Public art sometimes gets a bad rap, and for good reason. Many people associate it with bronze sculptures of old white men, who were at one time ‘eminent’, or large stand-alone sculptures that have been thrown put up without community consultation, have no connection to place, are not well maintained and now look like a paint peeling, metal rusting eyesore.
One of the Cherry Street pavement drawings is an abstract map of the countries of origin of members of the local community.
However, when public art is done well, with the appropriate community consultation and with experienced public art consultant management, the outcome can create a sense of place, belonging, identity and pride for people and place. It can generate important social discussions and create a strong legacy for people and place (as well as for the commissioned artist.)
Integrated public art, where the public art commission is carefully considered, developed, and fabricated holistically with the wider development of a site is always preferred as opposed to ‘plonk’ art whereby the art is an afterthought - plonked in to tick a box. Unfortunately, plonk art pretty much makes up a majority of historic public art out there and that’s why it gets a bad rap, leaving many people feeling like they ‘don’t like public art’. When it’s produced like this it can also be seen as an abuse of funds, whether public or not.
Public Art puts itself out there, outside the gallery walls, in front of anyone and everyone. So, it’s up for anyone’s critique, and so it should be. But does this have to be a bad thing? Art is about generating discussions and opinions. If you love it, or hate it, they are all valid emotions that art is made to conjure up. If you say you hate it, it’s done its job just as much as if you say you love it. It’s made you stop and consider it. Forming an opinion, thinking about the reasons it’s been made, why it’s been placed where it has, whether you like it or not, all these responses are you engaging with it. You may not like one work, that’s ok, there’s a lot of bad art out there. But there may be just one you love, that changes your perspective on something or that you see yourself in, so don’t give up on it.
The recent T Projects completed integrated public art commission at Cherry Street level crossing removal project in Werribee by artist Richard Briggs is a strong example of creating an artwork through deep genuine community consultation. this was a very holistic public engagement project. The artist spent a great deal of time consulting with community members about what the area means to them. How they commute through the area, what their daily lives look like. From these conversations he created line drawings to reflect the conversations and community members he had engaged with. There drawings were then etched into the pavement of the courtyard to the train station. The community love this work because it specifically reflects them and their stories, and gives them a great sense of pride, because they are literally embedded within it.
Similarly, Peter Aitkins’s tiled floor at Hoppers Crossing Train Station in Werribee is designed using vintage train ticket designs, reflecting the past in a bright and colourful way, integrated into the fabric of the building to ensure that it is robust and practical, not a plonked stick-on afterthought. The result is stunning, fun, historical and interesting. It taps into a demographic of the transport users and a lost ticket design creating a sense of nostalgia. And people love it.
While there are many ways to approach the commissioning of public art, the best outcomes are achieved when we carefully consider people and place, that way the work is unique and seeks to make genuine connections. It doesn't mean everyone will love everything, but just as we don't expect to like everything on the menu at a cafe hopefully there will be something we love in the mix.