A couple of months ago you may have seen the news about the iconic Jeff Koons Balloon Dog sculpture that got damaged.
Published date: 17 May 2023
It got us reflecting on the importance of maintenance for public art, and what to do when a piece comes to the end of its life.
These may not be the first things you think about when considering a new public art commission, but we believe it’s important to begin with the end in mind. We always take maintenance and decommissioning into account when developing public art strategies and planning for the production of new works. However, we know how this is an often forgotten and perhaps less glamourous side of the work involved in public art commissioning!
Back in 2006, fellow independent public art consultants Hazel Colquhoun and Sam Wilkinson were commissioned to undertake research into decommissioning practice in four East Kent local authorities and developed a policy with recommendations. Their findings showed that the practice of decommissioning is ‘highly variable, not well developed, and not yet filtering through to partner funding bodies.’ Even though this investigation was carried out 17 years ago, we find that not much has changed across the country today.
They noted that while ‘architects have little say over what happens to their buildings once the clients take them on […] we do have the protection frameworks of listing, conservation area status and scheduled ancient monuments.’ and went on to ask ‘Could this sort of framework help with public artworks?’ Their interviews with artists found that the originators of the work were very supportive of the need for decommissioning to be better planned for from the start. It’s an interesting read if you’d like to delve further into the subject.
Closer to home for us in Maidstone, we have also been involved with developing policy guidance and touches on matters relating to maintenance and decommissioning. The county town has many pieces of public art which you could argue are passed their best. We’d like to think when the time comes that the artists would be contacted, and the artworks would be retired gracefully.
Damage to artwork is another matter and we’ve been watching with interest the Antony Gormley’s Two Stones, outside the Kent History and Library Centre, one of which has been recently damaged and removed for repair. Ultimately, commissioners of public art need to budget for maintenance and insurance and take responsibility for taking care of the work for the long term.
When this doesn’t happen there is a negative impact for both the artist and the community. Sometimes work is destroyed or damaged in error such as in Stoke-on-Trent. Other times it may go missing and get lost because it has not been properly accounted for – sometimes it may even be stolen.
Sometimes artworks are planned to be temporary installations and changes over time are anticipated such as The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, where different artists are given the opportunity to put in place an installation for a limited period of time. Nothing will last forever, so we need to be prepared for changes to occur over time – and where possible to plan for this from the start.
If you’d like to learn more about key points to consider and how to do this in practice, we invite you to download our Demystifying Public Art series of Practical Guides to Public Art Commissioning.