Listening to Radio 4 on Thursday last week I happened to catch artist Andrew Shoben’s programme Change of Art, exploring the idea of “rotating” or “retiring” unwanted public art works – a concept that I’m also interested in exploring as part of my PhD research into the NewcastleGateshead ‘collection’. Like a lot of media coverage of contemporary art this was a fairly light hearted piece (with a rather jaunty musical accompaniment), but nevertheless offers an interesting overview of some of the issues surrounding decommissioning, temporality and audience engagement in public art.
The programme opened with Shoben embarking on an ad hoc street survey of people’s responses to an art work called ‘Arrows and Obelisks’ (a 1995 shiny stainless steel work) by sculptor Peter Logan, which is sited on the Old Kent Road in London and is a work that Shoben himself would like to have forcibly ‘retired’. “What do you think of this as a sculpture?” asks Shoben, “It’s been there for ages. All I do is look in it as I walk past, to check what I look like…” is one typically unenthusiastic reply.
Shoben starts his investigations with a visit to the Cass Sculpture Foundation (described by Antony Gormley later in the programme as “a garden centre for rootless art objects”) to choose a replacement work for the Old Kent Road site, and then moves on to meet with a series of other art world experts: Sandy Nairne (Director of the National Portrait Gallery) for a discussion about artistic risk-taking and the success of the rotating commissions programme for The Fourth Plinth ; curator Michaela Crimmin and art law expert Henry Lydiate, on the practical and legal difficulties of siting and decommissioning of art works in the public realm (planning permission, road closures and legal ownership are just some of the key issues discussed); and ending his exploration with an interview with Antony Gormley in which the sculptor argues for the ‘temporal responsibility” of the artist, to create something that lasts.
Bravely perhaps, Shoben also asks passersby about what they think of one of his own public works, ‘Monument to the Unknown Artist’, noting (rather unsurprisingly) that there seem to be as many different responses as there are members of the public. Shoben concludes the programme by asking whether the ‘public’ should have a more recognised role in the decommissioning process, or in wider decision making about ‘public’ art. To stimulate further popular debate on these issues, Shoben has set up a Bad Public Art UK page on Flickr to invite nominations for future sculptural removals.
Change of Art was originally broadcast on Radio 4, 11.30, 18 October 2012. Producers: Joby Waldman and Kathryn Willgress. It was A Somethin’ Else production.
Reading my notes on Wickham’s work on ranking collections again yesterday, I was reminded to have another look at the classification table used by the Public Monument and Sculpture Association in data collection for its National Recording Project. Set up in 1997 and continuing until 2003 this research project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aimed to create a detailed catalogue of British public sculpture and monuments and to disseminate this material as an online resource and via a series of publications.
The resulting database includes both historic (from 1200) and contemporary sculptural works, including architectural details and functional pieces. Each record includes the following standard fields:
- Type (e.g. sculpture, marker, statue, fountain)
- Name of sculptor
- Date of design
- Year of unveiling
- Location details (address, physical description e.g. “amongst trees on bank”, OS Ref, postcode)
- Listing status
- Duty of care (e.g. local authority)
- Name of commissioner
- Notes (physical description and full details of commissioning history, if known)
- Physical condition
- Element details (materials and physical dimensions)
- Assessment of condition (surface and structural, including any vandalism)
While recording a huge number of art works (9,300 nationally) and a high level of detail (sometimes almost amounting to a ‘biography’) this project seems scrupulous in not making any attempt to rank or compare the works it records.
The North East volume of the catalogue – Public Sculpture of North-East England – published by Liverpool University Press (2000) and researched by Paul Usherwood, Jeremy Beach and Catherine Morris at Northumbria University, will be one of the key starting points for my research into the NewcastleGateshead Collection.
As a starting point for my initial reading and with specific recommendations from Chris Whitehead and my supervisory team I’ve begun to explore some of the literature around museums and ‘collecting theory’.
