This symposium addresses a question of increasing urgency for public art. Although a degree of consensus has evolved in recent years over the issue of good

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Editor's Foreword

Davina Thackara Editor

This symposium addresses a question of increasing urgency for public art. Although a degree of consensus has evolved in recent years over the issue of good practice, this has largely focused on the role of process; an agreed definition of quality for the products of art outside the gallery, however, has remained more elusive. Art world values have seldom been useful to this objective, and in many cases have proved counterproductive. As Jos Boys argues, these are frequently self referential and fail to take into account the other modes of interaction people might seek from objects. And despite the numerous strategies that have been explored for promoting greater ownership and engagement amongst audiences, such practices are only partially understood, and in terms of outcomes, have tended to generate as many questions as they have solved.

It is a measure of the current level of concern over quality that the issue is increasingly framed as one of benefit. When concepts of quality are broadly recognised and acknowledged, discussion of benefits rarely arises. Lack of consensus over quality however, strengthens the call for justification. This in itself can pose a risk; when in the past art has been assessed by some external criterion of usefulness, quality has often suffered. Socialist Realism or Victorian didacticism are among the more obvious examples. But preoccupation with benefits is also a reflection of funding systems. As Fred Manson says, art funded through the public purse demands accountability, and when the state pays, it is reasonable that the artist should deliver something in return. Since local authorities are currently the principal clients for public art, it is their social and economic imperatives which are now most likely to determine its form and purpose.

The extraordinary diversity of contemporary public art is another factor adding to the difficulty of evaluation. Different forms of contemporary practice and the discourses which shape them, have produced hugely varied definitions of quality. Not all are necessarily appropriate for the public realm. But this diversity is also a source of strength. The range of benefits which good art in all its many contemporary guises is capable of delivering, is almost certainly considerable. If these can be effectively identified and demonstrated, then benefits should be attainable without compromise in quality.

What is striking about this symposium is the number of positive, practical and significant benefits cited - developing a sense of self worth, stimulating social interaction, encouraging healthier life styles, reducing vandalism and cost, promoting ecology, nurturing grass roots cultures, expanding learning and awareness, healing the social fabric, exploring risk and making lateral connections. The majority of these are not new - they have been reiterated repeatedly over the years.

A recurrent theme, however, particularly within the seminars, was that the public art world has been slow to develop effective mechanisms for gathering the range of evidence available and feeding findings back into the system. Methodology of research and advocacy are just as vital to establishing the benefits that art can offer as the quality of work itself. They will also be essential if public art is to avoid the tendency it has so often suffered from in the past, of making unsubstantiated claims.

There is much useful work yet to be done in the public art field in terms of auditing current forms of practice, establishing reliable and consistent methods for collecting evidence, examining the impact of projects at regular intervals rather than immediately after completion, and ensuring that results obtained inform future commissioning practice and contribute to an ongoing programme of development. Equally, there may be circumstances where the role of decommissioning needs to be considered.

Necessary and desirable as all this is, it would nevertheless be a mistake if demand for benefits and accountability was designed to eliminate the possibility of failure. There can be little benefit or value in an art practice that has been rendered tame and predictable. Random, experimental and even provocative acts may occasionally have their place (and their benefits), as much outside the gallery as within it.


Lorraine Cox , Public Art Forum

Good morning and welcome to The Benefits of Public Art Conference.Before we start, I would like to say a few things about my own experience of setting up and managing projects in which the public and communities engage with artists. Putting together this seminar has made me reflect on projects over the last ten years or more. We’ve all done a lot of work in this field but it’s very hard to capture or prove the benefits, value and worth of our work to others. I hope today is going to draw out arguments and interrogation of those kinds of ideas so that we can move towards greater clarity of how to work effectively with artists and the public.

It made me think of an experience in ’96 when Public Art Forum gave evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee into the funding of the Arts. One of the MPs asked us about Glenrothes which is a housing estate in Scotland. He said that he’d been to Glenrothes and seen the town artiststhere in the early 80’s.Some of it had involved a sculpture trail through housing estates which had severe social problems. He said that public art there had quite significantly reduced crime and asked what we thought about this.I said that I’ve seen local people’s attitudes change when they engage with artists. I’ve seen people develop a much more considered, critical opinion for why they do or don’t like art. It seems to me that local people are engaged in some kind of positive and meaningful debate about change and the nature of creativity.Whether or not it significantly reduces the crime rate can never be proved, but it is probably a factor. Even after ten years, you can see that I’m still trying to demonstrate positive value - it’s a struggle.

