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Current Research - Public Art Practice, Audiences and Impact

Updated January 2010


Many claims have been made over the last 20 years or so about the value that artists and public art bring to the design of public spaces. The main assertions are that public art:

  • Enhances the physical environment
  • Creates a sense of place and distinctiveness
  • Contributes to community cohesion
  • Contributes to social health and wellbeing
  • Contributes to economic value through inward investment and tourism
  • Fosters civic pride and confidence
  • Raises quality of life
  • Reduces crime

However, until recently, little or no hard evidence was available to back these statements. Very little research had been done into the impact of public art or how artists in design teams were bringing added value and quality to the public realm. The research that did take place tended to be an evaluation of the project process with participants, carried out immediately after project completion, rather than looking at impact over a longer timescale and in a wider context.

Since 2003, things have begun to change. Several substantial pieces of research have been commissioned by leading organisations in the arts and public art field, among them ixia, Artpoint Trust, Scottish Arts Council, the regional offices of Arts Council England in the West Midlands and the South East, and Public Art South West.

Not entirely coincidentally, during 2005, ixia (formerly Public Art Forum) was renamed, relaunched and undertook a review of its purpose and priorities. Its name became ixia - the national think tank for public art practice, and, from being a part time networking organisation, it has refocused as a full-time research based organisation which aims to provide an independent and objective view of the factors that affect the quality of public art. With its first full-time Chief Executive in post from April 2006, ixia is in a good position to be an effective leading voice for public art, working to show how current policies and processes can be further developed to progress the roles of artists within the public realm.

Three publications track the debate around the value and impact of public art, and whether and how the claims can be validated:

  • The Benefits of Public Art by Sara Selwood (Pub: PSI, 1995. ISBN: 0853746087) discusses the claims made for public art and the lack of evidence for them. 
  • Unreliable Evidence. The Rhetorics of Data Collection in the Cultural Sector by Sara Selwood (in Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts, Ed. Munira Mirza. Pub: Policy Exchange, 2006) discusses the confusion in Government about how to view the arts, as instrument for social, educational and other change, or as a good in themselves, the ineffectiveness of gathering quantitative data to measure qualitative outcomes, and the inconsistent and poor use to which the data gathered by arts projects has been put. 
  • Public Art, Design-led Urban Regeneration and its Evaluation by Doug Sandle (in Design and Creativity – Policy, Management and Practice, Editors Guy Julier, Liz Moor. Pub: Berg, 2009) tracks the recent move by Government to instrumentalist agendas, how in most cases, the weakness in evaluation methodology has produced unreliable evidence, and the difficulty in disentangling the impact of public art from other kinds of unrelated intervention.

The purpose of this report, at this exciting moment, is to provide a round up of recently completed public art research which contributes to the body of knowledge about public art, its processes and impact.

Personal Views: Public Art Research Project (2003)

Professor Doreen Massey and Dr Gillian Rose, Social Sciences Faculty, The Open University
Commissioned by: Milton Keynes Council

The Personal Views Project used two different methodologies for investigating audience responses to public artworks in Milton Keynes. It combined an artist-led 'soft' research project, which encouraged Milton Keynes residents to look anew at the artwork in their city, with 'hard' academic research investigating questions of place and identity in relation to public art. The project was managed by Artpoint.

Artists Simon Grennan & Christopher Sperandio were appointed to produce new work that would increase the people of Milton Keynes' engagement with their city's public art with the aim of developing new audiences, raising the profile of public art, and engaging the public creatively in the development of a new art work. Grennan & Sperandio invited residents to write in with their stories - whether fictional or factual - of artworks in Milton Keynes. From these, the artists created a series of comic strips which were published in local newspapers and produced on postcards which were distributed widely.

The brief for the research study asked Professor Doreen Massey and Dr Gillian Rose of the Open University to reflect upon public art in the context of new thinking about place and identity of place. This involved looking at the construction of place and what that might mean for public art, and this, in turn, led to questions about what 'public' might mean and how that is tied to notions of place, of identity and of social diversity.

