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The Truth About Public Art #1 - Great Expectations?




My name is Victoria Jones and I'm the Director of T Projects, I've been working in the field of public art for over 20 years. I've personally delivered over 100 major creative commissions across a wide range of media including - sculpture, installation, murals, graphics, paintings, print, collage, animation, photography, film, light-based works, soundscapes, multimedia, glazing manifestations, engravings, building wraps through to poetry and creative writing. I have worked a wide a range of settings including public spaces, waiting rooms, operating theatres, board rooms, train stations, prisons, art galleries, hotels, private members clubs, parks, atriums, lobbies, memorial spaces, building facades, roofs, hoardings, pavements, soffits, bridge piers, U troughs, plant rooms, a stately home and most recently a clock tower. Over the years I have learned a huge amount about the timescales and processes required and the vital ingredient - collaboration - that is needed across complex, multidisciplinary teams to deliver great public art.


From the outside, public art commissioning can look like a smooth and easy process, however that is rarely the case. In this journal series I will explore the truth about public art commissioning, the various challenges public art commissioning can bring and consider how we can strive for best practice across the sector.


Artists and art professionals often contact me in tell me they “want to get into public art”, but do they really know what they would be signing up for? The reality is that it's not all big budgets and big outcomes – it is also big responsibilities and sometimes big stress. There are some harsh realities to be aware of before getting involved in public art…


Some artists have told me they expected it to be fun – it won’t be fun; it’ll be hard work. Some expect they’ll make a lot of money from the commission – it takes such a lot of time and work it’s actually not that much money for the time involved. So, what should artists expect?


- It’s a team effort - Public art requires collaboration with a lot of specialisms, typically this would include the curator/art consultant, architects, landscape architects, engineers, fabricators, installation teams, lawyers, construction teams, the commissioning body (usually multiple people in various roles), sometimes communications teams. The people involved will vary from project to project, so this is by no means a definitive list.


- There are different perspectives to be aware of - There are so many people involved the delivery of public art and each of those roles, and personalities, will have their own motivations, concerns, reservations, and agendas. Everyone involved will need to understand and navigate these different perspectives throughout the process. I have often found that the difficult commissions occur where there is a lack of mutual respect and understanding between all the various players. Collaboration is key.


- The A Factor – A is for a**shole. There’s often (hopefully only) one person involved who is a complete nightmare to deal with. They don’t understand the process, they don’t value the artists or artwork, they don’t see why they have to be involved, they don’t want to be involved, they don’t want to make it easy for anyone else to be involved, they're not very good at their job, they aren’t a happy person, they don’t want anyone else to be a happy person, they think they are the smartest person in the room and so it goes… be ready for the A factor.


- Technical complexity - Due to the fact that these artworks will exist in the public realm there are very complex technical aspect to be aware of. This is a very different level to placing an artwork in an art gallery. Different spaces will bring different levels of complexity – train stations, for example, require levels of technical specifications that do not apply in alternative settings. Healthcare settings are even more complex and demanding as all materials and fixings have to be cleaned regularly to meet infection prevention and control regulations.


- Bearing in mind the technical complexities and teams of people involved, not to mention the integration into the wider build, there are very long timelines to be aware of. These are not quick or easy projects to realise. Public art literally takes years and so artists will be involved with these wide-ranging teams for a very long time. Patience and perseverance are essential to see it through to completion.


- It’s expensive. Simple things will turn out to be not be so simple. Things always cost more than you’d expect. There are additional costs that you won’t have planned for. No two settings are the same and there will be specifics for each project that will add to the costs.


- It’s not always popular! Public art can enhance any public space, it can ‘surprise and delight’ (the most overused phrase in placemaking jargon) but it can also enrage and upset people so be ready for the rough with the smooth. There will always be angry public out there who hate public art with surprising passion. Artists should be ready for negative public reaction as this can be very unpleasant to deal with.


- It’s not permanent. Public art is designed to last but it should never be planned to be there forever. That is just not realistic. Design life expectations vary but we must be realistic and expect that artworks will be decommissioned at some point. There is nothing more damaging to the public perception (and feeds the dislike) of public art than leaving artworks in place that are in disrepair, out of step with modern society or just very dated. Clients often ask for ‘timeless’ artworks but that doesn’t really exist.

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