The Best Public Art of 2020

Artsy Editorial
Dec 2, 2020 9:58PM

Superflex, installation view of One Two Three Swing!, 2020, at Desert X AlUla 2020. Photo by Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla.

Chila Kurami Singh Burman, detail of Remembering A Brave New World at Tate Britain, 2020. Photo by Joe Humphrys. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.

Across the world, 2020 saw museums and galleries close their doors due to COVID-19, limiting access to art for months on end. Never before was the value and need for public art quite so evident.

To celebrate the resounding power and meaning of public art, the art-and-design fabrication company UAP has released its annual list of the year’s best public art. This year, the selected works were chosen by the esteemed international artists and curators Brook Andrew, Manal AlDowayan, Kendal Henry, and Raqs Media Collective, plus UAP’s principal and senior curator Natasha Smith and curator Ineke Dane.

Below, we share the 2020 list, with reflections from the nominators on what makes these works so impactful and inspiring. To learn more, you can tune into a webinar discussion of these public works led by Natasha Smith and Ineke Dane on Monday, December 7th, at 7 p.m. EST (Tuesday, December 8th, 10 a.m. AEST).

Nicholas Galanin, Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial

Sydney, Australia

Nicholas Galanin, installation view of Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial, 2020, at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Cockatoo Island. Photo by Jessica Maurer. Courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.

Nicholas Galanin, installation view of Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial, 2020, at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Cockatoo Island. Photo by Alex Robinson. Courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.


Nicholas Galanin’s site-specific public artwork on Cockatoo Island, created for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, was a remarkable statement about Indigenous land and the myth of discovery. In Australia, at the beginning of the year, we were preparing to protest and challenge the official celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s journey to Australia and the Pacific. Nicholas is a Tlingit/Unangax artist who lives in Sitka, Alaska, and his people also share these histories with Cook, who traveled up into Anchorage, and renamed many of the Indigenous inlets, disregarding Indigenous knowledge and connections with the land. His gesture of a counter-monument was developed over nearly two years of visiting Sydney, getting a taste of the Australian colonial context and connecting with fellow Indigenous peoples from across Australia including Pedro Wonaeamirri in the Tiwi Islands. Galanin’s final design was to excavate the shadow of the giant Captain Cook statue that dominates Hyde Park in central Sydney. Standing on Aboriginal lands of the Gadigal, it is inscribed with the giant slogan ‘Discovered this territory’ and has been the site of many protests and counter-inscriptions and spray-painted ‘No pride in genocide.’

“On Cockatoo Island, the excavation work took on the look and feel of an archaeological digging site, an action to metaphorically remove or bury the monument. The work opened in early March, in the lead-up to the official Cook celebrations in Australia, and interestingly it also really resonated with the counter-monument actions, which followed with the Black Lives Matter/Indigenous Lives Matter movement across the globe and the tearing down of statues to empire makers and slave owners that clearly connected international colonial legacies.”

—Brook Andrew, artist, curator, scholar, and artistic director of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, 2020

Collectives of artists NoGenta and ConTraConsciencia, Murals in the neighborhood of Estacio

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Collectives of artists NoGenta and ConTraConsciencia, murals in the neighborhood of Estacio, 2020. Photo by Allan Carvalho/NurPhoto. Image via Getty Images.

“This mural depicts a man performing a disinfection and the face of President Jair Bolsonaro represented by a virus. Created using stencils and spray paint and during the dead of night, the work is critical of the president who has downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus, calling it ‘a little flu’; by August, it had killed over 100,000 people in the country and infected over 3 million.

“The image of this mural was picked up by news agencies worldwide, published by the BBC, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and other outlets, becoming a hero art image to represent the complex mess of the pandemic played through politics of increasingly extremist or right-wing leaders who actively promote misinformation, and are like a virus themselves. Around the world and often, as with the community of Estácio, it is those with little wealth or access to health care who are affected by such epidemics.

“For me, the global circulation of photographs of the mural indicates the importance of collectives of artists and activists who work in anonymity, like the Sami collective Suohpanterror. They make powerful and affective imagery that speaks to urgent complex events of pandemics, environmental destruction and racism.”

—Brook Andrew

Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez, George Floyd Mural

Minneapolis, Minnesota

George Floyd Mural by Greta McLain, Xena Goldman and Cadex Herrera, 2020. Photo by Lorie Shaull. Courtesy of the artists.

“This year we saw the walls of America being used by artists to memorialize and document a significant moment of our times. Painting George Floyd’s face and his words ‘I can’t breathe’ became a global act of critically articulating oppression and racism. Used as a symbolic image around the world, communities connected with the essence of the message that addressed injustice and living under brutality.

