Monday, March 29, 2010

A few thoughts on public art....

I have a constant itch in the back of my throat when it comes to the subject of public art. It - as often the artworks themselves - is extremely irritating yet at the same time I struggle to formulate exactly what my 'problem' is with it.

Too often these artworks - in Perth at least - would seem merely large-scale 'architectural flourishes' designed to a brief than artworks. Shouldn't these objects also somehow engage with their surrounds and context on more than a superficial level? This is not to say that the quality of the artists is 'not there' but rather that I sometimes feel that the briefing process itself might be flawed.

For those on the 'outside', the Western Australian Government allocates a portion of capital project funding (that is, to projects over a certain value) to 'public art'. This scheme being imaginatively titled 'Percent for Art'. Typically a small amount of money is then distributed via a tendering process to selected artist teams who essentially 'pitch' for the big gig. The winning team is then given a significantly larger amount of money to produce the actual artworks themselves.

In the initial process the team selection is normally weighted on three criteria. These being 'artistic merit', 'ability to complete the project' and 'previous experience'. Considering the last criteria can make up 30-40% of the total 'score', the process is skewed heavily to mid-/late-career artists and/or 'wet' process artists (sculptors, metal smiths, etc).

There are also at least three parties involved in this process: a (mostly) independent project manager, the client (typically a Government department) and the artists. Into that mix can also come a committee made up of 'stakeholders' and other production companies/service providers depending on the skill set of the artists involved.

In the briefing process terms often abound akin to 'uplifting', 'optimistic', 'engaging', 'community' and a consultative phase is sometimes included where stakeholders are engaged in the creative process.

There is an inherent danger that an artwork is then 'designed' (the choice of words is very deliberate) to check all the boxes and the result is homogenised and mediocre. If an artwork seamlessly 'fits' and doesn't illicit any emotional response - positively or negatively - is it a successful work or a failure?

There is also the issue of process abuse. Clients could simply brief for 'artworks' that accomplish architectural goals (ie. signage, wayfinding, etc) in order to kill two or more birds with one stone. Pre-determined suppliers could ramp up pricing and artist teams could recycle work without really addressing the new artworks true context.

This is not to say that I think all Perth-grounded public artwork is flawed. There are obvious exceptions that are successful, those being the ones that engage and enliven communities.

The other extreme of this process, and arguably more valid, would be an artist or artist team simply presents in the tender process previously created work and, if selected, is left to create work of a 'similar' style that fits various schematic and safety parameters. In such a process, terms such as 'the new work shall reflect the quality, scale and materials of supplied sample work' are integrated to ensure that both the artist and client is protected. If the new work is of a similar standard but the client is displeased then the artist is not liable to produce another at no cost. The inverse also being true.

This is a 'commission' whereas the other is a 'design' job.

Artists are not the best designers and designers equally not the best artists so perhaps public art projects are too often trying to squeeze the wrong person into the wrong job. I have to wonder if both would be better served if they all sat down and had a reality check on some projects.

Artwork - public or otherwise - should challenge you, stimulate your senses and help you engage with your surrounds. Does it really need to be smothered head-to-toe in sunscreen with bacteria 'wipes' immediately to hand?

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