However, we canlook at some of the models of practice that have taken place over the last ten or so years in this country, and formulate patterns that seem to have worked to some degree. There’s a struggle in these issues, but there’s also a great deal of experience to be captured and laid down in some kind ofagreed-upon measure of value and benefit for public art.


Simon Grennan , Public Art Forum

Today’s symposium aims to do a number of things. Firstly, it aims to take an overview of the ways in which the benefit of including art and artists are currently considered by those involved in commissioning, producing and evaluating public art. Secondly, itaims to explore other potential ways of conceiving and evaluating benefit, and to look at the relationship between concepts of benefit, and the separate, maybe different, concept of quality.

The symposium will form the background to a national research and publishing projectbeginning this year, which will aim to benchmark concepts of the benefit of public art. The research will describe clear ways of evaluating benefit and compare examples of public art across Britain. The research will be widely disseminated, particularly to local authorities.

The debate today will interrogate the notion of an agreed-upon measure of quality and benefit in the field of public art. If we are clearer as a community about the ways in which we can evaluate public art, we will be able to harness all of the information that is currently available from commissioning and developing, and point unequivocally to the benefits of including art and artists in the changing and developing environment. There’s a lot of experience and information available which needs to be brought together.

Recent attempts, however, to research, identify and establish methodologies for evaluating the benefits of public art are widely thought to have been unsatisfactory, or at best incomplete. There appear to be a number of reasons for this. The first is an underlying assumption that art criticism will reveal the benefit of including art and artists. The second is a reliance on primary judgements of taste. And the third is the lack of a broad audit of different concepts of what benefit might be. None of the research already in existence attempts to establish any type of methodology for evaluating benefit, or for the way in which benefit might be conceived and benchmarked.

The intention of this symposium today is to look at the concept of benefit from three points of view-theory, policy and practice. These three areas are represented by our main speakers. Jos Boys is Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the Centre for Educational Technology and Development. She will speak about cultural theory as an aid to visioning the benefits of public art. Fred Manson, Director of Regeneration and Environment at Southwark Borough Council will present a view of the ways in which art can become part of a value chain in the development of the environment within a practical planning scenario. The artist Gavin Jones of Jones Environmental will present a case study of an artist’s work which has proved to be a key benefit in the development of the environment.

In the last year or so, I have spoken about the idea of benefit with a very wide range of professionals involved in different aspects of the cultural and practical planning and development of the environment. These people have included local authority officers in culture and leisure, planning, housing and education; housing associations; RTPI members; architects and landscape architects; and artists and academics from around Britain. The scope of the experience of these people covers at least the last 20 years. In speaking to them, I have found that the current models of thinking about the benefits of including artists are widely considered to be insufficient. It seems impossible to separate thinking about the benefits of including artists from thinking about the quality of art. Most of the people that I have spoken to, however, feel that relying on judgements of taste or art criticism to deliver benchmarks or point to models, is insufficient to the task of establishing how and why including art might be beneficial.

Planners, commissioners and artists want to be able to point to specific instances of measurable benefit in a wide variety of different circumstances, and to feel able to say that including art brings added value. My research begs a number of related questions which I hope this symposium will consider. First,is there a need to distinguish between quality and benefit? Is it really possible to evaluate the benefit of including art without referring to taste or art theory, and if so how might this be done? Are there examples where inclusion of art has been a provable benefit beyond the aesthetic or the theoretical? And finally if examples do exist, what can we learn from them? Is benchmarking benefit truly possible and useful?

Keynote Speaker (Theory)

Jos Boys Lecturer in Architecture, Centre for Educational Technology and Development

I want to concentrate on the initial areas that Simon highlighted- art criticism and taste, the problems of evaluating what constitutes quality or value in public art. I want to do that by looking at the shape of public art practice because I feel there is a problem, a reason why we find it difficult to move beyond that model.My background is in architecture, but my work is really about investigating how different groups in society look at the environment in which they live, and how they articulate its value to themselves. In this, I don’t differentiate between architecture, urban design or public art, and perhaps there is a discussion to be had about whether those things are different.

