Private deals that spawn public art

David Lister finds works 'parachuted' into place at night without those having to live with them even being consulted
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The Independent Online
Decisions on art in public places are largely taken without consulting the public, and without any public competition to determine whose art should go on show, a report claims today.

The report, from the independent Policy Studies Institute, is the first comprehensive examination of the impact of public art in Britain - sculptures, statues, murals and paving that have embellished city squares and streets over the past decade.

The author of the report, Sara Selwood, a PSI associate research fellow, says there has to be "greater openness as to how decisions are made, who makes them and for what reasons".

She adds that little information about public art work was made available to the public, reflecting the broader problem whereby little information or interpretive material about contemporary art is provided, even by public sector institutions. "Messianic promoters of public art sometimes suggest that the burgeoning of public art outside the gallery may contribute towards the creation of new audiences for art. We found no evidence to support this."

She adds that the public was rarely consulted about art to be sited in areas used daily. Raymond Mason's glass fibre sculpture Forward (a collection of multiple figures, including industrial workers and craftsmen advancing) was "parachuted" into Centenary Square in Birmingham under cover of night, making it look like civic embarrassment, the report says.

It adds that the sculpture "seeks to represent the people of Birmingham [but] was produced according to the artist's own terms of reference rather than in consultation with the people themselves".

And when there is a public response, and it is negative, the artist can make an optimistic construction. Ms Selwood points out that at Graves Park in the Chantreyland sculpture trail, Sheffield, "the artist interpreted a small act of vandalism - people carving their names on a public artwork - as indicative of the success of the work".

Of case studies examined in depth, including Centenary Square in Birmingham and Broadgate in London, no work involved open competitions. "Several artists whose work was included ... were self-selecting in that they had been involved in the initiation of the projects (for example, Smethwick High Street and Westgate Station, Wakefield). Some had little or no previous experience of working in public places."

Artists were also generally assigned a more privileged position than other contractors. "Why this should be the case, and why artists should be regarded as capable of serving wider interests than other professional groups, is rarely questioned."

nThe Benefits of Public Art, pounds 27.95, PSI; Tel: 0800 262-260.