On April 11 in North Carolina, Glenn Harper, Editor of Sculpture Magazine and Bill Thompson, Editor of Landscape Architecture, and I meet to kick off the "Public Art 360" Conference. Click Here to Attend. In the next few weeks, I will publish some of my letters to Harper and Thompson in preparation for the dialogue.
Once in my life, I gave the same ten minute talk back to back. The same ideas were written for different audiences: 1. architects and 2. buyers of architect's services. Everything changed.
Like the other public arts - movies, architecture, landscape, graphic design and fashion -, public art has extremely different conceptual structures for the visual or cultural critic and for the casual, yet serious observer or participant. And in the middle is the third point of view: the public buyer of public art.
Visual/Cultural Critic: Very little writing. Most serious writing focuses on temporary works that engage the social/cultural connect of the physical place or community. Almost no serious writing on permanent works except when prominent museum artists are commissioned. But this is also rare and many of the museum artists ignore the context in permanent works. The top professional public artists are more likely to receive critical assessment from the design critics (architecture, landscape, city planning) than art critics.
Casual, yet Serious Observer: A lot of published writing in local newspapers and online that focuses on the person of the artist, the method by which the artwork came into being and the opinions of citizens and visitors regarding the artwork. Generally if the artist is known personally and the making of the art was participatory, the opinions will be positive. If the work was selected and installed, the story will be initiated by negative opinions. Ignoring the "government should not spend $$ on art or overpaying for art", the negative opinion is "Not appropriate to this community" relating to the content or specific execution of that content. Another true and valuable concern of the casual observer: the very limited government dollars for art should be spent intelligently.
Public buyer of public art: The buyers started as an introduction of museum art to the general public (education function) and enhancing our public spaces with contemporary artwork (visual function) as had been typical of Roman culture and the neo-classical plaza and city design. In the 70's buyer's tried homemade work from the community as did the landscape architects. In the mid-80s, the buyer's changed from neo-classical role to a more universal role of decorating the architecture in collaboration with post-modernism. In the mid-90's, the buyers started purchasing from "professional public artists". Today, enhancing the pedestrian experience dominates plus the buying civic icons of a grandscale for the tourist photograph.
As I look over the list above, I realise that I write from the position of the public buyer of public art. What are new products and new methods? Who has a fresh way of thinking about public art? What intellectual framework exists for public art evaluation? Joyful and angry observations. When my blog sparks a dialogue, it is usually about the validity of the method or elements of the evaluation.
Who is writing for the casual but serious observer? Is everyone ignoring the client? Or is the "general" client an impossible task when the functional and fiscal excuses are removed? Does the best public art only appear where a sub-group of the general public is identified as the client and that is OK within the local political system?
FREEE on Thomas Heatherwick sculpture in UK.
For further thoughts, see the dialogue on IXIA, public art think tank, in the UK. David Patten on the failure of public art agencies to let artists fully participate in the early stages of facility planning despite the appearance of participation. The FREEE artists have fun providing labels for public art. Lorraine Leeson, a community oriented public artist, creates the best list of myths and hopes related to public art.
The Arizona Republic has created an online opinion of 20 works created for Phoenix since 1988. After you vote for each work, you can see the results. All works are recieving supporting from greater than 50% of the voters.