Is Public Art Dead?

The following article features in the Winter 2019 issue (Volume 9 / Issue 39) of ‘Urban Realm’ the quarterly magazine and blog for Scottish architecture. This article discusses the present state of flux in strategic public art funding and priority in Scotland and England.

In his ‘Jonathan Jones on Art’ article for the Guardian in 2014, [1] the writer bemoaned the fate of Scotland’s public realm with its obsession for the mega scale of public art as seen in The Kelpies. Andy Scott’s massive £5m horse sculpture in Falkirk, as funded by Big Lottery Fund, Falkirk Council and Scottish Canals, was he said, just a pile of horse poo: “We think we live in an artistic golden age, but these will be our monuments: towering inanities the Victorians would have blushed to build” he concluded.

In October 2017, The British Property Federation (BPF), which operates in Scotland as the Scottish Property Federation (SPF), produced ‘A Guide to Commissioning Public Art’, [2] jointly with the Contemporary Art Society. This was to act as a wholly unexpected (but rather welcome) advocate for a far more subtle and sensitive degree of arts integration into our architectural fabric. The document makes the case that our developers today increasingly see the benefit in commissioning public art. As such, the guide sought to highlight best practice via a number of case studies and concluded with ‘10 Top Tips’ for commissioning. Generally speaking, all examples were permanent or semi-permanent works, either traditionally hung or otherwise integrated artworks and sculptures.

Whilst it was undoubtedly slick and on-the-money in terms of helping advocate the added-value to developers, the overriding points made in the guide rather masked the current state of play of far more strategic public art thinking (and public funding) throughout the UK today. Particularly so for a wider built environment industry not necessarily working on developer-led London projects, and not party to the shifting winds and fashions of arts advocacy & development bodies. Unsurprisingly, and notwithstanding the fact that the most northerly case study cited outside of London was NW Cambridge, the SPF’s only Scottish buy-in was to invite its own affiliates down to London to attend the launch of the guide and ‘The Art of Placemaking’ drinks reception. [3]

Moving things more up to date and also north of the border, the University of Dundee has been showcasing its own longstanding contribution to Scottish public art recently with the exhibition ‘Art for All – The Pioneering Story of Public Art in Dundee’ at the Lamb Gallery. [4] No one seems entirely sure of the exact sculpture-count, but there are now thought to be well over 300 artworks in public spaces around the city. The potential of culture to spearhead Dundee’s economic revival, seemingly began in 1981 with discussions between artists Liz Kemp and Robert McGilvray and planner Alan Lodge. Their remit initially concerned the crucial role of art to be used in a new programme of environmental improvements in the Blackness area of Dundee. Outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the city has very often taken a lead on public art historically. As recently as 2010, their curated event at centrespace called ‘Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland’ [5] consisting of three symposia looking at the artforms future throughout Scotland.

That event was devised by Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Visual Research Centre (VRC), and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD), University of Dundee, along with strategic support of Public Art Resource and Research Scotland (PAR+RS) and Creative Scotland. Interesting to note that just 9 years later, the latest Public Art Dundee project is now being led only by the University of Dundee with support from Dundee City Council, the Menzieshill Photography Group, Art UK and Historic Environment Scotland. So, what happened to chief advocates PAR+RS and Creative Scotland along the way?

The simple answer to this is that PAR+RS no longer exists as a development programme and online resource arm for Creative Scotland. It has also disappeared off the radar and without trace, along with Scottish Arts Council’s old Public Art Plan (although a web-based remnant to that exists still [6] ). In addition, separate funding strands like ‘Public Art Sited’ have been closed down since August 2014, in favour of more generic arts funding. In illustrating this fundamental shift, it is worth noting that in 2010-11, around £500,000 of National Lottery funds supported purely public art strands, whilst by February 2019 a total of only £790,000 of Lottery funding has been awarded across 31 recipients. Through Creative Scotland’s new catch-all ‘Open Project Fund’, [7] funded projects would now be considered across the whole gamut of artforms, and artists and organisations and would need to compete with one another for first priority and funding.

A similar story is to be told on the relative fortunes of public art ‘capital‘ funding in England too – and arguably even more extreme in the case of Arts Council England (ACE): Following the dropping of regular funding to national public art think tank Ixia in 2010, even a generic search today for an “public art” history looks to have been purged entirety from the ACE ether. This death-by-algorithm in effect has fallen under an arts organisation restructure and artform ‘rebrand’. It is what ACE alluded to in 2018 as the critical ‘New Rules’ for public art. [8] Their illustrative case study was only on the Bristol precedent of Situations, a ‘producing organisation’ for the public realm, but it seemed to infer more of a fundamental policy shift.

