There has been a growing interest in public art across Australia since the 1980s and it has created new and varied opportunities for urban planners, place makers, designers and commissioners as well as artists and communities
But what is exactly is meant by ‘public’ art? According to the National Association for Visual Arts (NAVA) public art is ‘art work located in public space and buildings other than galleries or museums’. In reality this definition is then divided into publicly placed art and art generated in conjunction with the public.
The contribution of well planned and executed public art to the sense of place and the livability of a city is manifold. In its Public Art Plan, the City of Sydney reasons that high quality public art in urban spaces greatly contributes to both the social fabric and quality of daily life of Sydneysiders. Stand-alone permanent art works are commissioned for the City’s capital works projects while temporary installations, like the Creative Hoardings project, add a sense of playfulness and immediacy to the city streets.
Melbourne City Council goes a step further and recognizes its Public Art Framework as a critical element toward the greater goal of building and maintaining a creative city. Among other outcomes, this approach resulted in the 2016 Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab, inviting mid-career artists to ‘imagine and develop new encounters with the municipality’ over a two week period at the site of the Queen Victoria Markets.
Peter Day, Artistic Director at the deign-led public art practice Environmental Art + Design, believes good public art is a symptom of a city’s livability. With many cities in competition for investment, Day sees cities with an attractive culture, signalled by its approach to public spaces, as the livable element that drives desirability in a city.
Historically public art took the form of work ‘plonked’ in a space with little reference to the surrounding area or community. This is most keenly observed in the colonial statues of eminent men – perhaps on horseback, gaze fixed on the horizon, heroic in demeanor, haughty in attitude – that populate the streets of our cities. These examples of art in public, disconnected from the urban narrative, are for the most part unloved, unnoticed and largely ignored by all but the pigeons.
Today, both commissioned artworks and community co-designed works have a role to play in creating desirable, connected environments. The elements common to the process of both that makes for success is community engagement. In the case of commissioned artworks cities can engage by public consultation and inviting comment on proposed individual works as well as involving citizens in developing public art strategies.
With community design-led public art, such as the King George IV mural in Cumberland Street Sydney, Peter Day believes local communities are the experts in their area. ‘People know the real issues that abound in their area’, says Day. ‘It’s important to employ a democratic design process. It does get filtered through my experience but I never go against the community. If I see a design flaw or similar I go back to the community and work it through with them.’ This approach means the Environmental Art + Deign team employs the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation to ensure the resulting artworks are welcomed and valued by the local community.
Both methods of approaching public art production, commissioned and co-designed, and community engagement ensure a sense of ownership and place that, from experience, precludes vandalism of the work.
Internationally, public art as the key to places people want to be is well established, and is in many places thriving. From something as simple as the chalkboard paint and chalk of global art project Before I Die to the technical complexity of Lorenzo Quinn’s powerful statement about climate change in Venice to Indian-based Shilo Shiv Suleman’s ethereal Pulse and Bloom that synchs the heartbeat of participants to create a community of rhythmic patterns, public art is adding value, beauty and community to our cities.
Bringing joy, building community, telling stories, holding place – it seems public art has many jobs to do. And it seems the place of art is. . . . everywhere.