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Public Art: A Good Investment or a Waste of Taxpayers' Money?

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Public art is once again in the forefront of people's minds with the upcoming Olympics in London. Outside the stadium in Stratford rises the AncelorMittal Orbit which will be the tallest sculpture and the largest piece of public art in the UK. Standing at 115 meters tall the sculpture by Anish Kapoor is also an 'observation tower' in the Olympic Park. The Orbit has cost £22.7million of which £3.1 million was contributed from public money.

This week New Culture Forum (NCF) published a report into public art which investigates whether such commissions should be paid for by taxpayers. In What's That Thing? Igor Toronyi-Lalic argues that public art has become an increasingly ubiquitous and controversial presence. He writes that commissions tend to be from local councils or committees which result in poor quality works where banality has replaced originality.

The Orbit is a case in point. Having seen it last week I can assure you it looks even worse than the photographs. It is an uninspiring piece of scaffolding which has no links to its environment and says nothing about the surrounding area or community. The work claims to be a permanent legacy of the Olympics but the title says it all. The work is a vanity project for an individual wealthy patron. As Lakshmi Mittal himself admits, "ArcelorMittal would not have sponsored it if it was not made of steel". Shockingly the tower also charges the public to visit it as an attraction. The hefty entry fee is not even included for those who have purchased tickets to an Olympic event within the park.

Of course there are numerous other bad examples of public art. Toronyi-Lalic rightly identifies in his report Paul Day's The Meeting Place at St Pancras station. This bronze sculpture has been attacked by both critics and members of the public. In this instance, the problem lay with the commissioning body, London and Continental Railways (LCR), who wanted a sculpture that would create an atmosphere where people would want to shop and spend money in the station. The brief sent to the artist stated that Days should make "a bronze sculpture which must not take up more than 4.5 metres of floor, must be as iconic and memorable as the Statue of Liberty, and must emphasise the romantic nature of train travel". This is an example of where artistic merit has been abandoned. Quality was sacrificed for commercial motivations.

Public art has also been hailed as transformative in regeneration projects across the country. Governments have frequently attempted to link regeneration and public art. NCF's report discusses the London Docklands where a public art strategy was adopted as part of an urban regeneration project in the city. Huge amounts of money have been dedicated to artistic commissions in cities across the UK.

A few years ago I wrote a report on public art for Newcastle University looking at sculptures on the quayside commissioned during the 1990s by the Tyne and Wear Corporation (TWDC). If you visit Newcastle today you can still see these works such as The Blacksmith's Needle (1997). This monstrous large sculpture is formed of sections which each contain objects relating to the six senses. In an attempt at public engagement and "community cohesion" the objects were made in public "forge-ins" with a maritime theme.

Another example of poor public art, funded by local government, is Andre Wallace's River God (1996). This sculpture depicts a male torso sitting on top of a steel column apparently blowing at the Siren. The work is set in the middle of a roundabout at the centre of East Quayside and was funded by TWDC as part of Newcastle's regeneration project. £165 million was spent on regeneration and public art in the quayside.

Should such a large amount of money be spent on art when it could be better spent on local public services such as health and education? As part of my research I conducted a questionnaire into public art on the quayside. Very few people recognised images of the public art commissions. No one could name either the artist or the titles of the works.

I interviewed Wallace and asked him if he felt that the public should be involved in public art commissions. Not only did the artist feel strongly that we should have no involvement but he also admitted he did not consult the public for his commission:

"I didn't because it's impossible. I mean, who does the public mean? I suppose that involves you and me. The best thing is for the artist to come up with an idea otherwise you have far too many people involved... There is never going to be a consensus of ideas and how exactly do you involve the public anyway? Go and canvass people?!".

Many artists who have been commissioned by local government believe that the most successful public art works are those which do not involve public input.

However, there are also positive examples of public art. The Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley has been hugely popular and become a local landmark. The steel sculpture of an angel in Tyneside, overlooking the A1, has been transformed into a visual symbol for the North East. This sculpture was funded from a variety of sources including the Arts Council, European Regional Development Fund and private sponsorship.

NCF's report suggests that public art is of dubious quality because of the nature of commissioning works and because their goal is to be a public service. This is not always the case.
Recent commissioning groups such as the Fourth Plinth have demonstrated the strengths of public art. Since the nineteenth century the plinth had stood vacant after an equestrian statue was never installed. In 1998 works were commissioned from contemporary artists to appear on the plinth. The site has now become home to a series of temporary installations.

Works such as Gormley's One & Other have proved very popular and challenged the meaning of public art. He used the plinth for a hundred consecutive days and, instead of exhibiting an artwork, selected 2400 members of the public to spend one hour on the plinth at a time. Other well received works include the current sculpture by Elmgreen and Dragset Powerless Structures of a boy on a rocking horse and Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle.

The Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group has breathed new life into the debate about the contribution that public art makes to the quality of streets and civic spaces. This example also reinforces the major argument of the NCF report that bureaucrats should not be put in charge of commissioning public art. If we want to create quality art which is a good investment of taxpayer money then we need to abolish local government public art officers and prevent politicians, quangoes and other interested groups from dictating the commissioning process. I therefore support Toronyi-Lalic's idea of creating a Fine Art Commission composed of artists, curators and gallerists to review, to guide and control the creation of public art.

Public art can make a valuable contribution to our cultural landscape but it cannot do these things unless it is good work. In an era of reduced government spending we need to make sure that we are only investing in quality contemporary art.

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