The world needs public art for one simple reason. Public art challenges and changes our perceptions, it creates joy, pleasure, pain, excitement and incites argument and discussion. These are elements of a healthy, functioning community. They are signs of a growing and healthy community. That is the social impact of public art.
In addition to the social and health impacts there are economic benefits. Some of those economic benefits are associated with the health and social impacts. A healthy, happy community consumes less health, policing, imprisonment, domestic issues. Visitors to public art spend money in the vicinity of that art. Public art contributes towards creating a place where people, both domestic and international tourists, want to visit.
A concern for those, usually local government, concerned with development of public art is that no matter what process they engage in, what the artwork is, who the artist is or what it represents; at least initially as many people will hate the outcome and like it. Public art has a tendency to polarise communities. I believe this is a good thing. Art that fails to incite feedback can be said to be boring and is essentially a waste of public funding.
Effective public art helps to shape the identity of a community. It becomes a memory for visitors, features in tourism marketing and turns up on Instagram feeds worldwide. Really interesting, yes even controversial public art is capable of generating a volume of media exposure that would be beyond the marketing budget of even the most enlightened local government.
Public art is not inexpensive. Even the apparent simplest of art installations can cost tens of thousands of dollars – this is taxpayers money, unless provided for through commercial sponsorship. Taxpayer detest seeing their rates and taxes being used upon something that pisses them off. Yet, there is value in public art doing just that.
Another issue can be the artist, central to the artistic process, is often the least consulted stakeholder. Local government often treat the development of public art in the same way as they treat tarsealing a road. This is not entirely unexpected. A role of local government is to provide residents with value for their rates and taxes. When local government focus on roads, rubbish and recreation then value is easily defined. Just ask someone whose rubbish has not been collected!
Public art on the other hand can create headaches for local government and by turning to proven purchasing models, council officers hope to minimise those headaches. This can leave the artist in the cold. Trying to create good public art from a tender document is about as inspiring as asking someone out on a date while wearing your favourite childhood sweater. Artists should be involved in the public art process from the outset, providing ideas, informing creative discussions, engaging with the public and understanding the relationship between public funding and public art.
Local government should seek to identify ways to engage the artistic community at the earliest opportunity as opposed to creating a competition amongst artists which is then ‘judged’ by experts. Public art should be an inclusive practice; one where both the artistic community and the broader community, along with local government are equal partners in the process.
I’m John Coxon, founder of art4u.australia, a consulting agency guiding arts organisations in remaining viable through application of The Cycle a proven organisational activity model for arts organisations. We also work with local government to prepare public art strategic policy and plans. Email John.