The report analyses 'place' as an open location where a diverse range of influences meet, a dynamic place created by the ongoing social relationships and negotiations between people that happen in it. The term 'public' is understood as an 'arena' in which many diverse kinds of people can come together and engage, and from which no-one is excluded by poverty, race, gender, sexuality or other personal circumstances. The report concludes that public space depends on what happens in it, what interactions take place to create it. It goes on to argue that identity is not a given based on essential, internal characteristics but is created as a product of interaction with others. Any intervention in a place, be it an object or a set of practices, will make an impact and help to produce that space. The implications of these definitions for public art are then explored in detail.

The report reflects that the definition of public art has been the preserve of artists and cultural theorists, although all definitions assume some kind of interaction by a public audience. It suggests firstly that the range of practice embraced by public art means that it cannot be treated as a singular entity, and secondly, that the audience or community should be asked to contribute to the definition of the term by asking them how a particular artwork or space affects them or is effective. It goes on to explore three 'dimensions' which affect how public art is perceived by its audience.

The report concludes that the relationship between an artwork and its audience is complex and unique. These relationships change with time, both at different stages of the artwork's planning and production, and as audiences change over time. The definition of public art offered by Prof. Massey and Dr Rose is: For an artwork to be public, it must invite engagement not only from different groups but between them. 'If negotiation between diverse social identities is not invited, then the artwork is not public.'

The full report is available for download

Audientia Action Research Project (2003)

Project leader: Anna Douglas, with Sakab Bashir, Emma Chetcuti, Julia Ellis, Claire Hicks, Emma Hughes, Deborah Jones, Emma Larkinson, Anne Parouty, David Patten, Jacqui Rodger
Commissioned by: Arts Council England, West Midlands

This project aimed to explore people's relationship to the wealth of permanent public art situated throughout the city of Birmingham . It was one of the first research projects nationally to initiate a critical engagement with the workings of public art through action research.

Anna Douglas led the project, inviting ten people including artists, art commissioners, policy makers, and urban strategists from the Midlands to form a 'co-operative inquiry group'. Over nine months, from May 2002, the group met approximately monthly to discuss the progress of the project and share their thoughts and perspectives. They each kept a personal journal throughout the research period and were asked to defined for themselves - outside of their professional job personas - their attitude to, and relationship with, public art. To do this they spent time in the city observing and recording their own and other people's responses to public art and place.

After observing the everyday life of the city over several months, the group was able to recognise the different qualities to experiencing. They also began to appreciate how public art is part of a competing visual landscape. They recognised that any consideration of public art could not overlook the broader context of its existence, including ideas of time, space, location, memory, associations and expectations. They concluded that public art sits within a network of geographic, topographical and social relations.

Each member evolved a thread of inquiry which was pursued through a special action in the city, for example: a temporary café set up in Victoria Square in which Kurdish refugees shared tea and cakes and reminisced about their homeland; a postcard publicly distributed to passersby in which the public art of Victoria Square had been erased; a phone line set up to broadcast and record city stories.

The findings of the research project are published on the Audientia website. Visitors to the site can follow the narratives of each researcher including their journals and visual and/or aural documentation of each action, or use the search facility to identify and explore key themes through the site's smart search facility.

Research on Public Art : Assessing Impact and Quality (2005)

OPENspace: the research centre for inclusive outdoor environments, Edinburgh College of Arts and Heriot-Watt University
Commissioned by: ixia public art think tank

In 2004, ixia commissioned OPENspace: the research centre for inclusive outdoor environments, Edinburgh College of Arts and Heriot-Watt University to undertake an ambitious piece of research with the aim of developing and testing a toolkit for assessing the impact of public art, to be used by the key parties engaged in public art practice. The aim was to provide guidance on impact, to better understand public art practice and promote professional relationships, and to allow consideration of the relationship between impact and quality in respect of context and process.

The research brief envisaged a two stage study:

Stage 1:

Mapping the claims made for public art in the context of economic, social, environmental and cultural agendas; Development of measures and indicators in relation to commissioning practice, the partners in the process and delivery and 'afterlife'; Assessment of indicators of quality, possibly related to ambition/vision of a project, process and context; identification of possible public art projects on which to test the toolkit.

Stage 2:

The development of an assessment toolkit addressing the criteria emerging from Stage 1; Testing the toolkit in relation to the agreed projects and production of case studies.

