Public art can divide opinions. Some will love it, others will hate it. Such strong reactions can often cause debate and polarise feelings on the artwork in question.
Published date: 24 February 2022
It’s an interesting debate, since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 a number of statues and memorials in the UK and beyond have been removed or been called into dispute. In some cases, discussions are ongoing as to whether they should have been removed or remained as a symbol of history, good or bad, and actions that must be denounced.
Mary on the Green, a 10-year campaign to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft still attracted a subsequent backlash to Maggi Hambling’s commissioned statute. The national press took delight in building controversy and sparking debate on its artistic merit. The New Stateman article takes a rounded look at why this has happened.
Occasionally, public art projects just don’t work out for other reasons. Some of these may involve budgetary issues, political or religious concerns. Sometimes projects never get off the ground, other times they may be abandoned partway through. Curator Jess Fernie’s fascinating project and website Archive of Destruction catalogues a range of public art projects that have been destroyed whether intentionally or by the elements.
We want our projects to encourage discussion, spark debate and forge opinions – positive or negative. When community engagement is genuinely invited as part of the project, with views and feedback being taken onboard, communities can feel like they are a valued part of the public art process. As a result, the artwork is much more likely to be deemed a positive addition to help shape a place and represent its community.
We understand that sometimes the pressures of time and budget can cause this vital aspect to be reduced in scope or cut entirely but this is a short-term fix. Community engagement has the potential not only to save costs and time in the long-run (e.g. avoiding crisis mitigation further down the line) but can also add meaningful value.
We appreciate that artists need freedom to exercise their creativity, but equally communities, clients and project funders need to have their needs met too.
On two current projects we are working with Advisory Panels made up of residents, business owners, Councillors and clients. Each person brings a different set of opinions, experience, thoughts and ideas to the table. It is hugely rewarding for everyone involved including the artists.
Navigating this balance is core to what we do as consultants project managing and overseeing throughout the whole public art commissioning process. A great example of a project where community engagement was planned in from the start and helped to steer things to a successful launch was Springfield Mill.
Local involvement is generally delivered through open public events, targeted workshops and sharing early stage thinking in the design process providing rationale for the project, gathering feedback, keeping locals informed and encouraging engagement.
If you’d like to learn more about community engagement best practice in public art, we invite you to get hold of a copy of our free series of downloadable guides.
We advocate strongly that community consultation and engagement should be core to every project and while it’s not always possible to have a positive opinion of public art, ultimately, it’s not what the process is about.
And that for us, is always a positive outcome.