There is a kind of agreement about public art, that public art is for the expression of social meaning. That may be about expressing shared values in society, or it may be about some sort of comment or criticism about those dominant values, but it does concentrate on the notion of meaning. I want to talk about the concept of meaning and why we’ve come to think of meaning as being so important.I’m really making two points. One is that public art has to stop centring social meaning on expressive representation - as the key to the main objective it has and as the key to how it judges itself . Second, we have to disengage concepts of the expression of social meaning from concepts of value.

So this raises some basic questions. Who exactly is this social meaning for? What are these qualities that we’re trying to express? How do we see meaning embodied in objects or spaces? What is the connection between these meanings, the qualities, the ideas and the social - in what way do they reflect something about society, whether as a whole or as a grouping within it?

’m going to start by looking in a very generalised way at artists themselves and at public art practice. There’s a ‘common senseof understanding public art practice and a lot of cross over with how architectural practice and urban design is understood which limits the way we think about the world. It catches us in an internal loop. You feel that there are many aspects that I’m ignoring here, and I agree; however I believe the sense of this ‘common sensestill ties us in.

For public artists, meaning is about the public, that’s its whole basis. But that conceptis caught up in a long history with its own cultural baggage, and that’s the baggage of art itself.Debates within art and architecture over time have developed particular understandings of what meaning is and how it’s embedded into objects, and that dates back to all those people in this country -Pugin, Morris, Letherby - who were very concerned to generate a public art and architecture which expressed good things about society.

This move towards material form as the expression of society represents a shift from earlier notions of what art and architecture was.When culture is perceived as external to society, when the legitimisation of artistic work is either in relationship to the ancients or to God, then what you make refers to that wider universal non social realm - to abstract concepts of beauty. Of course, the stuff that was built pre-nineteenth century was entirely related to the society in which was made, but the creation of it was articulated in relation to transcendental values. Once you start thinking of culture as being an integral part of society, as intertwined with its lived experience as a way of life, then it creates problems- we began to want the objects and spaces themselves to express that relationship in some way. What we see is a move from the 19th century onwards, in artistic, decorative, and architectural practice, in trying to develop an authentic language of association that expresses society. If Arts and Crafts aimed for a figurative and associative language,modernism wanted to express the social through the inherent qualities of the media itself - revealing social order through the formal, structural and material elements of the objects. This is associative reflection ata second order - linking not to figurative elements but to the underlying formal properties of space and materials (grids, transparency, whiteness).

I’m not suggesting that there’s something wrong with this. Anybody who is involved in the creative or artistic production of objects, things, or places, is concerned also with the internal debates of that subject and the expressive potential of the medium itself. Those things are not wrong but we have to be much clearer about how we are positioned by our own subjects, just as we need to be much clearer about how people are positioned — for example as commissioners, patrons of public art or members of the public. What I am suggesting is a set of ways in which to problematise the notion of meaning - to throw it open for debate on how public art expresses meaning and has a value -that the public should be involved in the process of articulating those terms (or alternatives) in some way. And it means being clear that public artists are positioned in a particular way which contains its own inherent tensions in simultaneously wanting to improve the quality of the public realm, and to partake creatively in the concerns of artistic practice itself. This is not an either/or, popular/high culture opposition. It is not about integrating both. It is about exploring (with artists and non artists) the spaces in-between. We should be interested in the media that we’re using and what qualities it has, and in using those creatively. We should be interested in the history of our own subjects, and in second order competencies. And we should be interested in creatively bridging the gaps between those understandings and other (public and popular) interpretations.

Some of you may have read Bordieu’s book on taste called Distinction.(1) He suggests that there are basically three levels of artistic competency. Firstly, there is an immediacy in your perception and understanding of objects connected to your own experience. The second level is based on a certain amount of knowledge about the object. You might know the name of the person who made it, or that it’s of a certain genre. His third level is when you know a lot about the history of art, and you can put a piece of work into context. I would suggest that he misses a key element which involves understanding not just a work’s content but an appreciation of its formal qualities - its proportions and the relationships of its elements, how it is made and how it reflects its materiality. This is what I mean here by second order competencies.

Public art then, must explicitly deal with relationships (gaps, invisibilities, contradictions) between those different levels.

