September 2001 - Vol.20 No.7
Public Art Strategies
by Brian McAvera
Often the curatorial approach to public artlarge-scale projects in which
a wide range of artists are parachuted into towns or communities for brief spells
of time, and then produce a public artworkhas little to do with the public
and much to do with making the reputations of artists and curators. How many
times have you read about a remarkable community-involvement in certain projects
only to find, upon close inspection, that such community-involvement is pure
window dressinga figment of the curator's and the artist's imagination?
There are difficult problems. but an audience will accept difficult
art but they need to be approached intelligently. They need to be convinced
of the integrity of the artist.
Sculpture, City Walls, Derry, 1989.
A Parable: Some years back, a Japanese artist who knew no English was selected
for an Irish sculpture symposium. He was placed in a small out-of-the-way village.
His natural metier was carved stone, and he always made abstract sculpture.
The villagers were not noted for their artistic interest.
He arrived one day at the Village Square at eight o'clock in the morning. He
worked there to eight o'clock at night, six days a week. The village kids started
coming round; then their parents. Everyone could see that this man worked.
They could see that he had skill. They could see that he had integrity.
Little by little people began to adopt him, and also the sculpture-in-the-making.
The artist acquired the rudiments of English. The villagers acquired a working
knowledge of the artist and his techniques.
The work became their sculpture. This man was working for and out of
himselfbut he was also working for them. The experience of watching
this man work communicated to the villagers. They may not have understood
the work in the same way that an academic would, but they didn't dismiss it
as a weird lump of stone. They had been introduced to the idea that art is sometimes
difficult, sometimes complex û and sometimes rewarding.
Put crudely, they had been introduced to the notion of value.
Over a decade ago I was on the organizing committee for The International
Conference on Sculpture, put together by The Sculptors' Society of Ireland.
The conference was on public art and brought together hundreds of practitioners,
academics, curators and interested parties from all over the world. A selection
of the papers was published. It was a heady time. In the Republic of Ireland
there was a strong and pro-active Arts Council, considerable activity in the
Public Art field, albeit in limited areas, and a real sense that serious development
was about to happen.
Since then I've maintained an interest in the area, looking at work in various
countries, attending & speaking at conferences, & writing about the
subject at intervals. Depressingly, the same old problems arise again and again.
Whether you walk around, say, the Limehouse area in London, the riverbanks of
the Seine in Paris, or O'Connell Street in Dublin, what leaps to the eye is
that there is a very simple problem with public art. Whereas bad art, in
the shape of canvases or small sculptures, simply disappears, bad public art
is forcefully visible.
Public Arts coverage in the press has often been markedly negative, and to
judge by a recent Temple Bar Gallery & Studios' Debate in Dublin on public
art, quite a few of the artists are only too aware of the poor quality of much
work in this particular arena.
Two incidents at the debate point up the chaotic nature of the situation. The
first was an interesting demonstration of the lack of transparency in relation
to Public Bodies. The Public Art Research Team Report, completed in October
1995, with the final report submitted in March 1996, was only finally released
in November 1997. To be precise, ten copies were released, internally. Not even
those who were consulted got a copy. A (very short) Steering Group Report had
been released in June '97. The main report was meant to tell us what had happened
to public art in Ireland, to analyze different strategies, prepare case-histories,
and give a blueprint for the future. As virtually no one saw it, what was the
point? What is worse, is the fact that it was inaccurate in relation to many
of its findings.
At the Templebar debate the chair, a well-known journalist and ex-member of
the Arts Council, actually offered to provide photocopies of the full report,
upon payment of a small sum, and so risked prosecution! You would think that
public art should be discussed publicly and openly; that there should
be transparency in terms of its development, assessment, funding, and so on.
Not in Ireland. In fact, when you look carefully, what seems to be a transparent
situation in any given country often only seems to be so.
Who decides what public art should be commissioned? How much should be paid
for it? How often are local communities consulted in real terms? How often is
there a substantive educational process allied to any given commission, so that
those who are unfamiliar with art (public or otherwise) can be initiated into
the complexities involved in a commission? How often have you come across a
piece of public art and found that there was no information in the immediate
locality as to the name of the artist, the title of the work, or the means employed?
Does anybody really care about the public?