“Three days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, artists Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, and Cadex Herrera, among others, painted a large mural on the side of a grocery store, near where the murder of George Floyd took place. The painting depicts a portrait of Floyd surrounded by protesters and embedded in a sunflower that holds the names of other African Americans who died due to police brutality. The words ‘I can breathe now’ were added as a request from the community to place a message of healing on the mural.

“Today, the location of the mural has received thousands of visitors and has instigated multiple community-led initiatives such as campaigning to name the area George Floyd Square. Artists have collected and archived offerings left next to the mural to document the community’s narrative in their struggle against racism. Multiple structures have been built on the site of the mural like a greenhouse that will hold the more than 350 potted plants left next to the mural by visitors, as well as a fully equipped medical shed.

“The mural of George Floyd appeared on the corner of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on May 28, 2020. It quickly became a representation of the grief suffered by its community and an inspiration for further civic action.”

—Manal AlDowayan, artist

Desert X AlUla 2020

AlUla, Saudi Arabia

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, installation view of Falling Stones Garden, 2020, at Desert X AlUla 2020. Photo by Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla.

“In January 2020, 14 artists arrived in the northern desert of Saudi Arabia to oversee the installation of their artworks for a project titled Desert X AlUla. The artists were asked to respond to the location and its residents, keeping in mind that all artworks were temporary and, once removed, must leave no trace on the environment.

“The project was a result of a collaboration between Desert Biennial, a not-for-profit art organization based in California, and the Royal Commission for AlUla, a Saudi Arabian governmental entity tasked to protect and develop the heritage sites of Hegra, an ancient city dating back to 1 AD.

“Co-curated by Raneem Farsi, Aya Alireza, and Neville Wakefield, the invited artists explored themes of the cosmos and astronomy, water scarcity, Bedouin heritage, trade, capitalism and oil.

“Desert X AlUla not only brought to focus the unique environments found in deserts, it also unveiled new ways of making art that engaged and activated the local community. Working under extreme conditions and a remote location, the artists were able to have a successful collaboration and a thoughtful set of artworks realized.”

—Manal AlDowayan

Tijay Mohammed, Sophia Dawson, and Patrice Payne, BLACK (Tijay) LIVES (Sophia) MATTER (Patrice)

New York, New York

Tijay Mohammed, Sophia Dawson, and Patrice Payne, BLACK LIVES MATTER, 2020. Photo by mingomatic. Courtesy of the artists.

“This is one of many Black Lives Matter murals that have peppered the streets of cities across the United States since the murder of George Floyd by police and many others before him. This 600-foot mural is near 1 Police Plaza, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office, the U.S. Federal Courthouse, the New York Supreme Court House, the Manhattan Detention Complex, and City Hall—all institutions that have contributed to and as a result can correct the systemic racism that continues to plague Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The three artists who created the work represent the spectrum of the Black community, which varies in immigration status, religious background, class, and sexual orientation, emphasizing that All Black Lives Matter.”

—Kendal Henry, artist and curator

Kenseth Armstead, Boulevard of African Monarchs

New York, New York

Kenseth Armstead, installation view of Boulevard of African Monarchs, 2020. Photo by Kendal Henry. Courtesy of the artist.

“As a way to reimagine how we memorialize people and events that shape the lives of the underrepresented, Boulevard of African Monarchs goes back to Africa for inspiration and reproduces the house paintings crafted by the women of Tiebele, Burkina Faso, which predates the transatlantic slave trade. The abstract memorial transforms marks into freestanding shapes and merges sculpture, drawing, and architecture that celebrates Africans and their diaspora, proclaiming Black Lives Matter in three dimensions. Boulevard of African Monarchs is dedicated in loving memory to Emmett Till, Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the thousands more who have been lynched in America. The most lasting monuments are abstract, and they are African.”

—Kendal Henry

Abigail DeVille, Light of Freedom

New York, New York

Abigail DeVille, detail of Light of Freedom, 2020. Photo by Kendal Henry. Courtesy of the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Abigail DeVille, installation view of Light of Freedom, 2020. Photo by Kendal Henry. Courtesy of the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Light of Freedom responds to both history and the present by referring back to the display of the Statue of Liberty’s hand holding a torch, which was presented in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882. This time the torch is composed of an old school bell; a call to freedom, a blue ‘flame’ of mannequin arms; blue flames burn the hottest and brightest. This sculptural composition is surrounded by scaffolding which symbolically indicates that after all these years freedom is still a work in progress.

Light of Freedom is accompanied by the following excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s ‘West India Emancipation’ speech from 1857, just as Emma Lazarus’s poem accompanies the Statue of Liberty:

“‘Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this, or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.’”