The final report on the Stage 1 study, Research on Public Art : Assessing Impact and Quality reveals the complexities of the task, arising largely from the inherent difficulties in defining quality and success in art, the large number and range of partners and their varying perspectives, and the difficulty in measuring economic, social, health, education and social inclusion impacts. OPENspace has developed an evaluation framework that is sensitive to the needs of public art and the nature of public art practice. It is designed to be used by all stakeholders from the outset of a project in order to increase mutual awareness of diverse agendas. This will both help the project to achieve its maximum potential and the project to be appraised using mutually agreeable outcome measures and methods for collecting, analysing and reporting the information.

Two tools have been developed:

a multi dimensional matrix which places the artist and artistic values at the core of the process. It helps to identify partners in the project, the range of possible values which may need to be taken into account to assess quality and impact and for relevant measures and indicators of quality to be identified;

a personal project analysis which can be used at different stages of a project, and which allows the artist and other key players in a project to explore an individual view of the project and their personal relationship with it, in order to understand outcome and impact.

The toolkit was tested for usability and potential usefulness on a small number of projects. The draft report was circulated to professionals in the field and was the subject of a workshop in late 2004 to ensure a useable toolkit. The report includes guidance on using the evaluation framework and assessment toolkit, and concludes with recommendations for full trailing of the toolkit and for long term monitoring and analysis. 

Stage 2 of the research comprising further development of the tools and training to support its use was complete by late 2006.  This work refined the Evaluation Toolkit and added an online Evaluation Database tool, through which individual projects would be able to manage and collate feedback from the various players for their project, for different project stages and the whole project.  The Database would also allow ixia to monitor and analyse the anonymised data and publish reports about public art from time to time on their website.  These could help identification of good practice principles and provide an evidence base for future policy decisions about public art.

Ixia developed its successful Evaluation Toolkit day seminar programme to support use of the evaluation tools produced during this research.  The course now forms a regular part of its continuing professional development programme.  Ixia has also published two practical guides to support users of the Evaluation Toolkit.  Public Art: A Guide to Evaluation (2009) is informed by the academic research and shaped into a practical guide by feedback from Evaluation Toolkit seminar participants and from consultants who have use the Toolkit on live projects.  Evaluation Database User Guide (2009) is a step by step guide for people who have attended the Evaluation Toolkit seminar which entitles them access to the online Evaluation Database tool.

The Stage 1 report is available for download

Public Art: A Guide to Evaluation is available for download

Evaluation Database User Guide is available for download

Evaluation of National Lottery Artists Work in Public Places Scheme (2005)

Roberts, Knight, Leeds Metropolitan University Consultancy (RKL)
Commissioned by: Scottish Arts Council

In early 2004, The Scottish Arts Council commissioned Roberts, Knight, Leeds Metropolitan University Consultancy (RKL) to undertake an evaluation of the current and past National Lottery schemes funding the work of artists in the public realm. The research brief asked the consultants to:

  • Examine how the funding strand to support artists' involvement in the public realm had been used and assess its strengths and weaknesses;
  • Establish any common issues across projects;
  • Assess a sample of five project case studies for cultural, artistic, social, economic and regenerative impacts, and the quality of involvement of key participants, the quality of process and of the end result, local public perception and legacy issues;
  • Estimate current and future demand for funding for public art projects;
  • Make broad recommendations for improvements in how the Scottish Arts Council could fund public art work in the future.

In order to produce their final report and recommendations, RKL reviewed the policy context in Scotland, analysed the Scottish Arts Council's file data on all public art projects supported by a Lottery award, consulted with artists and other key players in the public art field, and produced an impact assessment of five representative public art projects: Edinburgh Dental Institute; Royston Road, Glasgow; Dailly Trails, Ayrshire; The Hidden Gardens, Glasgow; and Auchterarder Primary School, Perthshire.

The research report was completed in January 2005. It contains a number of recommendations on the future strategic role in public art of the Scottish Arts Council in relation to partnerships, advocacy, development and dissemination at national level, and support for the infrastructure of public art agencies and consultants. It also proposes how future funding for public art can be targeted to greatest strategic effect, and makes recommendations on future monitoring, evaluation and documentation and other delivery and legacy issues.

The executive summary of the report is available for download

Inspire: Participatory Evaluation (2005)

Barefoot Research and Evaluation
Commissioned by Inspire

Inspire is the South East Northumberland Public Art & Design Initiative, set up in 2003 to improve the built and natural environment through the involvement of artists and advocating better design across the public realm. The aim is to change perceptions, make a contemporary environment and raise aspirations for the future.  It is an initiative of South East Northumberland and North Tyneside Regeneration Initiative (SENNTRI) with Wansbeck District Council, Blyth Valley Borough Council, Northumberland County Council, Groundwork Northumberland, Arts Council England, North East and Northern Architecture.  