There are, of course, many artists who go to enormous lengths to engage with
the public, and in particular with the communities in which their work is to
be sited. Unfortunately, there are also those artists who consider that 'communities'
are none of their business. They consider themselves to be studio artists, even
when they are working in the public art field. The second incident at the Templebar
debate was a telling example of this kind of attitude.
When Tony Sheehan, who runs the Firestation Studios [in Dublin] and co-curated
the Inner Art Project, easily the best of the recent public-art projects
in Ireland, commented that the residents of the inner city area in which he
workedBuckingham Street, an area which had seen numerous deaths due to
heroinwanted to have a memorial for those who had died from heroin addiction,
Eilis O'Connell, an artist who has been responsible for numerous Public Art
works throughout the United Kingdom & Ireland, and who was a member of one
of the discussion panels, not only commented that she didn't believe this (causing
Sheehan to ask her if she thought he was lying) but also suggested that the
end result could be memorials to all sorts of afflictions. She also went on
to remark that she considered herself to be a studio artistwhich begs
an interesting question as to her involvement in Public Art.
It should be obvious that in a tight-knit community such as Buckingham Street,
one in which the residents had waged a long and very public campaign against
drug-dealers, and one which has been seemingly successful, that the family support
group (parents of the kids who have died) had every right to request a memorial
to their dead. The spectacle of an artist, living in London, not only questioning
the integrity of the artists working in the area, but suggesting that such potential
memorials should not be built, was breathtaking in its superciliousness and
elitism. Frankly, artists are often their own worst enemies. They are no more
immune from self-serving interests than anyone else is. This is not to say that
the monument should be permanent; or that it should be placed in an Urban Public
Thoroughfare site [see later]. However such a public artwork is clearly relevant
to the immediate needs of one particular local community.
These problems, of course, are not limited to Ireland. I traveled throughout
Scotland recently in the course of curating an exhibition & then traversed
England and parts of Wales while researching a book on the artist Avtarjeet
Dhanjal who has spent most of his life making Public Artworks. Recently I have
traveled in France, Poland, Holland and Germany. The experience did not leave
me jumping for joy at the quality of work in the public arena.
Basic questions still need to be answered fully:
What is public art?
Who is it for?
How do we evaluate it?
The latter part of this article will directly address some of these elements.
Now I am well aware that much has been written about this topic over the past
30 years or so. Steady streams of books and articles, much of it academic, pour
from the presses. But it is surprising how little real debate takes place around
the key issues.
In an attempt to pump-prime the debate I offer the following clusters of possible
definitions in relation to public art. They are not meant to be definitive,
are clearly overlapping in places, and should be viewed as probesways
into the problems; suggestions in search of comments. We live in a world of
market surveys, bureaucrats, & consultants (I've done it myself), all of
whom compile information endlessly. I think we need to go back to basics, preferably
with a trenchant edge.
A Brief Typology of Public Art
The following presents a rough-and-ready classification of :
1. Different kinds of public art
2. Different kinds of site
3. Ways in which artists and critics view site
4. Different conditions of permanence
5. Different kinds of 'public'
And finally, in an attempt to play devil's advocate, I playfully suggest
6. Ten commandments for public art.
Hopefully you will be annoyed or stimulated. Whatever your response, do please
contribute to the magazine. We need to know what artists, administrators and
the public actually thinkotherwise we stagnate.
1. Different Kinds of Public Art
(Usually) permanent craftwork, including "artistic" seats, fountains,
and assorted fun figures (often whimsical and/or saccharine), much beloved by
local councils; often hopefully designated as "sculpture." Such work
can be stylishly crafted and elegantly functional. Three Dublin examples are
: Carolyn Mulholland's Tree/Chair in Great Georges St.; Vincent Browne's Palm
Tree Seat in Templebar; & Betty Newman Maguire's Historic Seat.
The Studio Elephant
This is studio sculpture. In a previous incarnation it often sat on a pedestal.
Usually, these are prestige projects. Some of them, in their own terms,
work extremely well. e.g., Calder's Flamingo, Federal Center Plaza, Chicago.
From Performance to Street Carnival. Its essence is brevity as opposed to longevity.
Regularly uses the media. Often flamboyant, e.g., Sean Taylor's banner "Insult
the State?" flown over parts of Dublin. May be literally evanescent (nothing
remains but the memory). Includes electronic media - signboards etc. This overlaps
The Media Hype
Generally uses the newer technologies, from video to the Internet; from projections
to state-of-the-art sound systems. A tendency to use slogans and claim political
significance where none exists. In the '60s it would have been classed as a
rudimentary version of agit-prop, e.g., Jenny Holzer's Truisms (New York
1982) or much of Lawrence Weiner's work.
