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A Creative Environment

This article was first published in Arts Professional, 29 November 2004.

Art in public, public art, art in the public realm, art and architecture ñ there are various labels to describe the practice of artists engaging with working outwith the gallery. Some are more contentious than others ñ but personally I have no problem with the term public art ñ it has been around for long enough for people to associate the term with artists engaging in the public realm.

In the early days of public art in this country, the emphasis was on artists' contributions being 'visible'; sculptures, water features, murals and bins, benches and bollards were the staple public art fare in many cities, towns and villages. Often (though not always) artists were enlisted to try and rectify the poor image of unused and unloved spaces ñ or to 'cheer up' or decorate poorly designed developments. The limitations of this approach, and the poor use it made of an artist's potential contribution started to become apparent. Despite public art's intention of creating unique and stimulating places, everywhere was beginning to look the same and public art was in some instances, becoming as formulaic as the areas it was trying to distinguish. So practice moved on and now there seems to be a general acceptance that artists should become involved at the beginning of the design or thought process, not at the end.

If you like what an artist makes, then you must like the way that he or she thinks, so why not harness that creative thinking from the outset? Public Art South West has a history of championing multidisciplinary working and the importance of the arts, building and design professions recognising the mutual benefits this can bring in terms of delivering high quality environments. The integration of artists' creativity and skills into our built and natural environment can create positive outcomes for communities, urban and rural renaissance and business. When the arts become a recognised component of regeneration they can encourage personal development, build confidence, skills and social networks and encourage social cohesion and community empowerment. Quality of thought and implementation in design results in imaginative and exciting places that are fit for purpose, reflect local identity, provide economic benefits and which meet respective communities needs by engaging them in the cultural process.

There is currently a positive political climate in which to promote and push for more creative solutions as to how we develop our environment. The reform of the planning system, the emphasis on ensuring that new settlements, housing and rural and urban regeneration incorporates high quality design and the growing awareness that a good deal of what we have created and constructed is simply not good enough, provides many opportunities for us all to challenge our current ways of working and thinking explore new angles, apply lateral thinking and generally adapt and change. The current campaigns aimed at involving the professions and the public in debates about open space, the proliferation of highway signs and street furniture, and poor housing design are all very positive steps and one which should be welcomed. The DCMS has recently called for further robust evidence of exactly what it is that the arts bring to regeneration and the response from a wide variety of organisations and professions demonstrates what we all instinctively know, that creativity matters, it brings relevance to our lives.

But how do we achieve this integration of artists' creativity into public realm design when the day-to-day grind pushes for delivery, outputs and justification of spend? How do we carve out time to really think about what's needed before plunging headlong into what we think needs to be done? How do we ensure that the artists' input doesn't just become another commodity and that the integrated approach doesn't result in such a blurring of the boundaries that the essence of what an artist is and brings becomes lost in a corporate sea?

We have to be creativeÖ creative commissioners in every aspect of what we do. We need to legitimise ëthinking' time for real research and development being built into schemes and developments. We need to leave scope for artists to contribute; we need to ensure that their role is as important and valid as any other consultant. After all, no one questions the specialist knowledge an archaeologist, geologist or engineer can bring ñ so why not widen this to 'visual engineers'- artists? We can't become complacent, lazy or look for short cuts.

It is this approach, which PROJECT engaging artists in the built environment ñ funded by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and Arts & Business (A&B) aims to support and encourage over the next two years. Managed and delivered by PASW, the scheme provides funding in order to support artists to comment on or work within the design, planning and construction sectors. The purpose of which is to influence and create a shared vision for architecture, public space, planning and high quality urban design. The scheme intends to raise the level of debate, change working practices, unlock partnership funding and analyse the impact of working with artists, the latter through an independent evaluation process which is being undertaken by Comedia. There is £300,000 available up until March 2006, over £100,000 of which has just been awarded to 10 schemes throughout the UK. Artists will be involved in a variety of exciting and groundbreaking projects which range from working with design teams on new schools, the regeneration of town centres, new arterial road routes, re-thinking the way in which large scale tips and excavations affect our environment and housing and community regeneration projects.

However, just by taking this approach, doesn't mean everything will automatically fall into place ñ there are (of course!) pitfalls, of which rushed thinking and complacency are the major causes. Commissioners should not make assumptions about what the artist can bring, what they will do and create silos of interest before the project event starts. Design teams should be encouraged to establish clear and constant internal lines of communication and create a climate of mutual trust and respect. No one should try and predict the outcome before even establishing the aims and procedure (and neither should funding schemes ask us to!). More time and expertise should be allocated to finding the right artist for the right job, and priority should be given to discussion and debate, evaluating what has been achieved and future planning. Everyone involved in projects should network more widely and take advantage of all the good material and knowledge that is available. In short, we all need to be creative risk-takers prepared to embrace the inspirational and unexpected input of artists.

Maggie Bolt is Director of Public Art South West.

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