Only a day left to listen to this debate about public art on Radio 4's Today programme which was broadcast last Thursday, 16th August: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lv4nd (listen 2hrs 45 minutes into the programme).
Andrew Shoben from artists Greyworld and Ian Leith representing the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) were interviewed by James Naughtie. It must have been a slow news week as they gave it 5 minutes' time and Andrew has been making the same argument for ages; he made a programme about the same subject which was broadcast in October 2011, 10 months ago.
The discussion centred around the recent 'surge' in public art commissioning, and whether this explosion is a bad thing or, in the words of Ian Leith, an 'undocumented Renaissance'. For a start they are rather late in coming to this, seeing as the 'explosion' of public art they discuss has come to a rather abrupt halt given the reduction in large developments (which is how a lot of public art is commissioned) happening in the UK over the last few years. What has become more prevalent over the last ten years or so is inclusive events-based theatricals and temporary works or spectaculars, often those that can involve people (and therefore add ,000s to the Arts Council's numbers of 'engagement' with the arts.) These include projects such as the Sultan's Elephant (2006), Turning the Place Over (2007 - 2011) and the Fourth Plinth programme in London. Is anyone remotely surprised that Mark Wallinger's giant horse for Ebbsfleet, which won the design competition back in 2009, has not materialised yet, given the expected costs are now in the region of £12m? Let's face it, permanent public art commissioning is not as sexy, not as fleeting, and people get bored of it after a while.
So Andrew talks about the lack of a decommissioning process for public art, with which I agree. Although this is not exactly a new argument (see article on Public Art Online website by Hazel Colquhoun dating back to 2006) it is not true to say that nowhere has a decommissioning process.
Andrew advocates a 'rotate or retire' approach. While retiring can be a good thing, more to the point, why is terrible public art being commissioned in the first place? Retiring suggests that there are tastemakers out there who will decide what will stay and what will go - who will these esteemed persons be? And what right have they to say what is good and what is bad for the nation? Are they like public art doctors, administering to our needs? This may be a slightly facile argument, but just because an artwork is bad, or perhaps unadventurous, it does not in itself mean that the artwork is not loved or cared for - and does that mean it is still bad or worthy of being retired? Some may argue that it is not great art, it is certainly not edgy or exciting from a contemporary art point of view, but Morecambe's local authority has always cared for its cosy, jolly, inoffensive Eric Morecambe statue, which has a regular annual maintenance programme and is a source of local pride that tourists have their photos taken next to. While this is not particularly a case I want to make, I do think there is an element of snobbery about this tastemaking approach of artworks being retired. On the other hand, if there is bad art being commissioned in the first place, why not make sure it is stopped before it can get to this stage? What are the criteria for a 'good' public artwork? Can a statue which raises a smile be good on that basis, even if it is not at the cutting edge in art terms?
As for 'rotating', I think Andrew has missed the point here. This approach might work for artworks plonked in the public realm by well known artists which have no relation to their site (take some pre-existing Tony Craggs being dumped on Exhibition Road by Sculpture at Goodwood Sept-Nov 2012), but this does not work for what I see as contemporary permanent public art, which is genuinely site-specific and responsive to a place. In other words, if you put it anywhere else, it wouldn't have the same resonance as it was specifically designed for the location in which it was sited, with that context in mind. If it's a really great artwork it might have an entirely different resonance, but that would be in relation to its earlier site. Take Dream in St Helen's, an artwork created on the site of an old colliery through working with a group of ex-miners who were initially sceptical. Generally speaking, we have moved on from the commemorative bronze men on horses which could be rotated because their meaning is usually distinct from their location, and therefore the location could be interchangeable. (Well, mostly we have moved on. There are still a few figurative sculptors who make commemorative work in bronze and are pretty vociferous in trying to get it paid for by local trusts who want to recognise a famous person's connection with a place.)
Some artworks which do not specifically relate to or respond to site can still be successful, by forming a contrast with, or challenging, their site or location. The Fourth Plinth project was mentioned by Andrew in the programme, which sites a rotating display of artworks by contemporary artists in the historic environment of Trafalgar Square, alongside a number of commemorative bronzes and indeed Nelson's column. (It is notable that the Fourth Plinth commissions are only rotating in the sense that they are temporarily in Trafalgar Square, and then they go - I'd love to see some of these artworks being later displayed in other places in the UK, like the Artist Rooms programme has done for galleries, sharing the wealth.) But this in itself is quite an interesting case because generally speaking no one displays contemporary artwork on plinths in galleries any more. If they do it is usually older artworks (pre 1970s conceptual art), or else some sort of comment is usually being made by the artist about the placing of artwork on a pedestal. The 'fourth plinth' was left empty after a proposed bronze artwork never materialised. In other words, the context is historic, and the contemporary commissions are a temporary intervention into this place and context, which is heavily laden with the layers of history which proceeded it.
There is a different case to be made if the context in which a piece of public art was sited has changed so much that it no longer relates to the context - where public art has become irrelevant, I'm all for getting rid of, or moving it. Unless it can make sense somewhere else, what's the point in keeping it? Over the years I've had various discussions with people around starting up a bad art graveyard - I still think there's a potential project in there somewhere.
Ian Leith makes the point that there is no national database or audit of public sculpture, something that the PMSA advocates for. He asks why local authorities are reluctant to put information online. I would argue there are several answers to this: a) they don't actually know what they have, and try not to think about it because it usually throws up costs and problems b) publicising where your (currently very valuable) bronzes and assets might be could inspire the wrong kind of (criminal) enthusiasm for art; and c) because local authorities would then need to invest in paying someone to produce an audit. In turn, recognising that there are issues would push the local authority to demonstrate that they advocate an enlightened approach to public art commissioning, which is most likely to lead to them employing an officer to lead on this aspect of work. Local authorities struggle to do work like this because times are tight and generally the voting public don't regard looking after artworks (and commissioning new ones) as a priority in their area, at least when compared to other things such as schooling and healthcare.
The best commissioners of permanent public art are those who care about the quality of art (both intellectually and materially) they are commissioning; are brave enough to put their necks on the line to commission something new and exciting, and say that they think something is good when they see that it is; spend enough on the budget to ensure the work is well made and, as far as possible, will survive in the environment it is designed for; and invest in looking after (ie maintaining) the artworks in the long term. Unfortunately all of these qualities are rare, and often fall between several organisations and individuals, particularly given the long term attention required. Perhaps ironically, best practice is more common on privately owned land or developments, such as shopping centres, where there is a commercial incentive for the owner's assets to look their best.
I would agree with Ian Leith that our attitude to public art is lax, because it is hardly anyone's priority, yet everyone has an opinion about it. It is a shame that there is no national audit of public artworks, but perhaps if more local authorities like Lancaster City Council can commission an audit of their artworks we will start to be more aware of what we have, what could be rotated, what should be retired, and where we should be going in the future.