|This is what you get when you put bureaucrats in charge of public art|
In the former mining town of St Helens, a £2?million, 66?ft head bulges out of the ground. On the approach to the new town of Cumbernauld, a 33?ft busty silver mermaid gestures
at passers-by like a Vegas barmaid. In Northumberland, £2?million of landscaping will see a 400?ft, naked “green goddess” (to be called “Northumberlandia”) emerge. Thanks to the Cultural Olympiad, half a million pounds’ worth of hand-crocheted lions will soon grace the streets of Nottingham.
Writing about the visual arts is a fraught business, full of subjective prejudices and competing ideas of value and taste. Yet nothing unites the country in mutual horror more than the many hundreds of publicly funded works of art that have arisen over the past two decades in housing estates and municipal squares, parks and villages, redeveloped quaysides and decommissioned pits, roundabouts and hospital atriums. The critics loathe them. The art world ignores them. The public walks by, at best unstirred, at worst in fury.
My report on the subject, What’s That Thing?, is published next week by the New Culture Forum and reveals a public art industry that has little or no connection to the public it presumes to serve, but that comes at a multi-million pound cost to the taxpayer.
The public art industry in England alone was thought to be worth £56?million last year. Of this, £7?million will have been spent employing 210 local government public art officers. The Arts Council England will have spent another £4?million simply on arts commissioning quangos and many millions more on one-off grants. Hospital PFI schemes are responsible for some of the most prodigal public art spending. An estimated £100?million has been spent over a decade. This year marks the apogee of this 20-year binge: the Cultural Olympiad has subsidised a £6?million spread of box-ticking public art. And a further £3.1?million has been funnelled into the widely criticised Anish Kapoor act of gigantism in the Olympic Park.
There is such a thing as good public art. Richard Wilson’s Turning the Place Over and Richard Serra’s Fulcrum are bold triumphs. But for every work of imagination and power, there are 10 more that beg to be ignored and forgotten. This is because the public art industry, as it is currently configured, rarely has artistic merit as its guiding principle.
Public art today is justified and commissioned on the grounds that it will fulfil a public service. Artists and artworks are chosen on the grounds that they might be able to foster “community cohesion”, bring in investment or boost property prices. Public art has come to be seen as a cure for society’s and architecture’s ills. One public art strategy in Hastings proclaims, in all seriousness, that its aim is to “reduce death rates from circulatory disease (coronary heart disease and stroke) and cancer in people under 75”.
Of course, these claims are without foundation. There is no evidence that public art in hospitals has been beneficial for patient recovery, though there is plenty to show that a cheaper option of leafy views and soothing music would have been. There is no evidence that erecting a statue improves land values, leads to higher employment or increases GDP. In the North East – the site of some of the most profligate public art spending in the country – they know this all too well. And communities are hardly ever brought closer together through the siting of public art. In fact, nothing does more to damage the body politic than the erection of these symbols of government waste.
Bogus claims have been elevated over the one detail that does matter: quality. Public art will achieve nothing if it is not good. Yet everything about the process by which public art is commissioned in Britain today militates against the commissioning of good artists and the creation of good art. And this is because the commissioning process is in the hands of those who know little (if anything) about good contemporary art: politicians, bureaucrats, private developers, the regeneration industry, arts quangos and local pressure groups.
Public art could regain its artistic integrity by disentangling itself both from the extra-artistic aims of the Arts Council and the commercial imperatives of private developers. Those few organisations that have already achieved this – like the fiercely independent Artangel – reap the artistic rewards. Furthermore, politicians and bureaucrats should never be in charge of the commissioning process. And it is absurd that councils have had the ability to veto developments if the developer wasn’t willing to commission public art. Instead, a less coercive and more organic process should be encouraged, in which 21st-century versions of public subscription (like crowd funding) are harnessed to create a real public link.
A check on artistic quality is also paramount. To do this, a body similar to the old Royal Fine Art Commission is required. A National Public Art Commission, which is suggested by the report, would be made up of a panel of artists, curators and gallerists and would review and guide and control Britain’s public art. There should also be a process by which the public can trigger the decommissioning of pieces of public art that have failed. This way, there could be the sort of communal celebration in demolition that used to accompany the installation of public memorials in the 19th century. If not in their erection then in their dismantling, public artworks may yet make a contribution to social cohesion.