Public art has historically played an integral role within the public realm reflecting creative developed cultures. In recent years public art has enjoyed a revival occurring in conjunction with our desire to improve the quality of our built environment and public space. New forms of public art such as performance, ephemeral, installation and electronic media, alongside more traditional forms such as sculpture and mural, contribute to contemporary place-making generating engaging memorable public realms.
The emergence of the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF), FORM PUBLIC and FRINGE WORLD festivals, which are all now world class events, reflects Perth’s cultural growth. PIAF has delivered captivating performance and installation works by leading international artists such as ‘Place des Anges’ by Les Studios de Cirque in 2012 and ‘Walking with the Giants’ by Royal de Luxe in 2015. FORM’s PUBLIC urban art festival has brought many leading international street artists to Perth in its first three years. Pixel Pancho’s ‘Protection Against the Immigrant in Myself’ mural on the Central Institute of Technology building in Northbridge, Phlegm’s giant ‘Impossible Flying Machines’ mural on silos in Northam, and Alexis Diaz’s ‘Leafy Sea Dragon’ in Wolf Lane Perth are all stunning works.
In a global economy cities are inevitably competing to attract attention, talent, business and tourism. Cities that have established and embraced creative cultures, such as Melbourne, have benefitted in a social and economic sense. Public art by definition is the most accessible form of art and an opportunity for cities to establish memorable as well as authentic identities reflecting local history, people and places. Generating quality public art however requires comprehensive government policy, forward thinking master-planning, rigorous artist education, training programs, knowledge sharing networks, availability of affordable studios, dedicated public art management staff, passionate advisory groups, community involvement programs, development of public private sector relationships and significant funding. A co-ordinated holistic approach.
Some local councils such as the City of Vincent, Victoria Park and Melville have embraced public art, acknowledging its ability to engage a diverse range of social groups within local communities. The City of Vincent was the first local council to establish a Percent for Public Art Scheme, and recently created an online mural and public art map encouraging awareness and commissions for public art works. The City of Perth has also commissioned works, however its commitment to public art is decidedly underwhelming.
Examining the City of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane’s public art strategy and policy documents highlights their strong commitment to public art. The City of Melbourne recently established a Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab. Ten selected Australian artists will develop innovative works in a laboratory style environment, supported by input from world experts, culminating in a number of commissions for the Queen Victoria Market site. By comparison the City of Perth only recently adopted a Public Art Strategy and is still to develop comprehensive public arts policy, management systems and commissioning processes.
The Government of Western Australia has also commissioned significant quantities of public art through its Percent for Art Scheme. The scheme requires government developments over $2M to commission public art from local artists. The quantities are significant, however the quality of many outcomes is poor. Any form of artistic expression is subjective, worthy of robust debate and often controversial. Whilst the need for public art is not often questioned, the quality of outcomes raises questions.
Should we be commissioning public art from a broader mix of international, national, established local and emerging public artists to improve outcomes? Alternatively, do local artists commissioned for public art in Western Australia simply need to lift their game or can we provide a better framework for artists to achieve better outcomes?
Perth has a number of talented street artists such as Stormie Mills and Kyle Hughes-Odgers, both of whom are acclaimed internationally and have contributed numerous murals to Perth. We are also blessed with many emerging street artists producing quality work. The quality of locally commissioned performance, ephemeral, installation and sculptural work however does not often achieve the same heights. Sculpture intended for the public realm is complex, requiring a diverse skill base, interaction with a number of collaborators as well as significant budgets to cover artist’s time, materials, fabrication, transportation and installation costs.
Our public realm is littered with examples of strong ideas executed poorly through questionable material selections and construction techniques. Many concepts are pursued without consideration for their ability to be successfully executed within given budgets, which are always limiting to some extent. The most successful outcomes often result from strong collaborations between artists, architects and fabricators. Artists often excel in responding to sites, generating and developing creative concepts while architects bring their knowledge of siting, materials selection and construction techniques. Skilled fabricators and contractors are also critical in ensuring strong concepts translate into quality outcomes. All three participants are equally important in achieving quality outcomes.
Education and training for public art practitioners is also lacking. Until recently there were no recognised high level paths of study dedicated to public art in Australia, let alone Western Australia. Most artists engaged in public art studied broader visual or fine arts courses and evolved into this form of art from smaller scale painting and sculpture. The leap in scale often demands the use of construction materials requiring specialised construction techniques. It’s location in the public realm also demands the use of highly durable, low maintenance materials resistant to vandalism. Both requirements can easily erode concepts if not considered, prototyped and executed well.
The integration of sculptural works within the built environment is also changing. Previously, many works were standalone artworks in foyers, forecourts or surrounding public spaces. Public art is increasingly integrated into building facades, which too often results in limiting artists scope to selecting screening patterns hiding building services such as parking, electrical, water or fire services. The results are often generic, predictable and unimaginative outcomes leaving little arts component, which should be provided as part of the architecture.
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman’s eleven metre high ‘Totem’ created as part of the Perth Arena development is beautifully constructed, respectful of the building it was created for and interactive with both passing pedestrians and the building. Although this work enjoyed the relative freedom of a generous time-frame and budget which many don’t, it successfully contributes to both the architecture and surrounding public realm. Many of Stuart Green’s sculptural works such as ‘Fizz’ at the New Children’s Hospital and ‘Crossing’ at Atwell College also achieve similar qualities.
The arts are considered by many to have purely cultural and social benefits, however embracing public art will also bring significant economic benefits to Western Australia. The Government of Western Australia has committed to public art through its Percent for Art Scheme, however its surrounding framework needs to be strengthened to provide a holistic approach allowing local artists to achieve high quality outcomes.
Art can be everywhere. Engaging narratives, captivating images as well as intriguing sounds reflecting local history, people and places should enliven our built environment, reflecting Perth’s developing creative culture and cultural identity on the world scene. Art done well will inspire West Australians to achieve great things in many other fields for years to come, as well as meaningfully contribute to our public realm.
Simon Venturi is a director of a small architectural practice, NOMA*, a member of the City of Vincent Design Advisory Committee, and recently joined the City of Vincent Arts Advisory Group.
This is an edited version of a longer text available at www.nomastudio.com.au/opinions