Public art and accountability: published papers

Martin Zebracki and Joni Palmer have forwarded notice of the latest issue of Art & the Public Sphere (Volume 2, Issues 1-3, 2014). This interdisciplinary special issue on “Public art and accountability: Whose art for whose city?” is co-edited by Zebracki and Palmer and is aimed at “those working at the crossroads of art, space, identity and social impact and inclusion”.



The Everyday Life of Public Art – Part 1

Or covering, moving, and removing

Artworks in urban public space inevitably become actors in all kinds of sanctioned and unsanctioned activities and interventions (think of photography, sitting, urinating, taking shelter, graffiti, political protest, yarn bombing, skateboarding, cycling, parkour…). Some of these activities receive more attention than others across various media, such as the popular press and/or academic publishing.

Burke and Wills Monument 10 June 2013 Burke and Wills Monument 10 June 2013

IMAGES: Charles Summers (1865), Burke and Wills Monument, Swanston Street, Melbourne. Photography: David Richards, 10 June 2013.

The act of temporarily covering Melbourne’s Burke and Wills Monument with crayoned messages and gaffer-taped posters (already removed in the images above), does seem to puncture the often-cited ‘invisibility’ of nineteenth century statuary. It potentially draws a different range of public comment than the same acts applied to walls and footpaths; momentarily drawing the historical object from its invisibility cloak into more obviously contemporary urban politics and debate. (Where, no doubt, it had always belonged, had we only been paying attention.)

The commemorative function of such monuments seems interlinked with common assumptions about stability or fixity; assumptions belied by the evident mobility of public sculptures – these are objects (like the Burke and Wills Monument) regularly moved around the city according to the exigencies of road and building construction, politics and taste.

Sculptures from the late twentieth century are just as amenable to relocation as conventional monuments (irrespective of any artists’ claims about the integral relationship between artwork and site )  viz. Ron Robertson-Swann’s peripatetic sculpture Vault (1978) in Melbourne’s CBD; Owen Broughton’s Steel Sculpture (1976) in Adelaide (removed from Rundle Mall in 1988 only to reappear twenty years later in Liberman Close/Ebenezer Place); or the impending displacement of Bert Flugelman’s Twin Spheres (1977) a few metres along the Rundle Mall.

…I confess to a mental image of these objects, with each act of transport, flickering in and out of perceptual space from some other, hyper space of overlapping field relations!

Perhaps Adrian Doyle was thinking something similar with his recent Empty Nursery Blue project, presented by Doyle’s Art in conjunction with RMIT’s Urban Laboratory, and the City of Melbourne. With a wry nod to the practices of both contemporary art and City Council anti-graffiti squads, Doyle spent Sunday 26 August spraying over the accessible surfaces of Melbourne’s Rutledge Lane with a custom mix of blue paint, effacing all traces of the street art for which the Lane is famous, and making strangely visible the (re-imagined) lane itself.

The project generated an immediate flurry of online reporting of images and text (including a time lapse animation of the transformation), with comments ranging from outrage at the arrant colonisation of a physical space assumed to be shared by a community of street artists, to appreciative accounts of experiencing the radically transformed environment, and sheer joy at the horde of street artists prompted to throw themselves almost immediately into re-claiming the empty canvas of the street. [See for example: ABC News, Sydney Morning Herald, Arts Hub, The Age (26/8/13), The Age (31/8/13), Herald Sun, Artfido Blog, Invurt, Black Mark, among many more. A statement from Doyle can be found here.]

A less sophisticated approach to the act of “painting over”, or at least one that seems to have provoked no obvious (online) trace of dialogue, is demonstrated with another example.

Bell St Mall 8 June 2013  Bell St Mall 8 June 2013

IMAGES: entrance to the Bell Street Mall, West HeidelberG, MELBOURNE. PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID RICHARDS, 8 JUNE 2013.

At the entrance to the Bell Street Mall in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg West stands a family of three sculptural figures, probably made of cast metal and lately re-imagined through the simple application of paint as colourful and perhaps playful landmarks for the shopping centre.  Set amidst nearby neighbourhood renewal schemes of State and local government, the mall itself is the focus of a yet-to-be-implemented Urban Development Framework and Master Plan.  The mall is currently awaiting its own transformation while continuing to provide a range of goods and services to local residents, including an important meeting space for a lively Somali community.

