Curator Olivia Poloni chats to Victoria Jones about the ups and downs of public art.
Olivia: Could you tell us about yourself and your background
Victoria: I grew up in a small town in Scotland. My mum was a single parent at a time when that was still fairly unusual and she faced a lot of predjudice for being a single mother. This made her determined that I should not grow up with the "small town mentality" that we had often experienced, so once a year she would take me to London. We would spend days visiting art galleries and museums, travelling on the tube, and going to the theatre. I fell in love with sculpture at The British Museum, particularly the Parthenon Marbles. The sheer size of them was mesmerising, and looking at them I felt transported back in time.
I studied fine art at Glasgow School of Art, after graduation I went travelling, visiting Mexico, America, Fiji, Australia, Thailand, and India. I lived in Sydney for a while, where I interned at the Australian Centre for Photography. On my return to the UK, I moved to London where I had been awarded a yearlong artists residency at The Florence Trust Studios. I started working at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as the Community and Access Curator. After Whitechapel I became the Curator Creative Communities Curator for London Underground’s Art on the Underground program. A few years later I was asked to start up an arts program for one of the UK’s most famous hospitals - Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where I developed an award-winning arts program for patients, family, and staff. It was an incredible place to work, often challenging but always uplifting. The program we developed had begun to receive a lot of recognition, awards, and accolades and in 2013 I was headhunted and so we moved to Melbourne.
Olivia: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to start T Projects and your role as Director?
Victoria: I started T projects in 2017 then I was asked to be a specialist advisor to the Metro Tunnel Project, based on my experience of commissioning artworks and creative programs in ‘challenging environments’, including London Underground. We developed the creative strategy from the bid stage, including the temporary creative program and the legacy commissions.
T Projects has since gone on to lead the creative strategies and arts commissioning for a number of major infrastructure projects including the Level Crossing Removal Projects, the Royal Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital Redevelopment and Our Hospital project in Jersey, Channel Islands.
Olivia: Could you tells us about your interest in public art?
Victoria: I have always loved art, but I particularly love public art because it is truly for everyone, it has the widest audience possible and not reserved for a people who choose to go to an art gallery. I hate the snobbery that can be found in some gallery settings. At Whitechapel we strove to engage with the widest audiences possible as the gallery had a century-long commitment to art education, and we always sought to engage with the widest possible audiences. During my time there I developed programs for some very hard to reach groups, including people experiencing homelessness. We worked with some amazing artists on those programs including Anthony Luvera and Charlotte Prodger. They were very emotive projects to be involved in and I’m very proud of that work. To me art should not be everyone, not just a select few.
Olivia: What is your role in the commissioning of public art?
Victoria: As the Director of T Projects, I lead a team of specialist curators and together we lead on the development of creative strategies and public art commissioning, sourcing the artists, leading the whole process through to concept selection, detailed design through to project completion. Delivering public art can be very complex and challenging so we aim to support artists and make the whole process as painless as possible for both artists and clients.
Olivia: What do you consider to be the role of public art?
Victoria: Public art can function as a memorial, reflecting on historical events or political movements; it can be a celebration; can be functional, can be part of placemaking (a term I generally hate), can be part of wayfinding; it can transform our experiences of a place and provide a unique emotional connection between people and places. It can also be vital as part of regeneration programs and create cultural destinations, with very real tangible impacts to the communities they are created within.
Olivia: What do you consider to be the downsides of public art to be?
I am always saddened and frustrated when public art gets a bad public reaction, often a knee jerk reaction, and often connected to costs. This is particularly frustrating because this kind of reaction is often misplaced and ill-informed. No one ever asks how much money was spent on planting, or benches, or paving but they always want to know how much the art cost. The percentage of a project budget spent on art is tiny, but the impacts of public art can be huge.
Having said that there are some projects I’ve seen (not directly involved in) where the budgets are disproportionate to the outcomes, or the fabricator has taken the piss on costs… that is really disgusting to me.
Olivia: What opportunities does public art bring to projects or to society more generally?
Victoria: I have many years’ experience of delivering public art and creative programming in healthcare and there’s a huge amount of clinical research that proves that art and creative activities have a huge range of benefits including - reducing stress experienced by patients, families and staff; reducing drug consumption; reducing recovery times; reducing the length of hospital stays; improving patient management; improving in clinical outcomes; enhancing the quality of service; improving job satisfaction and staff retention and generally improving healthcare experiences. These same impacts are felt, if not clinically researched (to my knowledge) in everyday life, in the public realm.
I also think public art has a unique ability to generate discussion and debate and bring communities together
Olivia: What do you consider to be the most challenging aspects of commissioning public art?
The easy part is finding the artists and developing concepts. The tough part is when you move into detailed design, fabrication, and installation. This part requires a wide range of people to collaborate and work together to bring the concept to reality.
Unfortunately, there are teams, or individuals, who struggle with this part. When delivering these projects within much, much larger projects the delivery team’s focus, understandably, is on the bigger picture (excuse the pun) and so the delivery of the more complex, labour-intensive artwork can become a pain in the ass to the wider team. That is when push becomes shove and I often have to push to deliver the best outcome possible with no shortcuts, budget cuts or quick fixes. It takes time, patience, collaboration and a huge amount of perseverance.
Olivia: What is your favourite example of public art, either in Australia or globally and why?
Gosh so many it’s impossible to choose just one. I love Angel of the North for so many reasons, but the sheer scale is mesmerising. By contrast I also deeply love James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I could spend days in there.
In Melbourne my all time favourite is Callum Morton’s Hotel, it made me cry with laughter and surprise the first time I saw it I could not stop looking at it, lucky I wasn’t driving
Olivia: What is your least favourite example of public art, either in Australia or globally and why?
Least favourite is what I call ‘garden centre’ sculpture, which are often really more design solutions rather than artworks, created in a conveyor belt style, plonked everywhere and anywhere, often in the middle of roundabouts…