The Installation (Interior or Exterior)
Meant to incorporate/respond to the architecture and/or specific features of
the interior space; or respond to the contours and specifics of siting in an
exterior space. Meant to be temporary. Therefore by definition an installation
cannot simply be replicated in a different space. Daniel Buren's striping of
Parisian pillars or Una Walker's response to the contours of the AIR Gallery
in London would be positive examples. A unified whole is one of the aims. Often
debased into a loose agglomeration of objects, dumped into a space, and disingenuously
provided with an intellectual rationale. Installations should not be confused
with purpose-built environments such as those by George Segal or Red
A site-specific piece of public art, whatever its form or content, that resonates
with its site, whether uncovering, relocating or reintroducing thematic and/or
formal concerns, germane to the site. Possesses an aesthetic content. e.g. Avtarjeet
Dhanjal's Dunstall Henge. It is astonishing how often certain kinds of critic
(and artist) object to the use of the word aesthetic. So let me be blunt. If
there is no aesthetic content, there is no art. The difference between someone
who is an artist, and someone who tries to be an artist, is that the former
is capable of generating an aesthetic response, whereas the latter isn't.
2. Different Kinds of Site
Different kinds of sites require different strategies on behalf of artists and
administrators. Some are less public than others. Some generate community involvement;
1. The Privately Public
A site which is privately owned but in full public view, though not necessarily
with full public access. e.g. The frontage arena of a bank, factory etc. This
can be subdivided into work mounted onto the architecture; and work placed
in forecourts etc. Obviously, the only restrictions here are legal. Otherwise
an owner can do what he likes.
2. The Urban Public Thoroughfare
A site which is publicly owned but has no community significance attached
to it. Motorway sites, bridges, harbor entrances, busy public squares which
are not in residential areas etc. This kind of space gives more scope for
experiment, and can be used to develop public taste with respect to difficult
and complex work.
3. Public Access User Site
Anything from a government building to a Post Office to a shopping complex.
Includes hotels and other public access utilities. Not as rich a possibility
as the previous classification but nevertheless a good opportunity to develop
a relationship with the public. Often used, however, as a dumping ground for
4. Communal Sites
A site which is used by, and abuts onto, one or more community groupings.
The most tendentious kind of site when it comes to the intervention of an
artist. These can be subdivided into a) residential sites (including gable
& facade wall sites) b) small greensward spaces or leisure spaces (tiny
parks, children's playgrounds etc.) which are integral to a residential site.
Community involvement should be a prerequisite.
5. The Corralled Space
Sculpture Parks, or any large park which is fenced off and protected. The
perfect location for studio sculpture.
6. The Untrammeled Rural Space
Mountain side, peatbog etc. Magnificent possibilities for the artist, but
alsounless the land is privateduties and responsibilities. Permanence
is not necessarily advisable, unless there is a positive response over a secure
period of time.
3. The Site in relation to the artist or critic
Funding bodies, and all too many artists, regularly claim that Public Art is
site-specific. Most of it isn't. I offer the following as platforms for debate
1. Site General
The work is not inherently linked to the specific site. If placed elsewhere,
it could function just as well, e.g., Anthony Gormley's sculpture for Derry's
walls, placed so that it overlooked two different communities, was claimed
to be site-specific, dealing with the Irish history of the locale, and healing.
In fact it would operate just as well on Hadrian's Wall or any other area
overlooking two different territories.
2. Site Sensitive
A work which reacts to some elements of the locale such as details of the
historical freightage, aspects of ecological concern etc. The intent is positive.
For example, much of Andy Goldsworthy's work.
3. Site Insensitive
This is the gallery-on-the-street approach. Large to massive; dehumanized.
Usually prestige projects, costing megamoney, e.g., Richard Serra's steel
sculpture for Broadgate Development. On a smaller scale Antony Gormley's sculpture
for Derry's Walls was a perfect example of a site-insensitive response: one
section of the community put tires around it and set them on fire as the work,
to the Protestant community, indicated a triumphalist Catholic territoriality.
[The imagery of the figure used the classic balaclava head, associated with
the Republican movement. Gormley didn't seem to realize this. But then again,
he spent all of a week in Derry]
4. Site Critical
As in 2 but the work contains a critique of the space, situation or thematic
element. Michael Sandle in war-memorial mode.
