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Be Prepared! Decommissioning Public Art


It’s a sad fact that public artworks won’t last forever. Like most of the elements which make up our public realm, they deteriorate, become outdated, or need to be “redeveloped”. As we hit the 21st century, many of the artworks commissioned during the initial growth of public art commissioning in the 1970s and 80s are coming to the end of their lives.

It’s a sadder fact that almost none of them will have any decommissioning agreement in place, nor will the Local Authority in whose area they fall have a policy to address it. In fact, in a large number of cases, there will have been no commissioning contract at all, and as personnel have moved on, even the identity of the original artist may be lost.

As public art commissioning has become more sophisticated and complex, the picture gets more complicated. Work commissioned more recently can be collaborative, funded by multiple sources or even participative, carried out with direct involvement by local communities or other groups. When these commissions come to the end of their lives, the decommissioning tangle becomes positively labyrinthine.

Four East Kent local authorities (Ashford, Canterbury, Dover and Shepway) recently commissioned research into decommissioning, with a view to developing a policy. Each of these authorities had recently become active in commissioning new works, but also had a “past catalogue” of artworks with no decommissioning provision in place. Some had already had to deal with difficult decommissioning issues, and a policy was needed to help them address both existing and future works. Arts Council England South East were also interested in the research, and the project grew into a larger exercise, taking in the national picture of decommissioning practice.

I carried out the initial research with Sam Wilkinson, and the final research report and bespoke East Kent Decommissioning Policy was completed with Emma Larkinson this Spring.

The research: A snapshot of current practice

We undertook research in a number of ways, including questionnaires, interviews, desk research and seminars. Crucially, we also commissioned some legal advice on the rights of artists and the way in which contracts or agreements can deal with decommissioning. We were trying to get both a picture of current practice in decommissioning, and also gather information about how people felt it could and should be dealt with. We asked about dealing both with artworks already in existence, and planning for decommissioning in new artworks.

We tried to research as broad a constituency as possible, including commissioning agents, local authorities, funding and advisory bodies, the private sector, and, of course, artists. The questionnaire was available on the ixia website to download and reply to, and it was also block mailed to the members of NALGAO (National Association of Local Government Arts Officers).

The results

We didn’t try to create precise quantitative research that would bear up to statistical analysis, but we did find a number of interesting outcomes:

  • More than a third of respondents had never encountered a commission contract with decommissioning provision
  • Of the local authorities that responded, more than half don’t include decommissioning within their contracts
  • More than half of those who had actually been involved in decommissioning said their experience had been “poor” or “very bad”
  • Just about everyone agreed that valid reasons for decommissioning included “deterioration or damage beyond reasonable repair” but very few thought that “lack of maintenance” or unpopularity” should be used as reasons
  • About two thirds of respondents thought that ACE should issue policy guidelines to help with decommissioning existing work
  • The majority felt that placing decommissioning as an integral part of contracts was the way to deal with new work

The anecdotal results, of course, are even more interesting. One or two interviewees, when asked if they included decommissioning within their contracts replied “no, but, er, we really should,” and promptly scribbled themselves a note to that effect. A couple of interviewees felt that it was rather negative to talk about decommissioning before a work was even created, and thought it might be better to not think about the possibility until it actually happened. A (very) few local authorities had well-formed policies which had already been in place for some years, and a surprisingly (or depressingly) low number of commissioning agents had regularly been using decommissioning clauses for the last three or four years.

Important issues

What is clear from our research is that the practice is highly variable, not well developed, and not yet filtering through to partner funding bodies.

An important issue came out of our research into other design practices. Architects have little say over what happens to their buildings once the clients take them on, but we do have the protection frameworks of listing, conservation area status and scheduled ancient monuments. Could this sort of framework help with public artworks?

Interestingly, the artists we talked to (we held a detailed seminar/discussion with a number of artists) were actually quite positive about the concept of decommissioning, recognising the need for it. What was most important for them was that it was done in a transparent way, and that good communication was kept up throughout the process.

Information, transparency and consultation kept coming up as the most important issues during our research and discussions about the decommissioning process. Most of the horror stories about decommissioning are about works disappearing overnight, without any reference to the artist. More often than not, what really hurts is that lack of consultation and explanation, rather than the decision to remove something.

A few examples

We asked our respondents for any personal experiences or anecdotes about decommissioning which might prove fruitful for us to investigate further. Apart from the horror stories as noted above, we in fact did find some quite positive stories, which helped towards forming our research conclusions and recommendations:

  • the transit authority who inherited a 20 year old sculpture almost falling to pieces, but before doing anything rash, developed a decommissioning policy to deal with the piece, ensuring the artist was professionally treated and good practice created for decommissioning in the future.
  • the case of an interactive fountain commissioned for a Special School, where the school changed its function to serve children with severe learning difficulties who couldn’t use the fountain. The piece got rusty through disuse, and the local authority invoked their decommissioning policy, carrying out a full assessment which concluded that the work no longer aesthetically had meaning for the space, nor could it be enjoyed practically by the children, and so was decommissioned.
  • the memorial fountain, part-funded by public subscription, which needed to be moved and reinstated at the local authority’s request, as part of a city centre redevelopment. Unfortunately the piece was made of fibre glass which would fall apart on removal…The developer’s public art consultant negotiated with the artist and then the Council, to agree that funding would be set aside for a new, memorial commission by the same artist, to be specific to a new site.

Any solutions?

Our research came up with a number of recommendations, as well as a decommissioning policy designed specifically for East Kent, as noted above. The recommendations ranged from quite basic ideas – e.g. making sure that contracts include items such as life expectancy, review periods and maintenance agreements – to more detailed discussion of criteria to be considered by decommissioning review panels. Our legal advice allowed us to think in detail about the content of contracts, and the process of actually creating a policy for East Kent showed the need for a clear, detailed and workable methodology which responsible public art clients should use.

In summary, we recommended:

  • For new commissions, issues of decommissioning should be addressed by the contract at the outset

  • For bodies responsible for existing artworks, there should be a policy defining the principles of decommissioning criteria

  • The policy should include an agreed process of assessment which would decide the future of public art works in accordance with the decommissioning criteria

Further resources:

Auckland City, New Zealand: Policy for Re-siting or Removal of Public Art Works

© Hazel Colquhoun, Arts Consultant, August 2006

For further information, e-mail: [email protected]