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Public Art and Local Authorities

This advice sheet is intended to be a brief introduction to public art and how it can be implemented within a local authority context, particularly in the light of adopted Local Plan policy, supporting the provision of Public Art. However, the general principles can apply to any organisation or public body wishing to incorporate public art activity as part of their key aims and objectives.

Public Art - What is it? 

The term public art refers to artists and craftspeople working within the built, natural, urban or rural environment. It aims to integrate artists' and craftspeople's skills, vision and creative abilities into the whole process of creating new spaces and regenerating old ones, in order to imbue the development with an unique quality and to enliven and animate the space by creating a visually stimulating environment.

Public Art is not an artform. It's a principle, a principle of improving the changing environment through the arts and is a term given to the practice of involving artists in the conception, development and transformation of a public space. It is specifically commissioned for a known site and its audience is the public or community, be it social or working, who occupy that space.

Successful public art is work that resonates with the site and context, creates an opportunity for the range of people using the site to engage with it and which meets the clients, communities and artists' intentions. It can contribute to urban regeneration and can benefit adjacent buildings from both a local character/image perspective. In terms of added value, it can bring benefits both financially and in a more general community and environmental sense.

Working with artists and craftspeople offers an opportunity to design unique schemes, which go beyond the purely functional and create places that reflect the life and aspirations of the district, county or region. Public Art is about collaboration and the integration of ideas, often between artists, architects, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, planners and other professionals and the public as well as with the commissioners.

Public Art is often viewed as permanent, but temporary works or interventions have an important role to play as they can provide a test bed for a programme of work that occupants may decide to pursue as part of the animation of their surroundings. It can also introduce innovation and help inform and influence long term planning and decision-making, as well as being a very useful consultative tool.

There is no simple definition of public art:

  • It may be incorporated within a building's structure or result in the creation of new architectural spaces, new public spaces, landscaping (hard and soft), fencing, brickwork, glasswork, gates, grilles, windows, lighting treatments, seating, play areas/structures, carved lettering and plaques.
  • It may take the form of tapestries, carpets, weaving, textiles, hangings, banners, use of colour, mobiles, ceramics, tiling, interior lighting, signage, and flooring.
  • It could be sculpture, landmarks, environmental land works, photography, prints, paintings, projection, moving images, computer generated images, performance, events, music commissions etc.
  • It can introduce narrative or text, be issued based, decorative, humorous, challenging, beautiful, subtle or contentious.
  • It may refer to our heritage or celebrate the future, highlight specific areas and issues or be conceptual. Work can be permanent or temporary, internal or external, integral or free standing, monumental or domestic, large or small scale, design or ornament.
  • It does not have to be publicly funded to be public art!  Many think this is the case but the truth is that the majority of public art commissions arise from private sector development and investment, or are supported by charitable institutions.  Relatively few are commissioned entirely from the public purse.

Whatever the outcome, it has one consistent quality; it is specific to the site and relates to the context of that site.

What are the Benefits

A well constructed public art strategy can result in benefits by:

  • attracting investment from the local authority and private sector
  • making the district or town a more appealing place for businesses to locate
  • stimulating the local economy through creating employment and seeding and developing skills
  • encouraging tourism by giving an area a competitive edge in relation to competing visitor destinations
  • contributing to local distinctiveness by giving a voice to artists and craftspeople and enabling them to utilise their creative skills and vision
  • increasing the use of open spaces, reclaiming areas and helping reduce levels of crime and vandalism by creating a sense of ownership
  • humanising environments, involving the community and creating a cultural legacy for the future
  • introducing innovation and experimentation into the process of how we develop spaces and places and create environments which meet the needs of the inhabitants and visitors.

Public art is about good design. And good design makes good sense. Quality environments send out positive messages. Good quality, attractive buildings and public spaces play a key role in urban and rural regeneration and, in particular, attracting residential and commercial occupiers. To implement this principle does not necessarily mean more expense and, where it does, the real costs tend to be very modest. It is much more about working creatively with what you've got rather than putting the 'icing on the cake'.

How Does it Happen?

