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Public art: Were you consulted?

Razia Iqbal | 17:22 UK time, Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Back from Cannes and turning my thoughts to public art. Tonight, in London, the Art Fund, will be hosting a debate entitled "Can The Public Be Trusted to Choose Public Art?" Given how much public art has sprung up in the last decade, you might assume there was an enormous public appetite for it. But that isn't necessarily so.

I remember interviewing Richard Serra in London last year and he talked, with some disappointment, about the graffiti sprayed over his only work on permanent display in the UK. Work by sculptor Henry Moore has also been stolen and allegedly melted down, and there are always going to be people who fundamentally object to having any public money spent on art - although even they have to acknowledge the success of works such as Antony Gormley's Angel of the North and the figures on Crosby beach in Liverpool.

However, while Gormley's invitation to the public to stand on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square might seem like the ultimate manifestation of PUBLIC art, I can see it running into problems of the health and safety variety. Watch this space.

Mark Wallinger's White Horse, in Ebbsfleet, will no doubt attract enormous attention when it is built and in his case there was certainly some public consultation, but on the whole public art is imposed on communities and very often used in urban regeneration plans.

A few years ago I went to Chicago's Millennium Park, which showcases a fine example of participatory public art, with Jaume Plensa's contemporary park fountain, with its very own high tech gargoyle, and Anish Kapoor's shiny, giant coffee bean. Art in public spaces is generally chosen by committee, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Would it work better and more consistently if the public played a greater role in what their communities will see every day? And what might happen to art if they did have a say? Or is the vision of an artist paramount? What do you think?


  • Comment number 1.

    The public must be consulted, if only because the artist is unlikely to be from the area in which his/her art will be permanently displayed and therefore less able to judge what would fit. And council committees generally want something that will appeal to tourists over residents.

  • Comment number 2.

    A few of the works in Liverpool have been installed short term and then adopted long term - that seems to have worked as a compromise that avoids compromising the artists too much.

    I like the way the Gormley sculptures work on Crosby beach but I worry a little about their proliferation elsewhere in the country. Re-imagining is a regeneration mantra but the more of these chaps we have the more they seem like the garden gnomes that our ancestors used to re-imagine their world as whimsy.

  • Comment number 3.

    Public art has always been a thorny problem as there can never be complete agreement as to what is art let alone if you like what is being proposed. There are too many schools and factions for it to be otherwise. Unfortunately, there will also always be those who vandalise or steal any works on open display. The importantly thing is to never stop trying to make public art. Many do love it. Many take great pleasure from just knowing that it is there. At it's best, art lifts our spirits and causes thought. This has to be a good thing.

  • Comment number 4.

    The question remains: Is what the public is likely to choose going to be deemed appropriate by the powers that be? What is liked by people en masse isn't generally looked upon positively by the cultural cognoscenti. Take, for instance, the X Factor and it's ilk. The programme is clearly adored by millions of ordinary people at home, but anyone that comes out of the selection process successfully is viewed in a certain light...
    Assuming that the allocation of public art becomes a process actually involving the public, what kind of submissions will we see? Would this cause a precedent, whereby all grant applications are submitted to a public vote?

  • Comment number 5.

    It is a difficult proposition, the discussion of Public Art, but you tend to find that the people who moan about it are also the ones who moan about everything.....

    I love Public art, from the controversial Concrete Cows in Milton Keynes (where I live) to the (hated when it was being installed) Angel of the North. I find they add a quality to an area that homogoenised housing can not.

  • Comment number 6.

    I am a site specific sculptor. I make art for the public. I have my own visual language and am selected to do sculpture based on my previous work. That said I am extremely sensitive to the site and spend a goodly amount of time making drawings for sculpture based on the location and people who use the site. My experiences have caused me to believe that public art is a human necessity. Sculpture adds a different kind of human dimension enhancing the architects design. A public piece often becomes the symbol or the marker for the location. I enjoy public art and I truly love making art for the public. I fear with the absence of public art funds spaces will not be as interesting or as pleasing to visit.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is a difficult question to answer as art is so personal there is no right or wrong no definite answer.
    If we don't allow artists to push the boundaries of possibility then there would be a danger of everywhere being a carbon copy.
    We have areas that have lost their identity through the loss of industry .
    Some public art can bring an alternative , a forging of new ideas that can inspire not just physical change but a change in outlook and hope.

  • Comment number 8.

    If anything I think involving the public in decisions like this would create more interest in the art. Especially in todays climate, where people are less likely to accept expensive public art pieces. Get them involved and help build a sense of community that is sorely lacking in society today. It will also hopefully expand the type of work we see and raise the standard.

  • Comment number 9.

    Watching channel4's series of programs about "The Big Art Project" is absolutely fascinating me. I see in these programmes a pretty broad view of the issues, and some of the pros & cons, around and beyond this question of trusting the public for public art. At several local centre, a group of members of the public are shown as they try to commission public art from an artist of their own choice, with all their ideas and frustrations, as well as interaction with Arts bodies, Councils, etc.

  • Comment number 10.

    Big Things on the Beach in Portobello, Edinburgh has taken public involvement in public art a step further than the Big Art Project and other artist led initiatives. This community group has been commissioning artists to create temporary work on and around this urban beach over the past four years. In the process we have created a course in commissioning public art for local people and formed a public art commissioning group composed entirely of local residents. The choice of artists our community has made have not been middle of the road or predictable and the positive public response to the works has demonstrated an appetite for imagination and innovation. The limitations have been mainly financial. Last year 30 householders hosted artists and their work in their front gardens to form a curated Garden Gallery that was viewed by over 6000 visitors. This year we are launching a National Lottery funded project,'Imagine Porty Prom', in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council to involve the public in forming a public art plan for the future of the Promenade. As the first step in this programme, in August we will open the Portobello Public Art House in an ex pub on the promenade as a centre for creative thinking by artists, locals and visitors about how this major public space can be invigorated as a place of public recreation for the 21st and 22nd centuries.

    Our approach to involving the public, which includes ourselves, in the creation of public art can be summarised as engage, educate, empower. Central to the 'education' element is the creation of opportunities for people to engage with artists in ways that help them to understand artists' creative processes. As people begin to understand artists more, they become more open to ideas they might previously have found inaccessible or alienating. Artists are also challenged to engage more fully with the public mind.

    See our website for information about our past activities and our future plans.

  • Comment number 11.

    It is very easy to sort this one out Razia. Just stop public funding of arts. I am an artist and I don't want the Arts Council funding nor the lottery money. Let the people who want public arts pay for the artwork AND the ground it stands on. Why should everyone pay for the giant turds a FEW people just happen to like?
    Because frankly the most important work of art (for want of a better word) that anyone can possess is the one THEY just made for every good reason under the sun. "Public art" is possessed by the committee that conspired in secret and is never really ever public. It is always inflicted on the public.
    Regarding the gormless sculptures polluting the seascape, please, not everyone likes these eyesores. These together with the frozen white horse and the aeroplane of the north will been seen as the evidence of how stiff British society became after 30 years of Thatcherism. Committees of bureaucrats kill art AND society.
    I think what most people miss in this current economic crash is ALL institutions will crash including the present petrified Arts Institutions and not merely through lack of funding.

  • Comment number 12.

    If the public were consulted, there would be a higher chance that public art would actually be something artistic and not just an eyesore.

    That, the establishment would never willingly let be. After all, they hanker after more of Tracey Emin's underwear.


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