The project started with an initial funding agreement for three years. Two evaluation reports were commission to report on the progress of the initiative near the end of this time: A Participatory Evaluation (2005) and an Evaluation of the overall achievements of Inspire Public Art Initiative (2006) which incorporated the findings of the participatory evaluation. 

The participatory evaluation was commissioned to contribute to the assessment of three of Inspire’s objectives:

  • Objective 2: Increase the attractiveness of the environment to: local communities; stakeholder organisations; visitors and businesses;
  • Objective 3: Contribute to the modernisation of the environment and increase its distinctiveness;
  • Objective 4: Ensure that communities and stakeholders are properly engaged in public art and design development.

Its particular focus was on capturing the experiences and views of members of the public, residents living near new public art projects, residents’ association members involved in the art development process, residents involved in area committees, elected councillors, young people living near new public art projects and community leaders.  It looked in detail at three projects as case studies and also specifically researched the views of young people.  The research methodology was designed to encourage a process of critical appraisal and reflection among the participants.  It included a mixture of semi structured interviews with key project stakeholders, informal discussions with members of the public and focus groups with young people.  About 60 people in total were involved in the evaluation.

The participatory evaluation findings were that:

  • There was support from local communities and stakeholder organisations for the public art projects, and that these had increased the attractiveness of the environment to the community stakeholder organisations and visitors.  An effective consultation process, allowing people to input their opinions, hold discussions and meet artists, was key to local ownership of public art;
  • The research with young people demonstrated that the type of art developed by Inspire would unequivocally lead to modernisation of the local environment and increase its distinctiveness, and was felt by interviewees to give the area a sense of identity, attract visitors and have an influence on whether residents would choose to leave the area;
  • Communities and stakeholders were properly engaged in the development process of the three case studies, and that attention to the consultation process was key to the capability and confidence of community participants involved in public art development.

The research also makes some interesting points about the difficulty in involving a good number and a representative group of community members in public art projects, the complexity of issues surrounding public involvement in public art and the tricky business of who judges the quality of a piece of public art.

The Participatory Evaluation report is available for download

Evaluation of PROJECT - engaging artists in the built environment (2006)

Commissioned by: Public Art South West

PROJECT - engaging artists in the built environment was an award scheme managed by Public Art South West (PASW) and funded by partners Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and Arts & Business (A&B). The scheme provided funding to support the early appointment of artists as conceptualists in the design process and to encourage the formation of partnerships between artists and design professionals to best support the creativity of artists within capital schemes. The scheme reached the end of its two year pilot scheme on 31 March 2006. The pot of approximately £150,000 per annum was distributed as about 15 awards ranging from £2,500 to £15,000 (a total of 30 projects in the pilot phase) over six award categories (see http://www.publicartonline.org.uk/pasw/project/ for further detail).

In mid 2004, as the scheme was launched, PASW commissioned Comedia to undertake independent research to evaluate projects supported by the scheme. The Brief set out the objectives of the research as:

  • To build on the recent and current debate on the benefits of public art, and the current research into the value of urban design;
  • To establish an evaluation framework based on setting criteria and developing measures which address the following key areas:-
    • The processes of artist input into public realm design projects and the relative effectiveness of each.
    • The impact of artist input on the design quality, regenerative effect, community viability and commercial effectiveness of projects.
    • The long term effects of the exchange of views and practice between artists and design professionals.
    • To devise a robust, effective process for collection of data from projects in receipt of awards.
    • To produce evidence and conclusions which are relevant to the health, education, housing, community regeneration, development, commercial, private, design, planning and arts sectors.
    • To make recommendations about future practice in multidisciplinary collaborations in the public realm.

Comedia devised a methodology which combined collecting information at the start of a project from the various participants (architect, artist, urban designer, client etc) on their expectations of the project and possible changes to their attitudes and work practice, and similar information on actual changes at the end of the project. In addition all participants were requested to keep a project journal, a 33% sample of projects were the subject of detailed interviews with the consultants, and the consultants attended design team meetings as participant observers for a 17% sample of projects.

