, helped generate significant interest (and controversy) for local residents and tourists. Either ways, it helped create an experience and an attraction which people take time out to visit.


*numbers are estimated and based on visitors to Millennium Park;  Actuals may vary

Name Cloud Gate
Artist Anish Kapoor
Location Chicago, USA
Commissioned 1999
Completed 2006
Cost USD 23 mn
Visitors* 4mn

Interestingly, both these art pieces are from the same artist – Anish Kapoor.

The role of public art in tourism policy & promotion

Overall public art is one domain that can often help create tourism products for the local and the tourist population. Furthermore, public art may not be permanent or in cases may be mobile (such as the LOVE sculptures or the fiberglass cow sculptures – pictured below) thereby making it even more appealing. While the controversy and disagreement over what really constitutes art and whether money spent on public art is justified will always remain, it is the disagreement that drives curiosity and often these artforms have to be viewed to experience the magnitude and the effect the art can have on the viewer (or the tourist).


(Picture: LOVE sculpture, by Robert Indiana)


The LOVE sculptures have been a great success and displayed across several cities in the world. Similarly, the cow sculptures – a collection of more than 300 fiberglass cattle painted by local artists and displayed on Michigan Avenue in Chicago (starting in 1999) become a worldwide phenomenon. Subsequently, several other cities had the sculptures displayed which were a great success. For Chicago, the sculptures were a grand success with visitors often planning weekends[1] around visiting these. Furthermore, officials estimate that these brought in approximately 200 million dollars in tourist spending. Same was the case when these sculptures were displayed in New York[2].


(Picture: Cow sculpture, by various artists – a part of the Cows on Parade installations, Chicago, USA); Source: Chicago Tribune

In the context of tourism policy and promotion, one of the challenges for cities is to develop Origin and Destination (O&D) demand. When managed well, public art can add to the list of tourist destinations and indeed help alleviate some of these challenges. Finally, public art at times also becomes synonymous with the destination which can indeed help create strong “brands as destinations or destinations as brands” (to be discussed in subsequent paper). For instance, the Burj Al-Arab with Dubai; the ArcelorMittal Orbit with London; the Guggenheim Museum with Spain…

Indeed, a focus on integrating public art in tourism planning, policy and promotion can be beneficial to all stakeholders. To conclude, a few examples of public art, the artist, the cost, the visitors and year of commission are listed in the following pages.


Name Womens building
Artist Multiple
Location San Francisco, USA
Commissioned 1991
Completed 1994
Cost* USD 100,000
Visitors** 200,000

*costs are estimated; **visitors numbers may be higher. Numbers above only reflect those that visited the building


Name Burj Al-Arab
Architect Tom Wright
Location Dubai, UAE
Commissioned 1993
Completed 1999
Cost USD 650mn
Visitors* 5 mn

*numbers are estimated. Consolidated numbers for those that visit the hotel and those that only view from the exterior may likely be higher

Sliding house

Name Sliding House
Artist Alex Chinneck
Location London, UK
Commissioned 2012
Completed 2013
Cost USD 160,000
Visitors* 100,000

*numbers are estimated

[1] U.S. News & World Report. 08/30/99, Vol. 127 Issue 8 ;

[2] Brandweek. 07/03/2000, Vol. 41 Issue 27, pIQ6. 3/4p.

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