Permanent versus temporary public art is not the issue
Budgets for public art—in all its forms—now provide a major income stream for artists, and some of these sources are under threat
By Vivien Lovell. Web only
Published online: 03 November 2010
In her article in last month’s Art Newspaper (see link at left), Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic director of Creative Time, presented the case for commissioning temporary, rather than permanent public art, thus avoiding what she perceived as the “problems” associated with permanent art in the public realm. In fact there is currently a healthy balance of activity in this field, with permanent public art as likely to take the form of artist-designed public spaces, lighting interventions or art integrated sensitively into architecture, as the proverbial “turd in the plaza” or “lipstick on the face of the gorilla” mistakes of the past.
I would argue that permanent public art can be, in its way, as challenging and controversial as temporary art interventions and, when professionally curated and managed, should not present a permanent “problem” any more than a carefully commissioned work of architecture might do so. Shirazeh Houshiary’s East Window, 2007, for the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, for example, strikes an extraordinarily successful balance of being a highly contemporary, challenging work of art on the one hand, and a sensitively integrated classic on the other, the storm of controversy that surrounded it prior to installation having evaporated in the revelation of its success once in situ.
It is clear that temporary art commissions have greatly enriched and freed up the field of public art in recent years; by virtue of being ephemeral, such installations exist permanently in the memory and in documentation, whilst avoiding the need for long-term care. Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993, is surely more poetic and powerful as a memory, rather than the permanent maintenance problem it would have become, had Artangel’s and the artist’s wish been granted to retain the work in perpetuity.
However, the “temporary versus permanent public art” debate should not be the key issue today: there is a valid role for both approaches, the important factor being that successful commissions of whatever longevity depend upon an intelligent, informed curatorial approach and respect for their context—physical and sociological.
The point is that budgets for public art—in all its forms—now provide a major income stream for artists, and some of the various sources generating such budgets are under threat.
At a time of record cuts in public services, and with the British government’s comprehensive spending review announcing a cut of nearly 30% to the Arts Council England budget, there is naturally a concern amongst some quarters that non-building-based arts organisations and gallery off-site programmes will be the first to be sacrificed. Satfle (the public art organisation for Wales, formerly Cardiff Bay Arts Trust) has had its funding cut completely; the Regional Development Agencies, also until recently a source of funding for public art, have been dissolved.
Budgets for art in the public realm are of course closely linked to public policy: for example, the removal of the Creative Partnerships programme for schools and the drastic cut to the Building Schools for the Future scheme from £55bn to £15bn, will curtail two important income sources for artists in residence and projects in schools— the very places where young people first experience art. Cuts in the health sector have already impacted on arts programmes in hospitals and redundancies have been made in such programmes as Look Ahead Housing and Care—again affecting artists’ incomes, let alone impacting on the long-proven patient benefits delivered through arts projects in the health sector.
Local authorities have also made redundancies in their arts teams and budgets, Southampton City Council’s public art officer being one such recent loss. Changes in local political regimes have meant projects such the highly regarded proposal by the French artist John Aldus for Derby City Council have come to an abrupt halt. Cuts in the transport sector have affected excellent commissions in progress by the artists Paul Morrison and Toby Paterson for the Docklands Light Railway, unless match funding can be found quickly. With the reigning back of planning policies and cut in funding to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, local authorities’ negotiating powers to insist on public art as an essential element of new developments will diminish.
Westminster City Council has recently abolished the work of its long-standing Public Art Advisory Panel, which for the past 15 years has given expert advice free-of-charge on all the many applications the council receives for permanent and temporary public art in the borough, ranging from the Serpentine Pavilions and the Fourth Plinth programme through to contemporary monuments and memorials. This is purely a token, cosmetic cut, but it is feared the demise of this expert panel will make it harder for Westminster’s officers to turn down mediocre proposals for public art (of which there are all too many), and, by implication, it sends out the message to developers that public art is no longer taken seriously enough to merit the rigorous process of evaluation that was in place.
Any reduction in capital infrastructure budgets, regeneration agencies and development schemes in general will naturally diminish opportunities for public art. But whilst many developments are still going ahead, will the cuts mean that commissioners of future public art schemes are more likely to want a long-term return on their investment and will consequently tend towards more conservative approaches to public art, thus upsetting the current sophisticated breadth of practice in this field?
The US is witnessing both ends of the public art funding spectrum: whereas San Diego’s long-standing public art policy has been axed, the General Services Administration (GSA) has a surplus of $5.5bn in funds, a percentage of which is allocated to artists to make work for new construction projects and to conserve existing works in the collection, according to Charlotte Cohen, the fine art officer at the GSA. New York City's Percent for Art Program is busier than ever because the city is enforcing the Percent for Art law with all agencies. Sara Reisman, the director of the Percent for Art Program at New York City's department of cultural affairs, says, “We are not experiencing slashed public art budgets because our commissions are tied to larger construction projects which are moving forward.” This was confirmed by Danai Pointer, the director of external affairs for the department of cultural affairs, who said: “We’ve actually seen a 40% increase in funding for public art projects over the past few years.”
Of course, Percent for Art as a mechanism does not de facto lead to great art, in fact the reverse can be the case, but when excellent curators are appointed early on in the process, monies can be directed towards the funding of cutting edge permanent and temporary or process-based art commissions. Perhaps it is time the Arts Council England revived their dormant Percent for Art policy and, with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, used it to influence greater private sector support for public art—and perhaps create new models of public/private sector arts partnerships.
The writer is Director of Modus Operandi, an independent organisation curating permanent and temporary art in the public realm.
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