—Kendal Henry

Ivana Franke, Resonance of the Unforeseen

Yokohama, Japan

Ivana Franke, installation view of Resonance of the Unforeseen, 2020, at Yokohama Triennale 2020. © Ivana Franke. Photo by Otsuka Keita. Courtesy of Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale.

Resonance of the Unforeseen completely covers the front façade of the Yokohama Museum of Art. The structure comes alive at the slightest breeze. From a distance, it is almost as if the solid structure of the museum building disappears—turning it into a gigantic public secret. As a visitor approaches, an incredibly subtle moiré effect takes hold. Moreover, it resolves into a line drawing in air, and then, a glorious after-image.

Ivana Franke’s work is ambitiously public in terms of scale and presence. But the intimate game it plays with light and line renders near invisibility, paradoxically making it unforgettable.”

—Raqs Media Collective, curators of the Yokohama Triennale 2020

Farming Architects, Space Coalition

Yokohama, Japan

Farming Architects, installation view of The Space Coalition, 2020, at Yokohama Triennale 2020. Photo by Otsuka Keita. Courtesy of Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale.

Space Coalition is a garden, a gate, a passage, a meeting place, a refuge for life forms and thinking beings. Farming Architects’ practice makes them imagine and invent all kinds of intersections between nature, built form, human presence, and intention. Together, these factors form coalitions, such that a space for plants to grow, fish to breathe and human beings to read, or rest a while, can be imagined as an ensemble of effects into the strict functionality of a passage and a gate that leads into a museum. On its way in, or out, the public finds moments of repose.”

—Raqs Media Collective

Sato Risa, The Twin Trees (Yellow) (Blue)

Yokohama, Japan

Sato Risa, installation view of The Twin Trees (yellow)(blue), 2020, at Yokohama Triennale 2020. Photo by Kato Ken. Courtesy of Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale.

“Ambiguously positioned between entrance and escape, Sato Risa’s bulbous forms appear to be sentient alien life. Perhaps this is what trees look like in another world. Here, in our world, they stand, poised, rootless, branchless. As if their alert intelligence had taken the form of a rising thought balloon, harvesting thoughts and sentiments floating upwards from the public below, translating them into enigmatic silence. Their yellow, blue hues are not how we would think of the vegetal. From afar, or really up close, everyone wonders what they are. The meanings they make shift with the conversation that grows around them.”

—Raqs Media Collective

Chila Kumari Singh Burman, remembering a brave new world (Tate Britain Winter Commission 2020)

London, England

Chila Kurami Singh Burman, installation view of Remembering A Brave New World at Tate Britain, 2020. Photo by Joe Humphrys. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.

Chila Kurami Singh Burman, detail of Remembering A Brave New World at Tate Britain, 2020. Photo by Joe Humphrys. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.

“Combining Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history, and personal memories, remembering a brave new world is a collision of power, identity, memory, and hope. Burman offers a light in the COVID dark and a call to remember our potential. Burman’s practice continues to inspire consideration and support for equality and diversity.

“Harnessing the symbol of Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power, the work subverts the British imperial façade of the Tate. Illuminated deities, shapes, and words are connected by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi—a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.

“The commission opened to coincide with Diwali, the Festival of Light. It is a celebration of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. There is a deep seriousness within this work but what makes it so inviting is that this depth and gravitas is beautifully embellished and adorned with fun, color, and playful energy.”

—Natasha Smith and Ineke Dane, UAP curators

Kaldor Public Art Project 36: do it (australia)

Online exhibition

Audience participant Cha Cha Sullivan responds to an instruction by Saskia Havekes as part of “Project 36: do it (australia),” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Lauren Brincat, Recipe Piece, 2020, commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects as part of “Project 36: do it (australia),” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Kaldor Public Art Projects.

“The latest iteration of a Hans Ulrich Obrist initiative that began in 1993, Kaldor Public Art Project 36: do it (australia) invited audiences online to follow instructions from artists, architects, musicians, choreographers, and florists, and create their own artwork at home or in a public space. Participants were encouraged to then document and share online (via Instagram or email) in a form of ‘call and response’ between the creative and the public.

do it instructions were given by some of Australia’s preeminent thinkers including Rafael Bonachela, Lauren Brincat, Megan Cope, Dale Harding, Saskia Havekes, Amrita Hepi, Jonathan Jones, Janet Laurence, Tracey Moffatt, Glenn Murcutt, Khaled Sabsabi, and Latai Taumoepeau.

“The enlistment of the World Wide Web and exhibition via social media of this project, and further its reliance on public participation, was particularly salient given the personality of this year. do it was galvanizing in a time of immense global disenfranchisement (ongoing), highlighting the power and importance of the imagination to break through immediate and learned paradigms to dream of worlds beyond.”

—Natasha Smith and Ineke Dane

Artsy Editorial