The Housing Commission of Victoria designed the Mall in 1954-56, at the same time as the nearby Olympic Village, as a shopping centre for its Heidelberg estate. Regarded today as Victoria’s first “American style, drive-in shopping centre”  [Heritage Victoria (2008) Survey of Post-War Built Heritage in Victoria: Stage One, prepared by Heritage Alliance, North Melbourne, p 229], it was envisaged at the time as a shopping centre that would explicitly  “accommodate today’s traffic” by incorporating a central, open-air mall restricted to foot traffic, with surrounding areas set aside for off-street car parking. When it was opened in 1956, the Argus newspaper lauded the shopping centre’s “simple lines”, the shop “fronts designed and fitted by Silverwood and Beck”, as an example of “how plain, utilitarian planning can be attractive“.

I’ve found no documentation (yet) of the Mall’s sculptural entrance figures (other than the image shown below, taken prior to their latest coat of paint), but I’m inclined to think they arrived in 1956 together with post-war modern, cost effective and functional shopping centre design. [***NB See comments/replies below – sculpture has been attributed to Tuncay Tanyer, commissioned in 1997 by the City of Heidelberg as part of the Bell St Mall Entrance Design Strategy.]

Bell Street Mall Sculptures

IMAGE: Tuncay Tanyer (c.1997), The family, BELL STREET MALL, WEST HEIDELBERG, MELBOURNE. Source: National library of australia pandora web archive (City of Banyule council, 2011)

If there was ever a plaque or sign in the Mall indicating the artist or manufacturer of these figures, it has long disappeared (removed perhaps as a gesture to Australian artists’ moral rights legislation?).

In any case, the covering of these figures with new paint at some date clearly indicates their re-purposing – away from likely assumptions about the cultural sophistication that artwork would lend a suburban shopping centre in the 1950s (at the peak of national and international scrutiny brought by the Olympic Games) and towards more immediate concerns about the centre’s changing local uses and users.

It marks the effective decommissioning of the original artworks, not by physically removing them but by transforming them instead into new objects (that in this case are themselves probably only marking time before a new vision is overlaid). I’m speculating of course, in the absence of data. However, this family of objects seem equally absent from the documented plans for the mall. (…Please do get in touch if you can add to or correct any information about the history of these sculptures!)

The decommissioning of public artworks is not uncommon, although more usually conceived as physical dismantling or removal, after some lengthy period of tenure in a fixed location.  An example of decommissioning now playing out in Melbourne demonstrates an unusually rapid turnover between artwork installation and removal for an artwork not conceived as temporary or ephemeral, one occasioned by a public backlash against the work and the commissioning agent (the City of Darebin).

[For comment and images, see: Crikey (The Urbanist 15/8/13), Crikey (The Urbanist, 20/8/13), The Age (20/8/13), The Herald Sun (20/8/13), Herald Sun Leader (14/8/13), Herald Sun Leader (15/8/13),  Victoria Walks (Facebook), Mysterious Metal Pyramids of High St Northcote (Facebook), Esther Anatolitis (Twitter), Black Mark, etc ]

In brief, the Darebin City Council purchased an art installation for a section of High Street, Northcote, as part of a wider streetscape beautification scheme, along with new street furniture and landscaping, and in conjunction with tram works along route 86. The artwork, designed and manufactured by Syrinx Environmental, consisted of a strip of patterned galvanised steel, folded into raised, angular shapes and laid out along the road’s new, raised median strip.

While counter-narratives appeared, along with evidence of a lack of local consultation by the Council in selecting and installing the work, a discourse of safety prevailed in published comment on the piece, entrenching the work as spiky, pointed and dangerous to the life and limb of cyclists and pedestrians. Just over one week after it was installed, Council voted to remove the work altogether.

(I can’t help but wonder if complaints about that work might have been as much about the increasing range of barriers appearing in Melbourne streets to impede pedestrians and cyclists from moving freely across the road except at controlled points, as with the new, raised platform and fenced tram stops across Melbourne.)

Mapping indigenous inclusion and exclusion in urban public spaces

Gavin tells me that his PhD is now available for download:

Gavin Malone, 2012, Phases of Aboriginal inclusion in the public space in Adelaide, South Australia, since colonisation, School of the Environment, Flinders University


‘Post-colonial’ Australia is evolving its identity and sense of self but reconciliation with its Aboriginal peoples remains politically and culturally unresolved. This reconciliation has been a national objective since the 1990s. Reconciliation is a multi-faced process to achieve the equitable inclusion of Aboriginal peoples in all aspects of contemporary society and for non-Aboriginal Australians to embrace Aboriginal people and their history as a valid and valuable part of the Australian nation and recognise their claim to sovereignty prior to colonisation. One way a nation, or people, presents itself and its history is through the cultural artefacts it places in the public space. This contributes to cultural identity at both civic and personal levels. Social inclusion or marginalisation is also reflected in the public space and historically Aboriginal people and culture have been largely excluded from it. Whilst a casual walk around the streets of the main cultural precincts and streets of a city may reveal some recent Aboriginal representations, little is documented on what may actually exist.

In Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, this also appears to be the case with a limited number of Aboriginal representations apparent in the public space. But there has been no research to fully establish what exists. This research overcomes that lack by investigating and documenting the extent and manner of Aboriginal public space inclusion in greater metropolitan Adelaide. In all, 143 monuments, memorials, public artworks, public space designs, community artworks and commemorative and interpretive markers, collectively called Aboriginal Cultural Markers, have been located and documented through this research.

Having established what exists, interpretation of the data can then take place to better understand the historical exclusion, and gradual inclusion of Aboriginal people in the public space; how and when any change occurred, who was involved and the manner of representation. This research traces the inclusion (or exclusion) of Aboriginal people and culture in the public space from the colonisation of South Australia in 1836 to the present. It identifies six distinct phases, which link to broader historical and social periods or events, in the evolution of representation: The Silence (to 1960), Breaking the Silence (1960 to early 1980s), Aboriginal Voice Emerges (early 1980s to early 1990s); Community, Culture and Collaborations (early 1990s to present); Kaurna Country (mid 1990s to present); Kaurna Management and Determination (yet to occur).

The phases documented reflect: the gradual and ongoing decolonisation process; a nation coming to terms with its treatment of Aboriginal peoples through Reconciliation; an evolving self-determination by Aboriginal people; and movement towards control of cultural production and self-representation by Aboriginal people in the public space and the evolution of a bi-cultural cultural landscape that has a distinctive Aboriginal presence.

There are still considerable gaps in the geographic and cultural spread of Markers and there is much more to be achieved to provide a visually and culturally strong Aboriginal symbolic presence in the city centre and urban areas. I therefore make recommendations on themes, locations and processes to help guide future commissioning of Markers. The Markers form an identifiable collection of public artworks, albeit in diverse locations and under diverse ownership.  I make recommendations on the curation of this collection.

Keywords: Adelaide, Kaurna, public art, cultural markers, public space, cultural representation, reconciliation, social inclusion

Outdoor Sculpture and Monument Conservation

Nicola Vance has passed on some information about a forthcoming workshop….

Preservation of Outdoor Sculpture and Monuments
Melbourne, 8-9 November 2012

For further information, registration form, and contact details, please see the event flyer (pdf).

The Objects Special Interest Group of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), with the generous support of the Gordon Darling Foundation, are seeking expressions of interest from public art coordinators, collection managers, and arts professionals commissioning public artworks, to attend a two day workshop in Melbourne led by Katharine Untch, senior conservator, ARG Conservation Services, San Francisco.

The workshop is designed primarily for collections managers, public art administrators, and individuals responsible for commissioning, maintaining and administering public art collections. Artists, fabricators, conservators and other individuals who work with public sculpture and monuments are also welcome to attend on a space-available basis.

This two day workshop presents the broader preservation issues of commissioning new works of art, monitoring conditions, developing a maintenance program, health and safety, and contracting for conservations services.

NB places are limited to 60 and there is a course fee of $500 (incl GST).

To register your interest in attending,  EOIs should be sent using the form provided to Helen Privett at Museum Victoria by 27 July 2012.  Successful participants will be notified by 31 August 2012.

For experienced conservators, I see that there is also a more advanced course to be conducted by Katherine Untch in Melbourne following this one.

This event reminds me that AICCM have had a strong national profile in developing and communicating procedures for managing outdoor artworks. In the 1990s this was the particular mission of the Sculpture Monuments and Outdoor Cultural Materials (SMOCM) Special Interest Group, who conducted national conferences and seminars advocating for the importance of caring for, surveying, and documenting public monuments and other cultural objects.

SMOCM drew upon the examples of international programs such as Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a joint program of Heritage Preservation (US National Institute for Conservation) and the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, and the National Recording Project of the UK Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, both of which are still in operation…

Festivals, Biennials, and more.


The 2012 Adelaide Festival of Arts is almost upon us, this year’s program looking remarkably bare of the usually obligatory manifestations of outdoor contemporary art. Fortunately, the Adelaide Fringe comes to the rescue with a cornucopia of biennials, festivals and installations (so, perhaps I exaggerate a little). The Fringe visual art program does include:

Let me know if I’ve missed anything interesting in the forthcoming art fest (always highly likely!)

Call for Papers: Seismopolite Journal of Art and Politics

Seismopolite, a journal published 4 times a year in Norwegian and English, is seeking contributions for a forthcoming issue, focusing on artistic interventions in, and reimaginations, of political geographies. The editors write:

The distinction between “place” and “space” is of particular interest, as it is fundamental not only to much art, but also to our global situation within neoliberal political geography. If time has come for us to reimagine this geography, as well as the interrelationships between, and definitions of “space” and “place”, is it thinkable that art could be an ideal site for such reimagination?

