How should public art be chosen?

RICHARD WHITE

The artist, public art gallery curator and public art juror says
HIRE AN ART CURATOR

While most new public art flies under the radar, every once in a while a piece of public art is hated by almost everyone. Think “Travelling Light” (a.k.a. the giant blue ring) and “Bowfort Towers” (rocks and girders) in Calgary, or “Talus Dome” (the pile of chrome balls) in Edmonton. Whenever a controversial piece of art goes up, immediately anti-public-art advocates ask, “How did that piece get chosen?”

In most cases the process in Alberta for choosing public art is complex. It involves inviting artists to submit a CV, some past project documentation and a letter of interest. Then someone from the commissioning government chooses people to be on the jury, usually a couple of art professionals (artists, curators, gallery directors or art writers), a city representative and a couple of people from the community at large.

The jury reviews the submissions and narrows it down to three or four artists who may visit the site, meet with stakeholders (sometimes the community) and then submit a detailed proposal. Sometimes these are shared with the public at an open house, sometimes not. The jury is then reconvened and asked to pick one of the proposals.

I propose that cities streamline public art programs by engaging a Public Art Curator to choose the artwork. The curator would consult the community, city professionals and politicians, but ultimately it would be their decision as to what art goes where. The Public Art Curator would replace the current Public Art Coordinator (or some similar title) who, while typically having some art background, doesn’t have the same credentials and contacts in the arts community to identify and choose appropriate artists.

The curator would research the site, meet with the community, understand the existing sense of place and how it might be enhanced with a piece of public art in a more rigorous manner than a jury would. Often jurors haven’t visited the site or met with the community.

Another weakness of the jury system is that even if no proposal is appropriate, the jurors feel obliged to select a couple of artists for the next step. In theory they don’t have to choose any of the proposed artworks—in reality they always do.

Even with a Public Art Curator you’re never going to make everyone happy. But if you want to build a great public art collection you need a vision and a champion, which the curator would be. Currently each public art piece is a separate project with no connectivity and synergies between works. Nobody takes ownership and accountability for the art chosen. When a piece is controversial, everyone says “The process and guidelines were followed” or “The jury made the decision.”

Cities would also save money, as you wouldn’t have juror fees (typically an honorarium) or the cost of flying and hosting three or four artists for every sculpture competition to see the site and meet stakeholders.

 

CIARA MCKEOWN

The public art curator, director, commissioner and project manager says
INVOLVE THE PUBLIC

The question highlights a fundamental issue in the perception and understanding of public art—that everything is about a final outcome; typically, a permanent object. It assumes that the artwork’s selection is more important than the process by which the art comes to exist and what it contributes during its lifespan. Art is a process. It is a question, a provocation, a revelation and an opportunity to understand and see something differently in a particular context over time.

To consider the process rather than the selection illuminates a broader picture. Most municipal public art programs commit 1 per cent of eligible capital costs to public art. The artwork must be sited on or in proximity to the infrastructure or development. These limits, strict procurement procedures and the nature of the city’s acquiring a permanent asset determine the commission’s parameters, narrowing artists’ possibilities from the outset. But if we rethink the process, the question would be not about how to select art but why we’re doing it. And that needs a new answer.

We can rethink the approach by reframing public art as a chance to consider place, context and meaning rather than as “decorative” design or an “enhancement” that fulfills a policy. Answering “Why public art?” with the expertise artists bring to the conversation invites new perspective. Artists can make more meaningful contributions when each public art opportunity is approached with discernment and critical thinking, including questioning if public art is the right thing for the particular situation. Commissions must begin with a willingness to take risks, experiment and connect to the public art program’s overall vision and collection. No project stands alone.

An artist needs time to get to know a place and the context of the commission. Longer timelines allow for consideration of the artwork’s lifespan and for richer relationships between artists, publics and project teams. This is a slow process. Adaptability and flexibility are necessary for responsive public art.

How “public” is defined is crucial. It’s often not discussed between the artist, the municipality and its citizens but defined by the artwork’s location, with a “community” identified around that. “Community” can mean many things and change with each context and over time. Who gets to speak for that community? How and why would you attempt to represent the views of an arbitrary group of people in one artwork? Having relevant publics be defined by and work with the artist throughout the process would create meaningful connections.

