The Murky Difference Between Public Art and Advertising

Experts in both fields weigh in on how the Fearless Girl statue illustrates—and collapses—the distinctions.

The Fearless Girl and Charging Bull statues have been facing off in Manhattan’s financial district since March 8. The optics are still startling: a girl, fists on her hips, ponytail swaying, stares down a 7,100-pound bull, which stands 11 feet tall and 16 feet long in the heart of one of the world’s most powerful economic centers.

While many hailed Fearless Girl’s message of girl power, the backlash also started at once, and much of it centered on the statue’s uneasy relationship with advertising. Naysayers argued that the installation—produced by the ad agency McCann New York and artist Kristen Visbal for the asset management company State Street Global Advisors—was simply big business deflecting attention from its misdeeds with feel-good corporate feminism. (At first, the sculpture’s base included a plaque promoting SSGA’s Gender Diversity Index Fund; it’s since been removed.) Fearless Girl’s defenders remain legion, arguing that the statue’s potential to empower young girls matters more than its corporate origins. But all of these debates highlight a tension between the worlds of public art and advertising, and the thin line between the two.

Fearless Girl properly is properly described as experiential advertising, a nontraditional way brands reach audiences in public spaces. “It really engages consumers and encourages them to participate in the real world, the physical world,” says Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer and partner at San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the agency behind the “Got Milk?” campaign. “More often than not, it’s something that has never been done before.” But the emotional connection Fearless Girl inspires and the dialogue it creates with Charging Bull are more reminiscent of public art.

The term might bring to mind war memorials and abstract statues, but professionals see public art as a field of inquiry. It asks questions about where we live by creating interactions with space and helps us understand locales and history. For public art, a city block is raw material for an artwork just as much as steel, spray paint, or stone.

“People bring their own experience to the artwork,” says Penny Bach, executive director and chief curator at the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia. “We like to say that public art is art for everyone, any time. So to the extent that you don’t need to buy a ticket, you don’t need to get dressed up, you don’t need to fit in, the artwork really is there for exploration.”

“[Fearless Girl] is a great example of public art as a chemistry experiment,” says Jack Becker. He’s the founder of the Minneapolis nonprofit Forecast Public Art and director of its community services program. “What will…

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