Material I’ve read or dipped into so far over the last two weeks includes: Susan Pearce’s book ‘Museums, objects and collections’ (1992) and her short piece ‘Collections and collecting’ in ‘Museums and the Future of Collecting’ (Knell, 2004); also Martin Wickham’s chapter ‘Ranking collections’ in the same book; and Samuel Alberti’s article ‘Objects and the Museum’ from the journal Isis (2005).
The following are some notes on my initial reactions and thoughts about how some of the concepts I’ve discovered here might relate to or help guide my future research around public art collections. (Note to readers: Please remember that this is only my fourth week on my new ‘PhD research job’, so these are very early thoughts. I’m bound to be returning to and reworking these notes, and perhaps discarding them too, as my research progresses.) Inevitably at this stage my notes are mainly questions.
Models for object study
Included as an appendix within Pearce’s (1992) book are six alternative or overlapping diagrammatic models for analysing or interpreting museum objects as a stimulus or guide for future student study. Pearce’s own model (1986) used with students at Leicester University sets out 8 levels for gathering information about an object: 1. Material – construction. 2. Material – design. 3. Material – character. 4. History – original and subsequent. 5. Environment – context. 6. Environment – location. 7. Significance. 8. Interpretation – social role. How far might all or any of these apply to a public art work? What might a new bespoke model for analysing public art work look like? Do any particular study models for interpreting and collecting data on public art exist already? How contemporary or flexible are these? Should designing a new model for public art works be a specific objective of my research?
The ‘iceberg’ view
This is Pearce’s 2004 metaphor of the heritage collection as an “iceberg” – 1/10 visible object that can be measured, compared, photographed, exhibited, but 9/10ths is below the water, invisible, the “dark side” of the collection, much more difficult to analyse or display. The stress here is on the people, the characters who have created or assembled the collection. Pearce assets that both elements should be equally recognised in the study and understanding of meaning making within a collection – “…collections, like icebergs, inhabit both elements and the end result is an intrinsic whole, which has followed its own growth pattern and taken its characteristic shape whatever that may have turned out to be.” (Pearce, 2004, p.49) I rather like this image – should I be looking at the evolution of public art in the city in terms of a distinctive “growth pattern”?
This is Alberti’s argument for the exploration of objects as living entities. Things that can be studied in terms of their individual “careers”, their “key moments” or changing status and value in their journey from “acquisition to arrangement and viewing” within a collection and the accumulated “web” of collectors, processes and exchanges that have contributed to this. It’s an appealing viewpoint I think and an attractive way of writing about art works. Could you describe a public art work and its processes in this way? From commissioning, through creation, fabrication, installation, and continuing but changing public presence? What would this look like in terms of a temporary rather than a permanently sited work?
The association of a tank museum with a public art collection is not perhaps an obvious one to make, but I thought that Wickham’s practical and “rational” approach to ranking or “grading” objects within a collection might offer an interesting tool for categorising public art works in the city. The mathematical “weighting” model takes things a bit too far for me but the key processes he suggests for designing such a system certainly seem valid for my study. Could I work collaboratively with other public art professionals to devise a similar list in grading works in the NewcastleGateshead public art collection? Is something similar already in use perhaps by local authority officers or company asset managers in relation to their own commissioned works?
This month I started a part time PhD with the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University. I’m planning to use this blog to track the progress of my research and to share the development of my ideas and writing over the next six years.
At this point the working title for my project is ‘Public Art in NewcastleGateshead – collection, interaction and audience in the age of social and mobile media.’ This is a project that has evolved out of my own professional practice as a public realm curator and commissions advisor over the last seven or more years here in the North East, working with Commissions North and as a freelancer with Inspire Northumberland and Grit & Pearl.
Working with my PhD supervisors Chris Whitehead and Areti Galani at ICCHS and Venda Pollock in Fine Art, my first task will be to try to focus the scope of this research topic more clearly, to come up with some real ‘research questions’ and to start to create a viable project plan.
While I’m used to doing this sort of thing in my freelance life, framing and delivering such a long term and in-depth research project in an academic environment really is a new adventure (and a real challenge) for me. I’m hoping that this blog will help to support and to drive that process. And also, hopefully be something that others interested in public art and its audiences might wish to read or comment on as the project develops.
So here we are. Welcome to my public art research blog…..