This sea change stemmed from the alleged “fact” maintained by Situations that despite the distinctiveness of any place desiring a public art strategy, the same obstacles and assumptions about “what public art should look like, what scale it should be, where it should be sited, and how long it should last”, usually frustrated any collaborative and productive processes at work. The result was , their pocket-sized book of 12 rules for making or commissioning public art, and which formed the basis of a national campaign called ‘Public Art Now’. Within the first month of publication, 20,000 posters had been downloaded world-wide. The slow shift had begun to consolidate the artform advocacy and move away from the procurement of more traditional permanent work to more temporary, ethereal engaged practices encompassing many artforms.

Following the loss of Ixia, other competing advocates like the national Arts and Place Consortium, emerged from the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment (2014). [9] This body has now been adopted as a working group of the Place Alliance and are also helping champion the role of artists and the arts in great placemaking and to lobby ACE, amongst others.

The Scottish equivalent of ACE with remaining responsibilities towards public art funding and policy today is Creative Scotland. As the development body for the arts and creative industries, this responsibility was inherited from Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council in 2010. But as an arts organisation it has had a very chequered history, ever since establishment. In 2012, 400 artists protesting over management led to the resignation of its then-chief Andrew Dixon. His replacement Janet Archer, was also forced to leave under a cloud in 2018, following a string of similar controversies over regular funding to the 2018-21 funding round. One major casualty in all this was of course the eminent arts organisation NVA, founded in 1992 by its director Angus Farquhar (and of course indirectly the plug was simultaneously pulled on NVA’s conversion plans for St Peter’s Seminary to an arts centre and performance space). So, along with board resignations and a Scottish Parliament committee hearing, came the promise to reform the funding processes. A series of 17 Public Conversation Events ensued to help critically inform the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. [10]  The cultural legacy for Scotland remains to be seen.

As things stand currently though, with the remainder of its 10-year plan, ‘Unlocking Potential, Embracing Ambition’, [11]5 ambitions frame Creative Scotland’s collective aims up to 2024.  Of these, the 3rd ambition to transform places and quality of life through “imagination, ambition and an understanding of the potential of creativity” is most pertinent for public art. With a focus on partnership working with communities, development of creative infrastructure and ever-more socially engaged practice is seen as stimulating more public engagement and value.

Reading between the lines, and with tighter purse strings on non-developer-led regeneration projects at least, this probably means less public art bolted-down and more artist-led temporary ethereal works or hybrid collaborations resulting in useable creative infrastructure (for example, The Bothy Project has recently received new ‘Open Project Funding’ from Creative Scotland for 8 new artist residencies on Eigg). [12]

Even before the loom of a potential hard Brexit and separate talk of imminent global downturns, the funding justification for significant public art capital was anyway already under extreme pressure on both economic and cultural fronts. Add to the austerity measures to cultural services, including the loss of local authority public art jobs, with the challenges on the ability of the planning obligations of Section 75 Agreements to ever fund public art anyway (via the ‘Planning Circular 3/2012: Planning obligations and good neighbour agreements’). [13] The net result in our public realm at least, is that the funding of any permanent sculpture is moving towards the developer as seller, rather than local authority (acting on behalf of the community) as consumer.  It is possible the current Planning (Scotland) Bill: Proposed Infrastructure Levy published in 2017 might change things on the cultural funding front, although it seems unlikely as a form of local taxation. Even the Scottish Parliament have described its potential as a “blunt tool” that local authorities use to place a heavy, and increasingly unviable, reliance on the private sector to fund infrastructure improvements.

So how might these changes apply to more free market, neo-liberalist approaches with property developers potentially commissioning unconditional art along BPF / SPF lines? Difficult to judge with the public realm in our cities coming increasingly under the management of that thing called ‘pseudo public space’ or ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS). Not known as creative risk-takers, and with gentrification and de-cluttering of these civic spaces often over-planned, it remains to be seen how much any new ‘rules’ to public art might begin to apply. Whatever happens, it is unlikely that we will ever return to the Big Lottery Funding superficialities of The Kelpies and the ‘biggest-is-best’ movement. Maybe that is no bad thing.














Categories: Writing

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