The Art of Placemaking: Captivating Retail Guests Through Artistic and Cultural Centerpieces

by Alex Tostado

“Some people look for a beautiful place, others make a place beautiful.” — Inayat Khan

This sentiment captures what today’s developers and city leaders are striving to achieve through the art of placemaking.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the retail sector. Today’s retail owners and developers are becoming increasingly collaborative with city stakeholders and artists in an effort to create retail destinations that are more beautiful, impactful and powerful — ultimately attracting more guests, encouraging higher lengths of stay and increasing overall return on investment (ROI).

One key strategy in this fusion of efforts is the strategic use of art and cultural centerpieces to establish and enhance retail destinations.

By integrating sculptures, murals and other creative works into the retail environment, developers can transform an ordinary shopping trip into a special and memorable experience.

But how are developers achieving the right mix of art and culture that will truly attract more visitors and result in a stronger bottom line for their shopping centers?

As a leading design-build construction firm with a specialization in blending art and culture into awe-inspiring water features for retail centers throughout the country, Outside the Lines Inc. (OTL) has assembled three strategies today’s retail owners and developers should consider in order to successfully harness the power of art and culture in their retail centers:

Partner with local government 

Local legislators have a vested interest in encouraging the infusion of art and culture into developments in their cities. These representatives know that public art increases a city’s cultural relevance and cachet. Municipal leaders also recognize that incorporating this type of artwork into retail centers draws visitors in droves, stimulating their local economy, making it a win-win for developers, owners and cities.

In fact, many municipalities mandate the installation of art in public spaces as part of their entitlement process, ensuring that property owners and developers enrich the environments in which they grow and operate.

For example, in California, the City of San Mateo has a requirement that public art be incorporated into any commercial project valued at $3 million or more.

At San Mateo’s newly expanded Hillsdale Shopping Center, OTL and landscape architects Lifescapes International helped the developers meet this requirement by designing, constructing and installing a spectacular choreographed musical show fountain in the center’s main plaza. The showpiece is distinctly different from other dancing show fountains OTL has constructed, owing to the fountain basin, water jets and color-changing lighting being woven into a tapestry of planters and foliage. Gathering and seating areas created around the fountain invite guests to sit and gaze at the water feature or walk around it to experience the installation from a variety of viewpoints, as if it were an art piece in a gallery.

We recommend setting up meetings with lawmakers early in the development process to discuss how cities and developers can work together to achieve their public placemaking artistic and cultural goals. Most city leaders are more than happy to sit down for coffee with a retail developer or shopping center owner to discuss how they can work together to create beautiful attractive spaces infused with art and culture that people want to visit. 

Collaborate with local artists

People naturally connect with the areas where they live. They learn key insights like which walks offer the best experiences with nature, where to get craft cocktails and the best boutiques which may not have gone mainstream, yet. For artists, this connection to home goes even deeper, enabling creators to design and craft works of art that truly represent the energy and atmosphere of their home region, which is what placemaking is all about.

For example, at The Collection at RiverPark in Oxnard, California, OTL designed and constructed two water features that incorporate art pieces by two Southern California-based sculptors. Mermaids, sculpted by Peter Shire, features a series of stainless-steel mermaid weathervanes twisting in the breeze and catching the light, while Coastal Conversation, sculpted by Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend, features a school of steelhead trout leaping from a fishing net floated by blue-green spheres enclosed and submerged in water. Both pieces capture the marine vibe of this California market as seen through the eyes of local artists.

By building relationships locally and collaborating on artistic or cultural centerpieces in public destinations like retail centers, developers and owners can deliver authenticity for residents and visitors alike.

We recommend evaluating several types of artists for each project. While established artists will appreciate the opportunity to contribute to a project for their city, emerging artists will welcome the exposure for their work — and may be less costly to engage.

Embrace the local culture

The most effective placemaking celebrates the unique cultural nuances that make a place different and special. Infusing local culture into retail centers enhances residents’ sense of pride and belonging and attracts visitors from far and wide who want to experience that culture.

For example, at 2nd & PCH in Long Beach, California, OTL designed and built a magnificent 22-foot-diameter fountain, crowned by a spherical sculpture selected by the project’s developer, created by artist Ivan McClean. The project’s landscape architects, Diego Alessi and AO Landscape, selected a bespoke mosaic tile reminiscent of the colorful Mexican-inspired décor permeating the region for the water feature’s exterior. The special finish perfectly complements and underscores the project’s sunny Southern California environment.

In another recently completed retail project, Freedom Plaza at Jordan Downs, OTL’s Director of Creative Design Chris Roy worked with developer PrimeStor to source a variety of phrases, words and images from community members which were turned into a series of artwork etched into seven large stone columns, collectively known as “Instill.” Local culture is truly at the heart of this new community gathering place.

We recommend taking note of local cultural influences and incorporating them into the design of retail centerpieces to make the art more endearing and iconic.

Retail stakeholders that distinguish their centers from those in any other market and establish a singular identity through local culture connect with visitors, increasing traffic and length of stay.

As shopping centers expand their role as central gathering spaces, integrating art and culture as placemaking tools will become an increasingly important strategy for retail stakeholders.

By collaborating with local governments, engaging impactful artists with a connection to the area and infusing local cultural elements, retail developers and owners can establish their centers as “must-visit” destinations that will attract and delight guests for years to come.

— By Wickham Zimmerman, Chief Executive Officer of Outside the Lines Inc., a design-build themed construction company that specializes in creating rockwork, water features and themed environments for retail entertainment, hospitality, gaming and golfing projects around the globe.

You may also like