Speaker by Various Artists

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Public art is no place for committees

by Hamish Keith

In the last few months, Auckland Council has announced three major public art works: Michael Parakowhai on Queens Wharf, Judy Millar at the Devonport Library and Gregar Kregar and Sarah Hughes at New Lynn. All three have set off a burst of public controversy for various reasons. In all three the commissioners – Auckland Council arts bureaucrats - have left the artists hanging out to dry.

Mostly the outrage was about money. In the last episode it was caused by a partial image of the work deemed by the media to be phallic. The consistent response suggests that in this city public art is poorly managed and poorly conceived by those who commission it.

There is no excuse for that. Public art has be around as long as there have been public spaces. Public art is not a piece of art popped into a public space. It is a work of art conceived for that space by those who control it and for the public whose space it is and defined by the nature and purpose of that space.

In the early 1950’s when the United Nations headquarters were being built in New York, one of the artists commission to make a work for the world’s most prestigious building complained that not even the architects could “spare the time” to discuss with him and the other artists involved “how their work was to be conceived as part of the general plan”.

The artist was the sculptor Jean Arp. Among the other artists were Jean Miro, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. The architects were Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. Not only Auckland Council gets the management of public art wrong.

Here was a building, devoted among other things to the cultural work of the UN, where some of the world’s greatest artists were left in the words of one critic to “loiter about the place without function, distracted and disunited.” The artists knew that rule number one for public art was “Why are we doing this?” and number two: “How does it fit into the general scheme of the place?”. They are not questions artists should answer. They are the reasons for the work and they need to be clearly and unambiguously answered even before any artist is approached.

Before the artist who will carry out the work has been thought of some key things have already been determined. Not only the why and the context, but the nature of the work. Its size. What kind of work – sculpture, mural, free standing or attached. What will it be made of. Once those things have been determined – and they will be determined by the site – then a budget is defined.

When all that is clear to everyone involved, an artist whose work seems likely to fit is commissioned to submit a concept. There should be no element of competition involved and nor should a number artists be obliged to pitch for the work. If the concept fails the artists should be asked for another or another artist asked to submit. Once that succeeds a design is commissioned and then briefed through to the completion and installation of the work.

Essential to this process is the management of the commission by someone who has been involved from the beginning and who understands those essential elements and can communicate them to the artist and to the commissioner. Most importantly to the successful management of any public arts project, is the ability to communicate its progress and its purpose and to ensure there are no surprises, budgetary or aesthetic.

Each public art work should have its own project manager. This is not a job for a committee.

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