The headline finding was: ‘All those professionals whose normal practice before PROJECT’s intervention did not include working with artists, subsequently experienced a fairly fundamental change in mindset and working practice as a result of their involvement.’ Other key findings were that the majority of those who underwent a change in their working practice described it as fairly long-term, and that there was a wide appreciation among the other professionals that the engagement of artists had raised the quality and value of the project and, they believed, in the built environment that ensues.  The main conditions that need to be met to ensure that an artist’s input has a positive effect are clarity about the artist’s role, early appointment, management of the artist’s involvement, professional level of remuneration, and peer group support for artists and for projects involving artists.

The full Evaluation Report and the Evaluation Toolbox are available for download

Art at the Centre Phase II (2008)

The General Public Agency
Commissioned by: Arts Council England, South East

In 1999 in the wake of the Urban Task Force Report, Towards New Urban Regeneration , and was targeted at local authorities, especially those with ideas for town and city centre renewal. In Phase I, Reading, Bicester and Slough were selected to receive awards, with a smaller award to Portsmouth. The focus was to encourage cross departmental working, involve artists in regeneration teams from the outset, undertake community activities relating to regeneration proposals and contribute to public art. Research undertaken by Brighton University at the end of

Phase 1 found that the funding from Art at the Centre bought 'a place at the table' for local authority arts departments at the inception of regeneration projects, and that the funding levered in about £20 for every £1 of Arts Council England investment.

Art at the Centre Phase II was launched by Arts Council England, South East in Autumn 2004, and three local authorities, Isle of Wight Council, Maidstone Borough Council and Swale Borough Council, were selected to receive £135,000 each over three years (2005 to 2008) to support a variety of regeneration initiatives. In January 2005, Arts Council England, South East commissioned the General Public Agency to undertake a research study to establish and implement a sophisticated and responsive process for recording and evaluation throughout the three years of the Phase II scheme.

The research brief asked that a regular process of recording be designed to track changes as they happened over the life of the scheme, which could cumulatively be drawn into a narrative for the scheme, and provide a yardstick for the local authorities to track progress against their original aspirations. The research aimed to assess impact using both quantitative and qualitative measures in order to evaluate the role and potential of art and artists to impact on future change.

As an outcome of their initial mapping, research and analysis work, General Public Agency proposed a methodology which aimed 'to strike a balance between quantitative and narrative approaches, and to address current critical debates surrounding such issues as how to measure impact, what counts as 'success' and who should be involved in evaluating regeneration schemes.' Essentially the project partners would be centrally involved in establishing aims, objectives and targets for each project to ensure relevance and commitment to the process. 

The programme included workshops with the widest range of project partners, one to one interviews with six key individuals per project at key junctures over the project's lifetime and annual cross local authority opportunities for networking and informal support and study tours to share national and international best practice. In addition, a working group with members from each authority and other regional experts identified a comparable benchmarking project and established the most appropriate hard data to collect for each project. The evaluation structure for each project was in place by September 2005. A glossary researched by the General Public Agency featuring definitions of key concepts and terms explored as part of the project was published online during Spring 2006.

The evaluation findings highlighted the considerable success of the project in embedding arts within regeneration in two of the three Local Authorities and in professional development for the artist co-ordinators.  The report also identifies a number of issues around the process of public art in a regeneration context to inform both future practice and Arts Council support for it: The very long timescales for regeneration projects compared to public art projects; The impact of disrupted continuity on success; Attitudinal differences between sectors; The need for funding conditions to ensure practical commitment to data collection.

The full evaluation report is available

Further details: Sophie Jeffrey, Art at the Centre, Arts Council England, South East.

Email: [email protected]; Tel: 01273763030 01273763030 www.aatc.org.uk

Further Information

Ixia, and before it, Public Art Forum, has held a number of conferences and seminars addressing the evaluation of public art, its impact and audiences. Reports or transcripts of the following events are available at www.ixia-info.com/events/past-events/  

The Benefits of Public Arts, London, March 2000.

How was it for you? Assessing Impact of Artists' Practice in the Public Realm, October 2004.

Ixia regularly offers its Evaluation Toolkit Seminar.  Details of the next seminar are at http://www.ixia-info.com/events/next-events/

© Copyright Joanna Morland, March 2006. Revised and Updated January 2010.

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