Art on Billboards: Not Worth It

From Scenic Los Angeles President Patrick Frank

Periodically we see something resembling art on billboards, when an arts organization takes over a set of billboards and replaces the usual ads with mock-ups of work by actual artists. Here in Los Angeles, for example, the local non-profit The Billboard Creative runs an annual month-long group exhibition across LA. Each year a curator is assigned to sift through artists’ entries while the agency secures one billboard per artist. The Brooklyn-based Save Art Space similarly solicits artists’ submissions for billboards in various cities; ArtPop Street Gallery does the same in the Carolinas and Georgia. From a scenic beauty perspective, while most might prefer to see artworks rather than ads, these takeovers are the wrong idea.

I write as an activist for scenic beauty, but also as a member of the art world myself. I have written 6 books on modern and contemporary art, and I am related to two art dealers in LA. Generally I favor anything an artist does, and I want the arts to get more recognition in our commercialized society. But if we want our visual environment to be the best it can be, we ought to avoid letting sign companies use artists. Here are the reasons:

A billboard will not give you an art experience. Looking at a billboard is completely different from encountering a work in a gallery or museum, one-on-one, thoughtfully. On a billboard, you are seeing it through your windshield at a distance, maybe even while you are in motion (in which case you should be looking at the road instead). You will rarely know if you are seeing the original creation in its original medium; most often the billboards display blow-ups of works created in other media, at the cost of all texture and immediacy. Likewise, a billboard is not a piece of public sculpture, a mural, or even original street art. Artists generally create such public art for specific spots in specific media. In contrast, billboards yield a denatured experience.

The artist does not work with complete freedom. Most programs of this kind require the sign company that owns the board and the sponsoring organization to approve the design. A lot of the best art is challenging or controversial, and thus unsuitable for a billboard. You will never see such work in public, and artists who place their work on a billboard are consenting to some degree of self-censorship.

The sign companies are engaging in artwashing. Putting “art” on a billboard is not art patronage by sign companies; it’s public relations work. I know this from years of experience as an activist: At every public hearing on any aspect of billboard regulation, the sign companies tout their “charitable contributions” and/or “support for culture.” This is part of their ongoing effort to groom their public image and secure the best treatment from legislative bodies that regulate businesses. In reality, such “patronage” amounts to a tiny fraction of the acres of billboard space that they command. The most recent LA exhibition took over 30 billboards for one month, out of a total of 8,000 billboards in Los Angeles.

Following the money is a discouraging trail. Artists get low or no compensation for use of their work, and they often pay entry fees (Billboard Creative charges $28). Moreover, if the sign company donates billboard space or sells it for a reduced fee, the sign company gets a tax deduction, money that must be replenished somehow. In the words of artist and activist Hans Haacke, “It is, in fact, the taxpayers who cover what corporations save through their ‘generous contributions.’ In the end, we are the ones who wind up subsidizing the corporate propaganda.” (Free Exchange, 1995, Polity Press, p. 18)

In short: If we value our visual environment, if we would like to see fewer billboards and less advertising clutter in our lives, the best course is to resist having temporary renditions of art on billboards. The redirection of a few billboards for one month makes the task of reducing visual blight all year long much harder.