5. Site Specific
A work can only be called site-specific if it brings into play the majority
of the following factors :
a) If urban, deals specifically, in terms of placement, scale, materials etc.
with the architectural configuration of the space.
b) Deals specifically with the 'spirit of place' e.g. Utilizing elements from
the history of the locale (for example, a Viking past; a site once used as
a linen mill etc.)
c) Plugs into the co-operation of the local community or communities [the
users of the locale] and is sensitive to their needs, whether religious, secular,
ecological or otherwise. e.g. Avtarjeet Dhanjal's Dunstall Henge, Wolverhampton.
4. Conditions of Permanence
Huge areas of cities and countryside are littered with works of public art,
many of which are inept. Artists long for permanence. But it is unreasonable
to assume that Public Artworks ought to be permanently sited in every case.
Many of them should be quietly terminated. Depending upon the nature of the
site (see table) I'd suggest that no commissioned work should have any guarantee
of a permanent siting.
2. Long-term temporary. Circa five years.
3. Temporary. Up to a few months.
4. Evanescent. Minutes or seconds.
5. Who is it for? Different Kinds of Public
How many different publics are there?
How many different cultural traditions are germane to a site? How does one
evaluate such publics? Are the categories beloved by advertisers (based on class
and wealth) advisable models, or are such market-led categories dangerous to
the art in public art?
1. Specific religious, or non-religious, ethnic, cultural or political minorities.
These can often overlap. In Northern Ireland people often assume that there
are only two 'traditions'. In fact sociologists claim that there are at least
2. Specific local communities.
3. Closed but fluctuating communities, e.g., Schools, hospitals etc.
4. Gender-based communities, e.g., Convent, monastery, male or female hostel
5. a) The advantaged and/or well-off and/or well-educated;
b) The disadvantaged and/or less well-off and/or less educated.
6. Predominantly urban or rural public?
7. Is class a factor?
8. Predominantly young or aging public?
9. Is the public used to Public Art or not?
6. The Ten Commandments of Public Art.
(Applicable to any partially or fully public-funded work)
1. No piece of Public Art should automatically be classed as permanent. Recommended
initial period : a maximum of five years.
2. Any piece of Public Art must progress by consultation with the appropriate
3. Any Public Art panel or commissioning body, should have artists comprising
at least one third of its number.
4. There should be a strong aesthetic element in any public art piece. If,
after five years, this is not widely perceived, then the piece should be removed
5. Public Bodies should be encouraged to develop "difficult" and
"complex" public art pieces for sites which come under the heading
of Public Access User Site, The Corralled Space, & The Privately Public.
6. All publicly funded schemes should be required to have an education process,
both before the scheme starts officially, and during the scheme.
7. The name of the artist, title of work, and some details about its conception
should be publicly displayed near the work.
8. An evaluation should be compulsory.
9. Maintenance should be compulsory.
10. Councils should be encouraged to develop temporary public art.
The Extensions of Public Space: Television ( and by implication all mass-media)
Evaluation & Comment
A selection of public art works is reproduced in this issue of Sculpture
magazine and Sculpture On-Line. Why don't you respond to these works
or work you know, and let us know how you would classify it and why? Is it site-sensitive
or site-general and so on? Has it an aesthetic value in your opinion? You might
for example send to myself and/or the editor (by e-mail or letter or fax), images
of public art works which you really like and use the five categories that IÆve
outlined to comment on them. (As in all basic surveys you could use a 1-5 sliding
scale to indicate your judgment. So for example, a work that you judge to be
site sensitive might get 5 if it were superbly sensitive but only 1 if it simply
began to address the issue). You could judge works local to your area, or famous
Public Artworks, in terms of their aesthetic value, using the same sliding scale.
Are there particular works, or particular artists in this field whom you would
In relation to the article, do you think there are glaring omissions in the
categories? Or even entire categories which are left out? I am aware, for example,
that responses to public art are culturally determined. For example, compare
Polish war memorials in the wake of World War II, the sophistication of the
international cultural set in Paris in the same period, and likewise the odd
war memorial in a small Irish rural town.
You may of course disagree with the very notion of categories. On the other
hand comparison is a basic tool for evaluation, so long as rigidity does not
Brian McAvera is a critic and playwright who lives near Belfast, Northern
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