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.