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Manifesto of Possibilities

A Manifesto of Possibilities: Commissioning Public Art in the Urban Environment

Following on from the Birkbeck ‘Building Cultures’ Seminar Series, Art and OUR City in May 2006 and the action workshop, Building Cultures 2: A Manifesto of Possibilities in February 2007, this manifesto in progress takes forward issues raised by panellists, audience members, and workshop participants. Through this manifesto we are developing significant recommendations to present to the Arts Council England, DCMS, Mayor of London and other central players in policy making and those promoting the role of art in urban change.

Increasingly, people working in diverse aspects of contemporary urban society, from developers to park wardens, are turning to the arts for new ideas, regeneration, problem solving and community bridge building. The employment of artists in these (traditionally non-cultural) fields, where there are other non-art issues and agendas at stake, is becoming the norm. This manifesto is a chance for you to address the uncertainties of commissioning art in areas of urban change, discuss crucial concerns, and devise tangible solutions, knowing they will be presented to key decision makers.

The six parts of the Manifesto are below:

The Commissioning Process

    • Commissioning organisations should agree on a strategic public art plan or policy that outlines why they are commissioning public art before commissions are considered. Commitment and support for public art should be demonstrated throughout the organisation. These plans/policies should serve as guidelines but not dictate the content or stifle the creative process.
    • Public and private regeneration bodies should invest in training and guidance for commissioners, planners, communities and artists about the different ways of working with art in the public realm.
    • There is no definitive or single ‘right way’ of creating art for the public realm. The commissioning process needs to recognise the diversity in approaches, interests and skills of artists and reflect this in the aims and objectives of the project.
    • Clarify at which stage of the planning process artists should be employed. Acknowledge that some artists prefer to be involved at an early stage.
    • Acknowledge the various partners and stakeholders involved and how they will work together (eg. architects, planners, artists, educators, other professionals, community members). The roles and responsibilities of all those involved in the commissioning process should be clarified from the onset and need to be expressed in a universally acknowledged and accepted form of contract.
    • Public art is not a universal problem solver for poor urban design or a magic formula to solve social injustice. It needs to be recognised that good public art is not a single substitute for good public policy.
    • Public art commissions should be driven by the unique context of a given project rather than overly prescriptive or generic briefs.
    • The commissioning process should allow room for and learn from rejection, refusal and negation of the commission by artists and other stakeholders.

The Artist

    • If specific proposals for public art are requested in advance, artists should be paid appropriately for the time spent on site visits and developing the proposal.
    • While a request for qualifications is an excellent process to narrow the field of potential artists in an open call, the review of previously completed work should not be the only basis for developing a public art project. Where appropriate, sponsoring opportunities for ‘first time’ public artists will allow for the continued expansion of creativity and artistic vision within the public art field.
    • Assumptions should not be made about artists based solely on previous work. Commissioners should remain open to the possibilities of artists developing new approaches and creating original works.
    • Artists working in the public realm need to be acknowledged and paid as professionals on a par with other members of the team, such as architects and designers.

The Curator

    • The curatorial role in public art commissioning needs to be recognised as supporting, co-producing and overseeing negotiation and artistic vision, from the concept to completion of a public art project.
    • Curators need to have access to funders and stakeholders to develop a working relationship throughout the commissioning process. The curator can ensure a balance is struck between risk and risk management enabling innovation and experimentation.
    • Investment in curatorial training and mentoring of public art administrators will help to facilitate creativity throughout the administrative process. Simply changing one’s title from ‘administrator’ to ‘curator’ is not an acceptable substitute for proper training and curatorial expertise.

The Community

  • The community’ (or ‘the public’) is not a uniform group of people. Every project based in a community needs to be aware of the specific audiences the work is intended for. These audiences may be particular age groups, ethnicities, economic backgrounds and/or communities of interest. Acknowledgement of who the public artwork or project is for and why should be transparent. There may be different audiences at different stages of the project.
  • Artists work with communities but not subsequently for them. The role of the artist is not necessarily to create communities but rather to make connections.

The Art

  • Public art is NOT a single art form. There are a multitude of approaches, methods and motivations for public art. Acknowledge and celebrate the depth and breadth of the field.
  • There is cultural value in commissioning temporary public art. The effects can be as dramatic, significant and sustainable as permanent works.
  • Public art is often placed in the precarious position of trying to address all stakeholders’ agendas and needs – recognise the limitations and possibilities of public art. Be ambitious but realistic. Remember, "context remains half the work" (originally stated by the Artists Placement Group in the 1960s).

The Evaluation

  • Evaluation should be integral to the process, embedded from the beginning, providing productive suggestions as a qualitative tool and NOT a pre-emptive checklist.
  • Acknowledge the varying notions of risk. Identify the different criteria for success and allow time for understanding these differences.
  • Evaluation should be transparent and honest.
  • Evaluation should recognise failure and the potential lessons that can be learned.
  • The evaluation process is not limited to the art; it can also include the stakeholders and the commissioning process itself.
  • Current timescales for evaluation are too short. There is a need for long-term investment in evaluation. The sustained ‘value’ of public art needs time to reveal itself. This is a process that may take years. Therefore the aim of evaluation should be informative rather than reactionary.
  • Evaluation is most effective when information is disseminated and shared. Commissioners should make publicly available evaluations, debates and archives of public art projects.

If you have any questions or comments about the Manifesto of Possibilities, please get in touch with Sophie Hope.

Laura Mulvey in conversation with Catherine Grant