The construction and exploitation of a particularism of the local also seems indigenous to the logic of neoliberalism, in the sense that it relies on the opposition between place and space to be able to expand in the first place. Among other things, the space-place dichotomy facilitates the reduction of developmental issues, political unrest or violence to irrational expressions of local misguidance, backward culture or belief systems. When the evolution of neoliberal space is merged with democratic and civilizing pretentions, the otherness and fixed specificity of places appears to be a legitimate pretext to expand into always new (potentially profitable) areas in and beyond the periphery.

The self-fulfilling prophesy of neoliberal geography also constitutes an effective impasse in alternative visions of political geography – on the one hand, by making the critical reconstruction of place and its interconnectedness with a larger picture, beyond the dichotomies of space/place and local/global, superfluous – on the other, by dissimulating any locally based meaning of universality that cannot be reduced to the civilizing prospects and ideals of neoliberal universalist geography. In this sense, the self-upholding myth of the local which neoliberal geography feeds on seems to express another form of orientalism, convincingly presenting itself and its worldview as the necessary cure to global and local problems, and reversely; presenting political issues in localities beyond its borders as a temporary void in its over-arching, inescapable logic.

Further information here. Expressions of interest are requested by 10 February 2012, with completed submissions due by 5 March.

[Source: Melbourne Art Network]

And a reminder

The call for papers for the 23rd International Sculpture Conference: Process, Patron and Public, to be held in Chicago, October 4-6, 2012, closes on 6 February 2012.

Don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone…

What is the role and value of contemporary public art? What is its social responsibility? Totemic objects of collective imagination, aspiration or totalitarian domination? Resistant occupations to the commercialisation and privatisation of public space? Objects to be looked at, spaces to be experienced…

The widely reported theft of a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth from a park in South London has prompted a short but informative discussion that canvases these issues and more, aired on BBC’s Radio 4, between sculptor Antony Gormley and Richard Sennett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics. [ Source: ixia ]

Hepworth’s 1969/70 sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) in Dulwich Park was a bronze cast from an edition of 6.  It was stolen in late December presumably for its worth as scrap metal, among an epidemic of metal theft that is taking place across the UK.

BBC News: Barbara Hepworth sculpture stolen from Dulwich Park
Guardian: Barbara Hepworth sculpture stolen from London Park
Huffington Post: Public Artwork by Barbara Hepworth Stolen from London Park
Independent: Very grand theft

About the banner image

North Terrace, Adelaide, c1915

North Terrace, Adelaide, c1920

This image of North Terrace, Adelaide (South Australia) is from the collection of “visual instruction lantern slides” at Oregon State University, and is accessible from flickr.

The statue of Robert Burns (just visible at the bottom left of image), is in its original position (where the War Memorial now stands) on the corner of Kintore Ave, looking east towards the Institute Building. It is now positioned in front of the State Library, further east along North Terrace.  Landscape historian David Jones observes that the statue was funded by:

donations by the South Australian Caledonian Society and John Darling MLC. Unveiled on 5 May 1894, with a dedication plaque to the Society and Darling, it was the first statue carved in Adelaide, and [grew] out of inter-state rivalry following information that Ballarat had erected a statue to honour Burns. The statue was carved by local sculptor William Maxwell, probably of Angaston marble […] With plans to develop a National War Memorial, Burns was moved in 1930 to a location beside the entry pathway to the Art Gallery, but following disagreements within the Art Gallery governors, the statue was relocated in 1940 to its present site. (2007, Adelaide Park Lands & Squares Cultural Landscape Assessment Study. Corporation of the City of Adelaide. p 547)

Although the image is dated to 1915 in the OSU collection, the prominent statue in the centre shown surrounded by cars, wasn’t erected until 1920. A memorial to King Edward VII, it was sculpted by Bertram MacKennal, and depicts:

the late King in his coronation regalia with symbolic sculptuary of South Australia, Peace and Justice. Surrounding the statue stand three female figures representing Peace, Justice and South Australia with her arms extended and the fruits of the state gathered at her feet. The total height of the monument exceeded 9.1m with a weight of 103,637kg. Mackennal also carved the 6.4m high pedestal, and carries an inscription ‘Edward VII King and Emperor 1901-1910’. (Jones, 2007, Adelaide Park Lands & Squares Cultural Landscape Assessment Study. p 557)

With redevelopments of the gardens and footpaths along North Terrace, the statue is now somewhat awkwardly placed in the centre of the footpath. A google maps street view of the statue is here.

All in all, the image provides a nice reminder that statues move around in the city, and the city around them also moves…