Towards a Collaborative Public Art

Seems we are so accustomed to hearing ‘courage’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘changes our way of looking at art’, is innovation overdone? Is there really such an abundance of improvement of our aesthetic experience? Is it like mobile phones, which pack more and more in smaller and smaller form? Does all of this innovation in art change our lives?
I am in agreement with Wayne Thiebauld when he says, ‘I am more interested in painting than art’.

"The painting, not the art"

“The painting, not the art”


When thinking about public art, maybe we can think more in terms of creativity than art – in particular, a collaborative experience of the creative. When we see one of those monumental trademark public works, we can nod and appreciate the grandeur and ambition, and we recognise the name and feel more cultured. And maybe it generates tourism or a regenerative effect on a neglected area. All very positive. However, when a work like this misses the mark, it becomes another testament to ambition and hubris.


Fighting a losing battle

Where is Public Art ?

Thinking of public art in the city, it is often placed in a public space like a civic building a school, library, or else an open space like a square or park. Leaving aside what might be appropriate for countryside, in a town square it is impossible to ignore advertising – whether the incessant branding of the shops, huge billboards, or illuminated signs. The experience of public space is no longer about a homogeneous renaissance piazza with sculptures of genius dotted about.


No, sometimes the ’grand gesture’ is fighting a losing battle.  And heroism is definitely out of fashion. So then what shall we celebrate? Often it is the notion of art itself, or worse than that the artist himself. Confronted with the amazing grand statement of contemporary architecture, sculpture can become a poor cousin.

Where is Public Art?

One natural home for public art in townscapes is in a municipal park. But with the changing streets, even the oasis of ‘nature’ is changed. Even in a grand park like Central Park, the buildings rise over the trees. Probably what we want is less hubris and more harmony. That is why Bethesda Fountain is so enjoyable – it is reassuringly calm due to the patina of age. We no longer concern ourselves with the ego of an artist or with the mythological subject.


Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, NYC

We don’t really care about the symbolism of the “Angel of the Water”. But the space is marked and enhanced.


In contemporary public work, a slightly more modest approach might actually have lots more impact over time. Things like transport hubs, public entrances, parks and the general street environment are all potential focal points for adding presence to public space.  The innovation is more about finding unexpected sites in the build environment, and the (communal) creative process itself, including engagement with a shared creativity.  The physical structures which remain add another essential dimension to the process. The artist with other professionals should make certain it is of the very highest quality, safe and durable . A bonding and ownership of the finished project is an inevitable end result. Such things as ‘innovative’, challenging’, and a re-evaluation of art itself might be irrelevant. After all, the project is humanising a town environment, as well as making tangible a combined creative effort.


If the purpose of a sculpture is a celebration of art, then why not a celebration of all creativity? Consider the delight offered to hundreds of parents and children at a primary school through a collaborative arts project leading to ‘public art’ created with the same care and attention to quality as a ‘real’ work of public sculpture. Or some historic photographs, mounted prominently on the exterior walls of a housing estate. These little jewels are dotted about all over our towns. And where they work best, they inspire sympathetic development around themselves. Maybe it is a choice between adding real pleasure to the use of a space and creating a tourist attraction.


Friary Estate – Randy Klein with residents of Ednam House

This makes me think of creativity rather than art. Engagement rather than a lecture in aesthetics. Real pleasure in daily use as opposed to a big impact weekend visit. Creativity is becoming ubiquitous, and architects are developing imaginative serious consultations which tap the well of creativity in society. The artist can ride this wave of the democratisation of culture too – maybe she or he is even better prepared to do this.
This is why I have come to the opinion that an intervention in the built environment should make every attempt to share creativity. The artist’s role is different from a gallery exhibition writ large. It is a deep and lasting engagement with real people. Discovering the huge well of creativity around, and celebrating it.


Comment from a respected public artist, Carlos Cortes

I think the article makes many valid points. I’d argue though that public Art, creativity and engagement/participation may not be in the near future -or should not be in my opinion- the opposite of High Art. Artists that work with communities or human groups/collectives could and should be addressing this as a new development that in time may supersede other isms (cub- dada-minimal-) The idea of the genius-individual artist is not necessarily that old, it could be traced back to the renaissance and then it was kind of glorified in the romanticism. Historically artists were often shamans or “speakers” for their communities, intermediaries that allowed members of a human group to reach a different state of mind or to access an spiritual experience. A complex society where people of multiple religious, social and geographical backgrounds live together, and where the rules are rewritten by technology on a regular basis, requires new models of Art (public too) An artist who tackles these new challenges and successfully engages such diversity, should also offer new ways of interacting with the built environment and experiment with a different social order where Art and creativity could play a vital role. D Hirsch and co have sucked most of the the juices of concept of the young individual star artist that plays along the rule books of bankers and speculators. Perhaps the new order needs artists that act as catalysers by joining the chemical elements that make a society plural and integrated. Architecture without people is void an useless, and no building can be great if it doesn’t fulfil a role. So the artist needn’t worry about competing on physical scale with huge works of Art. Perhaps the focus could be shifted towards Art and artists understood as a number of dynamic forces that can change the nature of the engine that moves a society (the people) and not the colour or the shape of the bodywork (the architecture, the big sculpture…)