Recently I was reading a novel in which a character sees a besmirched sculpture in the town square and thinks, "That's the problem with public art: it risks public ridicule." The writer was sympathizing with the sculptor, but I found the thought to include empathy for a public official's discomfort about public art. Not having been called upon for a response any more sophisticated than "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like," since they were in school, many public officials feel vulnerable to being thought ridiculous (even if only by themselves) if they are asked to explain how this or that sculpture, painting, or mosaic could possibly be considered art.
Having read this book, of course, a public official realizes how to answer this question. Beyond that, the official realizes that the fact of the question's being articulated means Art As a Subject has entered the community’s vernacular, and beyond that, the official can think his or her community’s life has been enriched by citizens' being able to consider topics other than property tax and policemen's salaries.
To my mind, the role of a public official is to champion discourse about public art. It's a natural role, since the best public officials are able to start and to frame discourse without trying to pre-determine its outcome. In addition, the public official's role is to remind the public of its art. This seems an odd prescription, but in my own house I once woke up thinking someone (who?) must have stolen a favorite photograph because I couldn’t remember seeing it recently. The next day I searched for the photograph, finding it after 15 minutes in the study I use every day! It wasn't lost; indeed, my eyes had to have passed over it every day. But the photograph was unnoticed. This observation relates directly to a singular strength of public officials: they know how to draw attention to public matters that have gone unnoticed. They could unveil next year's Percent For Art Program at the site of a public art statue that's been standing for more than 5 years; they can work with the newspaper's editorial board to publish a self-guided tour of public art sites; they can encourage the Arts Council to imagine creative ways to publicize its public art efforts. In my experience, the imagination of public officials for these types of efforts is as lively as the imagination of artists whose work is installed.
And finally, the more the public is aware of public art, the less a public official has to be apprehensive about risking ridicule. For every piece of art that someone dislikes – and would disparage – there is another installation that he or she likes – even enough to defend it. In short, a public official's role is to increase the public's notice of the art commissioned on its behalf.