I’m going to suggest that there are three main ways that public art practice currently operates - and I think architects fit into this framework too. I also want to suggest that these are linked into a system of ideas which prevent us from exploring those gaps between more effectively. The first is that traditional notion of formal composition expressing beauty and taste which is to do with the contemplative pleasure that people get out of objects. The second element is art as the expression of shared social values. The third, more recent one, involves trying to challenge through critique, using art either to comment on aspects of society which are seen as inequitable, or commenting on the role of art itself in that process.

I suggest that we’re caught in a cycle of oppositions, between an understanding of culture as high art, between art as a unifying force in society, and something which is a subversive force in society. The dominant terms are public art and united society. One is linked to the other. That’s what public art is about. These two terms as an equal and reflective pair, are set against binary opposites. There aren’t in-betweens, there aren’t complexities - there are minuses and pluses. Public art perceives itself as being positive against the negative of a kind of elitist, gallery-based, formal, formalist and taste-oriented art. It sets itself against culture as high art. It sees itself absolutely in the realm of culture as a way of life, and it therefore perceives itself as being popularist or popular.

What you get then is a string of associative terms in the horizontal dimension and oppositional terms in the vertical dimension. In response to that you get another pair of terms which perceives the public-art-equals-social-values pair, as being negative. And in response to that, you get a radical notion of art which sees itself as in opposition to these other modes -commenting on society as a subversive subculture of that society. That subversive activity may be either in the quality of the product, in the way it expresses meaning, or it may be in the process, particularly through participatory processes.

There is a problem to the overall pattern which lies, first of all, in the notion that one thing reflects another. Part of my work has been to look at that idea that architecture, art, and design reflect society, and how endemic it is even in the contemporary post-modern period when we like to think we’ve got rid of all that. We think we don’t use those sorts of assumptions any more but actually we do, they’re embedded in a huge amount of common sense ideas we think with, although not necessarily in the critical work we do.

And that notion of reflection -what Homi Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture calls a mode of translation -is a way conceptually of linking an idea to a form, or an idea to society. (2) Reflection is very common within the creative fields because of the historical baggage we have. We need to start looking at it critically and understand it as a mode of translation.

The second point is that this pattern of binary oppositions and associative links is an entirely internalised system. It’s a cycle of evidence that proves itself. You argue your case against some other key term in the process, you argue for a radical approach because of what you think is wrong with a mainstream approach. You believe in a mainstream approach because you argue against gallery art and its problems, and it forms a loop. You go backwards and forwards. You can go somewhere else and we do. But going somewhere else often peters out - we are easily caught up again in this conceptual framework.

That internalised cycle of evidence is one of the reasons why we have a problem with value - we don’t have external proof. We’re building a system that’s self-contained. That means that when we look at objects - public art objects or public spaces - the mode we have of interpreting those spaces is by projective interpretation. We dump our view onto the thing, that’s how we explain it, and that itself also produces problems of evidence because all the evidence comes out of our own interpretation, and the interpretation of critics who have the same model.

There are two other points to that, one of which is to do with concepts of value, and the other, concepts of meaning. First, we are caught in trying to understand value, or benefit or quality within this framework. It’s an impossible thing to do because this model is about a common sense view of the world,it’s not actually a very accurate description of how the world works. And it means that we mix up meaning and value, because if we believe intuitively that art should express some aspect of social meaning through reflective representation, then wejudge value on that basis, and value becomes caught up in the positives and negatives of the model. These positives and negatives appear to give us value, but they don’t.

Second , because we have that framework, when there’s a problem with it,when it doesn’t seem to describe how other people are articulating the world - they don’t seem to understand objects like that, they don’t appreciate the social meanings they contain, they don’t seem to get the point of this expressive representation - then we have two solutions and those two solutions are both based on returning to and reinforcing this model, and simultaneously using it to exclude and make invisible other frameworks for interpretation and appreciation of designed objects and spaces.

One of those solutions is education. If you can understand better how meanings are embedded in objects, then things will improve. The other possibility is participation. If people are involved in the process, then that will enable them to be part of negotiation over these relationships. But that participatory mode still usually works within this framework, it continues to prioritise meaning as reflective representation, thus emphasising the gulf between first and second order competencies rather than enabling negotiations within and across them.

So having said we’re caught in this loop, how do we get out of it? I would suggest briefly two sets of things:

One is to look at different positions people come from, different audiences and the modes of translation they use. This is not to say that these modes of translation, these ways of understanding what meaning is for and how it is embedded in things, are better or more authentic. We need a better theoretical model, however simplistic. To do that we need a much clearer set of ways of understanding the relationship between art and society. What’s happening in that relationship? And we need to do that by looking at people who are not trained and not caught up in artistic practice.