The best public art engages the artist from the start. They’re respected, contribute equally, have agency to be creative and shape the process and project just as other professionals do (engineers, architects, designers etc.). When an artist isn’t seen as a miraculous social saviour or a mere “enhancer” of what’s already completed, new possibilities emerge. Otherwise the outcome is predetermined, imposed and often misses the mark.

 

RICHARD WHITE RESPONDS TO CIARA MCKEOWN

No matter who chooses public art, they must be cognizant of what the final product will look like and how it will be received by the various public(s). Indeed, the public is very heterogeneous. In the 1980s Duncan Cameron, president and CEO of the Glenbow, said we should pluralize the word public given the diversity of people it represents.

While public art doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, it should have some broad-based appeal, as it is being placed in a public space and paid for with taxpayer dollars. The art can be controversial as long as the dialogue it creates is constructive—not about how the art is meaningless or how much it cost. The art should have almost an equal number of people who like it, love it and hate it.

From the public’s perspective public art is about the product, not the process. The art suddenly appears on a bridge, on the side of a highway, in a plaza or park. The majority don’t care how it was created or chosen; they just want public art to enhance their urban experience.

A telling example is Calgary’s “Travelling Light,” a.k.a. Giant Blue Ring. The vast majority of Calgarians don’t know or care what the piece’s real title is. When I share with them some of the underlying meanings and symbolism they just shrug and say “I still don’t get it.” The piece has been too tainted by the early debate about a “meaningless” blue circle, on a bridge, in the middle of nowhere.

The City of Calgary’s website doesn’t help. “The sculpture represents the most iconic symbol of movement, the wheel,” it reads. “The arches of the street lamps rise from the apex, clearly and unequivocally anchoring the sculpture, while at the same time evoking the notion of constant movement. This dual meaning is reflective of the character of a bridge—a fixed, connecting location that serves movement and travel…The radiant colour refers to the sky, which is always in the background, and contrasts with the bridge’s other functional elements.”

Does anybody really get this from looking at the piece as you drive by in a couple of seconds or see it from a distance?

Now look at “Wonderland,” a.k.a. Giant Head, by Jaume Plensa, on the plaza in front of Calgary’s Bow building. Again, the public doesn’t care that it was chosen by a seven-member jury or that it has 12,000 intersections connected with saddle welds or that the artist is Spanish. They see a giant ghost-like head that you can wander inside, which you can’t help but do when you visit. The art engages the public. It makes them wonder in different ways about the human experience. What goes on inside our heads? The piece was immediately well received.

The same is true about the art in Edmonton’s Borden Park, especially “Willows,” by Marc Fornes. The piece looks intriguing and invites you to walk inside.

One of Calgary’s most successful pieces of public art is “By The Banks of the Bow,” by Bob Spaith and Rich Roenish, which depicts 15 bronze horses and two cowboys crossing the Bow River. At Stampede time the sculpture becomes a huge playground, as families climb on the horses, use it as a meeting place, and are at the same time subtly reminded of our ranching and pioneering history.

I disagree that “no project stands alone.” In fact, all public artworks must stand alone, as in most cases they aren’t installed side-by-side like at an art gallery or an art park—they are kilometres apart and the public will experience them months, perhaps years apart.

Choosing good public art is about choosing a work that engages the maximum number of people not only today but for generations. It must have a timeless quality. Public art must engage the public before it can educate or enlighten them.

If an artwork is immediately dismissed by most who see it, then it’s a failure. Whoever chooses public art must consider its immediate visual impact. It must capture people’s imagination and stimulate their curiosity to continue looking. Only then will the public think about the possible meanings. Only then will they be enticed to move around the piece to explore its different angles.

I agree we often expect too much of public art. Rarely can it transform an ugly or banal public space into something wonderful, or make driving a busy highway an enlightening experience. In fact, much of Alberta’s controversial public art is along highways, which are poor sites for public art.

Choosing public art is complex. It’s not a science. Mistakes will sometimes be made, no matter who chooses the art. Most art professionals on public art juries and the artists themselves have little understanding of how the average citizen experiences and thinks about public art. An out-of-town artist might meet with the community and see the site once or twice, but a true understanding only comes with longer-term engagement with the community and how it interacts with the site.

