Scholars Use Wikipedia to Save Public Art From the Dustbin of History

Lauren Tally, Wikipedia

Students at Indiana U.-Purdue U. write Wikipedia articles about works like Steve Wooldridge's "Zephyr" on the campus.
April 04, 2010

Public art needs help, and Wikipedia is coming to the rescue. That's the rallying cry for a project started at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis that promotes documenting the world's public art on the crowdsourced Internet encyclopedia.

Documentation of public art, particularly digital documentation, lags behind other art forms because it gets commissioned in so many different ways, and there is no one organization that documents it all, according to one of the project's founders, Jennifer Geigel Mikulay. Much public art is done as temporary installations, and when they are gone there is little for scholars to work with.

To solve this problem, Ms. Mikulay, an assistant professor and public scholar of visual culture at Indiana-Purdue, started the project, Wikipedia Saves Public Art, with Richard S. McCoy, an associate conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They taught a course together last fall at Indiana-Purdue, in which they asked students to write Wikipedia articles with a local and art-historical context about pieces of public art on the campus. The students used a GPS tracking device to obtain coordinates for each piece so that article readers could find it in real life.

Now Ms. Mikulay, Mr. McCoy, and some students are writing Wikipedia entries for pieces of public art around Indianapolis. They also tag pre-existing entries that fit the project with a Wikipedia Saves Public Art banner. So far, they've tagged more than 900. At this point, there aren't many members on the project's Wikipedia page, and participation hasn't moved much beyond Indianapolis. Still, those involved are hopeful that people across the globe will use Wikipedia to document the public art in their communities.

The name of the project alludes to an effort started in 1989 by Heritage Preservation, a group that gives professional conservation advice to museums, libraries, and individuals, called Save Outdoor Sculpture! As part of that project, the Smithsonian American Art Museum produced a list of sculptures, searchable by state, on its Web site.

The list is not comprehensive but could be a good starting point for people who want to write Wikipedia articles about local sculptures, Ms. Mikulay said. In fact, the group in Indianapolis is attempting to convert the list for their city into Wikipedia entries.

Caring for Local Art

Mr. McCoy explained that the wiki project could "save" public art in the sense that it might make people more aware of local art and more likely to take care of it.

"You're saving public art by caring for it," Mr. McCoy said. "If you know more about artwork, you're more prone to care for it."

Anna Schuleit, a painter and public artist who won a MacArthur Fellows Program "genius grant" in 2006, said that she thinks the effort to document public art is "100-percent worthwhile." If the project were to take off "it would make public art more public," she says. "Temporary public art like I'm engaged in would have a chance to be documented."

Ms. Schuleit did have one criticism of the project: As it stands, the project's page leaves the definition of public art open. Mr. McCoy says the definition is purposefully broad so that people in different communities can decide for themselves, but Ms. Schuleit thinks a narrower definition would improve the project.

While there are certain advantages to documenting all public art with Wikipedia, there's one disadvantage: The documentation may turn out to be as ephemeral as the art. Wikipedia editors or administrators might remove some entries. For instance, if a piece of art is not deemed notable enough by people editing a particular Wikipedia section, its article might be taken down.

So far, all of the articles produced for the project remain up. One page about "Bucket of Rocks," on Indiana-Purdue's campus, was temporarily removed until Mr. McCoy made a strong case for it in an online exchange with a Wikipedia page editor.

And notable artistic value does not depend on a work's permanency, according to one Wikipedia administrator with the alias "Nancy." Nancy has reviewed some of the Wikipedia Saves Public Art entries, and the administrator explained in a message to The Chronicle that "if the installation was once notable, then it remains notable regardless."