So for example, although we know there are plenty of public art commissioners interested in using art as a way of expressing shared values, there are also many patrons who look at these things as scarcity objects. They don’t care very much about the content. The best example of that for me was a television programme recently about Daniel Liebeskind’s new extension to the V&A Museum. What was clear was that he is obsessed with trying to express contemporary society through form. It’s a second order expression because it’s all angle planes, chaotically organised in an extremely sophisticated post-modern structural system, and he argues that case very well. His client clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but they know they’ve got a landmark, and it wouldn’t matter if he’d done it or another famous architect. It doesn’t matter if it’s puppy dog outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It’s just an emblematic representation,a scarcity object - it’s using art in that mode. If people just want something unusual, there’s lots of opportunities to play to that market.

We also know that clients use art as a kind of identity marker in terms of the sort of setting it makes and the functions it provides. There is a sense in patrons expressing public-ness - it’s an investment in public education, in improving the public realm. Some of them may value art, some of them may not. And there is equally a range of competencies among patrons along the lines analysed by Bordieu. What we have here is a whole set of understandings around concepts of economic as well as cultural capital,around issues of resources, added value and profit-making which can be related back to the diagrams. Here, though, that little equals sign (the mode of translations) isn’t about reflection, it’s about instrumental realisation. It’s aboutgaining something, and that’s quite different, although it may include ideas about reflection simultaneously.

And finally, the public. Take for instance that Paolozzi statue at Euston Station – I have a particular personal loathing for this - which is being given a very good use here. These tourists are using it as a windbreak to look at their map and it fits very well. The map fitted into a little hollow so that they could hide from the wind and lay the map out flat. And they seemed very satisfied with that. This is not public art as contemplative beauty or shared values or societal comment. It is public art as a purposeful (if here accidental) ‘found space for an instrumental action. This suggests a move in the direction I would like to make. I want to suggest that if we are looking at the relationship between art, architecture and society,we’re looking at a whole set of modes of translation around two things: surviving in and making sense of this world. We’re all doing that, we’re all the public in that way, but we are using different modes of translation - and reflection as a dominant mode within artistic practice hardly begins to touch on these other ways of engaging with the world, conceptually, socially and materially.

I’m not sure it’s possible to come to an agreed set of methodologies for understanding benefit or value. I think that these things are contested - always in a tension which cannot be resolved. They will go on being contested, and actually what we have to do is make difficult choices and judge priorities, and have the persuasive arguments to support that. I want finally to propose an outline of the context in which these arguments need to be framed.

First,if you’re operating in the public realm, you’re operating in an environment where the audience is distracted. They’re not there to enjoy or contemplate the quality of the environment, they’re doing something else - they’re walking the dog or going to the shops. And when we do that, we don’t take that much notice of our environment unless it kicks up and bites us.So there are limits to the notion of the contemplation of public art, about how important it is to love or value art.

I do think there’s a lack of public interest in public art as social comment, andmaybe it’s a misplaced understanding of the role of creative practice. There is a very clear mismatch in competencies between a more public, immediate and associative understanding, and other levels of knowledge and interpretation. That’s not to say that one is better than the other, but that all sorts of space are opened up there for negotiation in and between and across those things.

Finally, there is a problem about shared values. That means there is also a problem about what constitutes benefit. Arguments about what constitutes benefit sit as much outside the making of the piece itself as within it. They are about resources, survival and the pragmatics of everyday life. Value connects not to meaning, but the explicit articulation of these other modes of translation already outlined - surviving in and making sense of the world.

Throughout this talk, I have used the expression ‘weenable the assumption that my experiences of creative theory and practice connect with, and make sense to, those of the audience. This may not be true. Finally though - from the position of an outsider, of an architectural critic operating outside of public art - I throw out a challenge to the audience, which concerns how I value the public qualities of public art, of an art which needs to accept the distracted nature of its audience; which should give something back to its public, and which prefers participation to contemplation. My original subtitle for this talk was “Good public art is something you can lock your bicycle to”.I had this subtitle in my head. Luckily, I can end with a - stumbled upon - example – again at Euston Station: the sculpture by Sue Ridge with a bicycle chained to it.

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