  • While a wide range of public and private sector agencies and organisations deliver public art voluntarily, local planning authorities can also encourage property developers to include artworks in schemes requiring planning permission. Empowerment, however, requires an appropriate policy to be included in the adopted Local or Unitary Development Plan (and the forthcoming Local Development Frameworks). Many of the objectives, contained within these documents on the environment, community development, employment and so on, relate to quality of life issues; public art has a strong role to play within the delivery of these. Public Art policies can be further developed in Community Plans and in Supplementary Planning Guidance such as Planning Briefs for individual sites.
  • It is important to have a public art strategy, which places public art within the planning and development process and which is complementary to good urban and building design and which clearly identifies how artists can engage with the environment. In order to start the process rolling, an audit should be undertaken to establish what has already taken place and what is planned and, where possible, an evaluation of the impact of the projects in relation to the effectiveness or otherwise of the development.
  • Alongside this, a series of advocacy or awareness-raising seminars for key elected members and staff should be organised, in order to establish how public art can contribute to the aims and objectives of the Local Authority in delivering its services. Public art policies work best if they are viewed as a corporate policy; they may be integrated with a public realm strategy and should be always be a component of a cultural strategy. Therefore, it is important that all departments within the authority are involved and feel a sense of ownership not only for the strategy but also in terms of its delivery.
  • In order to do this, a steering group should be convened which represents the various departments. The remit of this group will be to identify what work needs to be carried out to construct the brief and to monitor its progress and outcomes. This group will also be vital in ensuring that the recommendations put forward are capable of being implemented effectively by all the departments affected. It is also important to identify a Ôchampion', someone who will help steer the aims and ambitions of the group through the process of getting the policy adopted.
  • In addition to officers, the steering group should include some elected members who will be able to offer guidance and support. The group should have sufficient status to ensure that the appropriate committees take on board the recommendation it makes. It is also essential that opportunities for public comment or involvement are built into the discussions and subsequent recommendations.
  • Unless the expertise can be identified in-house, the drafting of the policy will necessitate the appointment of a specialist public art consultant or agency. The brief for this consultancy needs to be carefully considered and, once appointed, the consultant should be fully supported by the steering group in terms of access to information, key officers, contacts and consultation/discussion groups. The consultant should also be given an opportunity to present the final document in person, in order to contextualise the findings and recommendations and to be able to debate any issues which arise.
  • Once the public art policy has been agreed, there needs to be someone responsible for implementing it. It may be feasible to extend the remit of an existing member of staff or a new post may have to be established. Alternatively, an external specialist or public art agency could be used or an independent agency or trust could be created.
  • Raising awareness about the policy will be a key aim in implementing it. In order to do this, a further series of training or seminars may be necessary to ensure that officers responsible for delivering the policy, working on design briefs and Supplementary Planning Guidance and negotiating the Percent for Art policy feel confident and able to do so. It will also be necessary to establish a 'public art group' who will be responsible for overseeing its implementation, advising on opportunities and briefs and advising on applications which are submitted.
  • Monitoring and evaluation is a key component of any policy. This should be done on an annual basis and consideration should also be given to reviewing the policy every five years.

The above information is just a very brief summary of what to consider. For detailed advice on how to go about developing a public art strategy please contact us and visit the Current Practice section of this website, which contains many examples of public art strategies and policies from around the country.

Percent for Art

This term refers to a widely used funding mechanism for public art projects. Percent for Art means setting aside a proportion of the capital cost of building and environmental schemes for the inclusion of work by artists and craftspeople. Normal practice is to encourage the public or private sector developer to set aside 1% of the budget, but this amount can increase or decrease depending upon the size, nature and scale of the project.

Percent for Art schemes encourage the artist or craftsperson to be involved at the very beginning of the design process. This ensures a cohesive and fully integrated scheme. It can also be cost effective as the artist can work within existing capital budgets. Requirements with regard to initial preparation and installation can be specified in advance to the main contractor.

It's important to remember that Percent for Art is only a mechanism for funding visual arts and craft activity. So, in order to use it effectively, it should be employed in the context of a wider public art strategy adopted by an authority. It should not be viewed as the only way of encouraging commissions.

Local authorities can adopt a Percent for Art policy for their own capital schemes and where the sale of its own property or land is involved. In order to encourage private developers, an authority has to be seen to lead by example.

Suitable policy wording is important. The following wording has been advised by Robert Carnwath QC on behalf of the Arts Council of England and has been adopted by many local authorities as a way of encouraging voluntary participation:

"The local planning authority will, in appropriate cases, encourage the provision of new works of art as part of schemes of development and, in determining an application for planning permission, will have regard to the contribution made by any such works to the appearance of the scheme and to the amenities of the area."

It is also helpful to produce a guidance note for developers about public art and Percent for Art and how it benefits them and how to go about developing a public art commissioning plan for their development.

Once the principle has been established and accepted, you should make assistance available to those who wish to commission work. One way of doing this is to set up a resource which can give advice on every aspect of commissioning: budgets, contracts, examples of projects and how to identify artists. The need for access to professional expertise in the form of a public art consultant or project manager should also be recognised and information made available as to who can undertake this sort of work.

The overall benefits to the community and the environment of including public art provision in development projects are widely recognised and, by raising a development's profile and increasing its attractiveness to occupiers, may also enhance its investment value too.

Further Advice

For further advice on how to construct commissioning briefs, identify artists etc please refer to the information sheets listed below.

In addition, we can give detailed advice on all aspects of the commissioning process, provide sample contracts, briefs, committee papers etc.

Guidelines for Commissioning and Selecting Artists and Craftspeople

Additional Information Sheets available on Public Art Online:

Commissioning Agencies, Public Art Consultants and Lead Artists

The Healthcare Sector

Guidelines for Commissioning and Selecting Artists and Craftspeople

Examples of Public Art in the South West


Artists' Directories

Undertaking a Commission – Guidance Notes for Artists, Noel Perkins

Public Art Courses

Sources of Funding for Public Art

Public Art Commissions – Good Practice by Henry Lydiate

Collaboration – An Architect’s Perspective by Nick Childs

Works of Joint Authorship – Copyright Guidance by Henry Lydiate

The Private Finance Initiative – How Arts Add Value

Insurance for Artists

a-n The Artists Information Company

Collaboration - The Art Consultant's Perspective by Sam Wilkinson

Collaboration - An Artist's Perspective by David Patten

Consultation in Public Art Practice by Hazel Colquhoun

Artists in the Public Realm Health and Safety by Emma Larkinson

For further information, email: [email protected]

© Public Art South West

May 2009