ixia: public art think tank

ixia has taken over the ownership and management of Public Art Online from Arts Council England. The design and content of the website are currently being reviewed.

Bookmark and Share

Working with Artists

This article was previously published in Vista - News from the world of Landscape Architecture, 17 December 2004.

In June 2004 an exciting new scheme was launched aimed at supporting artists to work within or comment on the design, planning and construction sectors in order to influence and create a shared vision for architecture, public space, planning and high quality urban design. Some may say, 'nothing new in that' as public art has been around for years; in the high street, on coastal paths, outside new commercial developments, in the transport system, the local hospital. The list goes on and on.

However, the enthusiasm for including public art ñ or applying a percent for art policy (when a percentage of the capital costs are allocated for the inclusion of artists) has also, ironically, brought its own problems. Public art is sometimes viewed as just another item on the tick list of outputs, possibly only included in the first place for political expediency, or because it's a condition of funding. It can become simply a commodity, identified by the spot marked 'X' on the architect's drawings, with the end result appearing as formulaic as the design it was meant to be imbuing with a ësense of place'. Creative thinking and application, in terms of process, and the realisation of the work is sacrificed in order to meet deadlines. In short, the artist's contribution is considered far too late in the process.

Which is why the new grants scheme, PROJECT - engaging artists in the built environment, is an important addition to the arts funding mix. Firstly it is funded by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and Arts & Business (A&B), two highly influential national organisations. The partnership between the two is a new and welcome development on both sides, and the desire to collaborate with a public art development agency Public Art South West (PASW), provides an exciting new model of working. Secondly, the intention behind the scheme is to involve artists at the earliest possible stage of development. Either by getting involved in master plans, urban design frameworks, and designs for new housing settlements or working creatively with communities on issues of change and acting as a commentator or provocateur through encouraging a critical discourse in relation to regeneration, its impact and our expectations.

PASW has a history of championing multidisciplinary working and of advocating how important it is that the arts, building and design professions recognise 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 result 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.

In the early days of public art in this country, the emphasis tended to be 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. The practice of bringing in artists to try and rectify the poor image of unused and unloved spaces, or to ëcheer up' or decorate poorly designed developments were not as rare as one would have liked. Often left to fend for themselves, artists were frequently excluded from the rest of the design team, and certainly had no involvement in the early conceptual thinking. Yet, despite this, they were still expected to turn around disengaged communities with a few workshops and a piece of sculpture. This is not a constructive way to work with anyone and many artists felt seriously compromised by poorly thought out projects, the limitations of the brief and more worryingly, the limited expectations of what, they as creative practitioners could bring to the process.

However, practice has moved on and now current thinking advocates for the artist to become part of a multidisciplinary team, fully involved from the outset and with the value placed on their role of creative thinkers, as much as any work that may be an outcome of the collaboration. Yet, whilst many acknowledge that this is the way to work and that the overall quality of design will benefit, they can still find it difficult to fund the research and development phase of a project.

Therefore PROJECT was devised in order to assist the 'early days' of developing regeneration and built and rural environment projects. Focussing primarily, but not exclusively, on the housing, education and healthcare sectors, it provides funds to enable the artist to 'join the team'. In return, the commissioner is expected to be as creative and innovative as possible with regard to the scope and role of the artist. The commissioner is also expected to have frameworks in place which will ensure that the artist's contribution can be fully realised and implemented.

It is still early days for PROJECT, and the first round of Awards, one of four rounds up until March 2006, has only just taken place. However, it is already evident from the sheer breadth, imagination and number of applications received, that many around the UK welcome this scheme and have used it as a way of advocating for a different way of working. Ten awards have been made and artists around the country will have opportunities to be involved in a variety of inspiring 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.

Another key objective of the scheme is to raise the level of current debate about the benefit these schemes have and evaluate whether they will bring about sustainable changes to existing working practices. Therefore, an independent evaluation team, Comedia, have been appointed to research the ways in which artists contribute into public realm design projects and the relative effectiveness of each method, the impact of artist input on the design quality, the regenerative effect, community viability and commercial effectiveness of projects, and the effects in the longer term of this collaborative experience on the practice of artists and design professionals. The resulting report should contain evidence and conclusions which are relevant to the health, education, housing, community regeneration, development, commercial, private, design, planning and arts sectors. The first early findings will be published on the PROJECT website next March.

There is currently a positive political climate in which to promote and push for more creative solutions as to how we develop our environment. It is now legitimate and even expected to take into account what we all instinctively know anyway ñ that creativity matters and brings relevance and quality to our lives. We need to be creative risk-takers prepared to embrace the inspirational and unexpected input of artists in order to extend and enhance our own areas of practice.

Maggie Bolt is Director of Public Art South West.

 Fast Find

Go to specific information related to you.

 Editor's Choice

What's New

ixia update

 Join our elist