That’s where a curator can help, understanding the community’s and city’s sense of place. They can learn from past successes and failures and provide continuity.

Most don’t care how public art was created or chosen; they just want it to enhance their urban experience.

 

CIARA MCKEOWN RESPONDS TO RICHARD WHITE

Although I agree with some of Richard’s points, I wholeheartedly disagree with his characterization of “Travelling Light” and “Bowfort Towers.” “Travelling Light” is an easy target on a thoroughfare not of the artist’s choosing and was unveiled in an election season. “Bowfort Towers,” in particular its location on Paskapoo Slopes, symbolizes the need for nuanced, ongoing conversations about public art and civic space, especially with Indigenous peoples.

How can a claim be made that “almost everyone” has a certain opinion, and how is this determined? How do we define “controversy”? Is blaming two projects and the artists behind them for a general lack of awareness of civic processes fair? It’s important to consider how public art is characterized in our conservative media climate, one almost devoid of well researched, critical discourse about public art. Recent issues in Calgary public art are part of larger systemic/structural problems: the way contemporary art is underfunded, misunderstood, unsupported and shrouded by mistrust.

Richard argues a public art curator would select more appropriate locations and address a lack of ownership and accountability in the selection process. But no one should be solely accountable or responsible for a public art program; the name implies communal stewardship. Municipalities must actively support and advocate for the public art process, policy, decision making and expertise of program staff, commissioned artists, external consultants, etc., and we all need to own it.

A fundamental issue is how we communicate about the artist, their process and the artwork. A thorough communications strategy understands the artist’s approach from beginning to end, rather than focusing on the finished art object in the designated location. Many public art criticisms are sparked by how we articulate the work to different audiences, how we don’t effectively engage people throughout the process. Ownership isn’t about checking a box or “liking” something; it’s about sharing in the public art process and civic discourse. A public art collection is built in perpetuity for people of a place, so people must be part of the whole journey.

A curatorial perspective could add a lot to a public art commissioning process, but not all curators are equal. A public art curator must bring a critical perspective to the art and artist and situate the process within broader contemporary art histories. She has an understanding of and interest in the public realm, a curiosity about systems, diverse cultures, histories and the changing dynamics of urban spaces. A public art curator desires respectful reciprocal relationships rather than a predetermined outcome. All of this takes time, context, sensitivity, strategic thinking, planning and bureaucratic finesse. Public art has a history. It involves site-based commissioning, material and conservation knowledge, collections management, etc.

Richard’s blanket replacement of public art program staff with a curator makes a lot of assumptions. We need to be careful about simply exchanging one expertise for another. If the program is to fulfill a mission, then it should hire to build a great public art collection by seeking very particular expertise specific to the context.

Every public art program is different, every artist works differently, each situational context is unique. So each commission needs its own approach, constructed in response to the specifics. If the process happens in the same way each time for every project, we assume we’ll be more transparent, accountable and better understood. But this blatantly disregards how artists work, how the art ecosystem functions and why we even commission public art in the first place. Consistency can be helped by thorough communications at every stage of the project. Creating dialogue about the artist and the process through varied means with specific and defined audiences rather than channelling generalized messages to homogeneous “communities” is part of building lasting understanding, knowledge and most importantly, trust.

Juror fees aren’t a cost but an investment. Best practice in the arts includes a critical peer-review process—a small price considering the gravity of the task. I agree with Richard that jurors need more knowledge and understanding of the project. This actually requires a more dedicated involvement, so that they’re coming from an informed place. Learning about the land and its many histories is also critical to understanding how an artist’s process would be situated in that place. Jurors must truly understand the artist’s perspective and practice and how she intends the work to live in the place, how it might evolve over time.

I hope we want more from public art than to “enhance” a place. This instrumentalizes art and artists to merely decorate. As much public art demonstrates, we can learn a lot from artists and the ways they understand the world. Decorating doesn’t do much for a place. But bringing in new ideas and ways of thinking and building meaningful relationships between people and artists does. Let’s aim higher.

 

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