Artists Taking the Lead

In 2007 Ian Banks was commissioned by Art & Architecture Journal working in conjunction with the US publication Public Art Review to write two articles for Issue# 37 – Fall/Winter 2007 Volume 19 Number 1 THE PRESENT STATE: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The writing of both articles was co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme. The two articles were:

  • The Art of becoming Civil in Northern Ireland: Practice-Based Research at INTERFACE (Interview with Declan McGonagle, Director of INTERFACE, the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster – page 40)
  • Artists Taking the Lead: Visionary Shift in U.K. Arts Policy or Just Cultural Spin? (page 50)

Public Art Review is a publication of FORECAST Public Artworks and is the main American magazine covering public art activities. A catalog of their past issues  dating from 1989 (and including this issueare) are available online through the University of Minnesota’s UMedia Archive.

Scroll down to read: Artists Taking the Lead, which explored the sense that public art in England was then at a pivotal moment culturally and politically.

Artists Taking the Lead – Visionary shift in UK arts policy or just cultural Spin?

By Ian Banks

Public art has often been used for political ends. Its greatest expression was in a widespread use by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, leading eventually to a policy to install a public art of heroes and artists in every village of the new Soviet Union. Lenin himself apparently insisted that art in a revolutionary society should be temporary and avoid the creation of ‘hero cults’. The resulting Constructivist movement also dismissed ‘pure’ art in favour of an art used more as an instrument for social purposes – specifically the construction of a socialist system. The subsequent emergence of monumental sculpture in the Soviet Union came after the rise of Stalin.

Public art in the UK is currently at a much more benign cultural and political watershed – in the paradox of being torn between the cultural poles of ‘art for arts sake’ and a ‘target-driven arts’ agendas. Tantalisingly, in an age of subsidised arts spending cuts seen elsewhere, public art commissioning budgets appear to be getting bigger, more diverse and of higher profile. This is due no doubt to its funding patrons being drawn from ever wider of the arts and culture centre, although as a result, the conditional ‘small-print’ enforcing it is becoming increasingly political and economic in its terms. The burgeoning physical regeneration seen in Tony Blair’s Britain over the last 10 years has been a major feature here – including the political fall-out from the respective devolutions of power to Scottish, Welsh and most recently, Northern Irish Assemblies. The result has been a demand for iconic statement of varying scales, marking independent political freedoms and setting aspirations for future economic prosperity – be they country, province, region or urban centre based. This has been typified in England in the extreme recently, by The Northern Way’s 1 £4.5 million fast-track investment in public art – for the largely regional marketing and tourism aims of the North West, Yorkshire and North East Regional Development Agencies. Regional marketing and tourism also seems to be the driver for Landmark Wales, 2 a programme to attempt to harness £18m of public art funding into key ‘entry’ and ‘transitional’ points throughout Wales – potentially funded out of the Big Lottery Living Landmarks 3 programme. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the grass-roots social agendas of New Labour’s Sustainable Communities plan has also tasked the arts to engage difficult-to-reach groups, and to help create that elusive elixir of ‘Liveability’ and ‘Place-making’ – that good design and architecture apparently seems incapable of achieving on their own. Independent public art think-tank Ixia 4 certainly believes that public art can add value to the public realm, and that quality is achieved through a greater understanding of it. It is an understanding that is certainly improving through the committed work of such organisations, although it still has a long way to go.

With the recent replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, it will be interesting to see if this political shift has an immediate bearing on any cultural funding strategies within the UK – or indeed whether they can be sustained beyond the next General Election due in 2009/10. Newly appointed Culture Secretary James Purnell 5 certainly seems to think so, and has just vowed to release arts organisations from the pressure of what he has called “crude targets” to look at how the government can empower “artists and organisations to be the best”. Speaking recently at the National Portrait Gallery, Purnell spoke of an “open, iconoclastic culture” being a precondition for a modernising, tolerant country. “I see cultural policy as a pyramid – with participation the foundation, education the way up and excellence the apex” he said. Purnell also stated that Labour’s past insistence on using targets to widen access has resulted in a “dumbing down” of the arts. Therefore, with the Olympics due in London in 2012, 6 he believes that the UK now has its best chance in a generation to showcase to the world its truly unique cultural ambition and quality.

Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, has welcomed the new Secretary of State’s vision. Arts Council England also believe that the findings from its own recent Arts Debate 7 programme – the first large scale enquiry into how people in England define, engage with and value art and public investment in art – will provide a invaluable insight into how to realise such a cultural aspiration. Of the four governing Arts Councils of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each have their own cultural aims and objectives of course, but all will be drawn together inexorably as a result of the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics. In reality, that is both negatively through country-wide arts funding cuts enforced to pay for Olympic overspends; and positively through centrally-funded shared cultural programmes. As part of this, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games has recently announced a formal role for the funded arts sector in a Cultural Olympiad.8 As such, all four Arts Council’s will be asked to support something called Artists Taking the Lead, through which artists will be challenged to lead a celebration of the excellence, diversity, innovation and internationalism of the arts across the UK. As a part of this, twelve artists’ commissions – presumably public art in some form – will be “responding to and celebrating our local and national cultural life in each of the nine English regions and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales” and will create “great art in iconic and unexpected places”. Each commission will encourage collaboration across art forms, aspire to a legacy beyond 2012, and have the creative energy of children, young people and communities at its heart.

Culture Minister James Purnell’s belief in an “open iconoclastic culture” speaks the right language of course in opposing generally accepted beliefs and traditions, but is this his governments genuine ambition or is it yet more political ‘spin’ to attempt to buy into a fourth Labour term? Ironically it is the ‘spin’ of regional marketing and tourism agencies that often provides the most relaxed brief and the least conditional terms of public art engagement. The only rub with this comes with the fact that often the ‘hero cult’ that celebrity artists bring to big iconic art works can become something of an obsession to these uninitiated commissioners.

The rise in alternative public art approaches must be embraced to move things forward of course. Huge opportunities exist to push at these boundaries, and the Cultural Olympiad if scoped and funded innovatively could provide a much needed impetus here. For example, use of more temporary and integrated projects throughout the country could be considered – both on a macro and micro scale, and everywhere in between. Major projects with the ambition of Liverpool Biennial’s public art programme; 9 NVA’s Storr Project 10 and Half Life; 11 Artangel’s Margate Exodus; 12 and Royal de Luxe’s Sultans Elephant 13 could provide the ultimate example of challenging public art engagement on a mass-populist scale – whilst at grass roots level, integrated networks of public art initiatives like Channel 4’s Big Art Project, 14 could also show that socially-driven art agendas can deliver quality, challenge and meaning without artistic compromise. A debate in alternative public art policy and approaches must be enabled to help move these things forward. In the 4-year interim between Liverpool Capital of Culture in 2008 15 and London 2012 huge opportunities exist to push at these boundaries, through programmes like Artists taking the Lead and the Cultural Olympiad. It is therefore essential that the Governments Comprehensive Spending Review 16 and budget settlements of the devolved regions – all to be announced later in 2007 – be set up adequately to engage, inform and realise this vision. The pressure is therefore on for the four UK Arts Councils to consult and collaborate with each other to ensure that effective lobbying takes place. A generosity of funding, along with a genuinely innovative vision, could create a softer yet more challenging cultural antidote to a post-Angel and post-Blair Britain that, in public realm terms, has become somewhat obsessed with littering the country with the political statements of iconic gateways. So bring on a new cultural revolution in public art – and let us genuinely see artists placed at the lead in this cathartic process!

Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture –  +

The writing of this article has been co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme –

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