Public Art in Australia

Charging Bull  artist is suing the New York council over  Fearless Girl  as it "changes his works' meaning".  

Charging Bull artist is suing the New York council over Fearless Girl as it "changes his works' meaning".  

When you hear Public Art what do you think of? Yellow Peril, New York’s Charging Bull and Fearless Girl, the giant Marilyn in Chicago? They’re all significant in their own right but controversy has also had a lot to do with making these artworks renowned. It seems no matter what a city puts in the public view, there is always going to be a large enough group of people who object to the work and get the air time for it.Then there are many people who think there isn’t enough.

Certainly in Melbourne, the “city of culture” we could do with some more? It’s been a while since a work like Yellow Peril has made headlines for all the right reasons. After all, art is a visual embodiment of our cultural identity and ethos, right? Regardless of who likes and who doesn’t, having a democratic entity like art in the public domain suggests we care enough about our visual environment to have it.

 A few weeks ago, I sat down with the tirelessly devoted Lisa Warrener and Donald Williams from Global Art Projects (GAP) to answer why there is not an obvious increase in prominent public art in Australia, given we have some truly amazing 3D artists and what I thought was an proud, arts-friendly council. GAP have been facilitating many of Australia’s major public art events and collections, like the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival and Australia’s Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Art.

Donald Williams and Lisa Warrener of Global Art Projects at the Sofitel in front of a new ceramic exhibition they curated

Donald Williams and Lisa Warrener of Global Art Projects at the Sofitel in front of a new ceramic exhibition they curated

One of the reasons that explains the dearth of major public works is the fiscal allocation for public art differs from government to government. Prior to 2003, many art related projects, like the management of the Venice Biennale and many of the permanent art pieces around towns were handled by people like GAP. Then things changed, as they do with opposing, incoming governments. A tightening of outsourced spending by the new party meant that a lot of the work that GAP did was now handled by inter-governmental departments. This has remained the case since, with the exception of new developments and very large projects. And of course, private developers have always been supportive of public art like McClelland and Montalto.

The second reason that helps to excuse the lack of art in the public domain is the mandatory percentage of how much a developer of a new building or space needs to apportion to art. Like the cessation of outsourcing of art, the national percentage developers are required to spend on Public Art has changed in the consequent governments since 2003. It now stands at 1%. This relates to places like hospitals, government buildings and outdoor areas owned by local councils. With places like the Docklands, “Australia’s largest urban renewal project” (2017) development, the mandatory spend is 3% as there is a lot more focus on bringing tourists into the area and making it a more recreational destination. The docklands art trail has over 30 pieces by Australian artists, which is fantastic. As for the rest of the city, there hasn’t been a major public spend since The Great Petition, which was completed in 2008 by Penelope Lee to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote.

Penelope Lee's  The Great Petition  2008

Penelope Lee's The Great Petition 2008

As for private investment in public art, Global Art Projects curate the art exhibitions at the Sofitel Melbourne On Collins- a hotel long identified with contemporary, Australian art. As it happens, the hotel manager Clive Scott has a strong interest in art which is fortunate as the Sofitel do not own the building and as a result, do not have ad lib with artwork purchasing and curation.  GAP run an art programme of around 17 exhibitions a year in Sofi’s Lounge, Atrium Gallery on Level 35 and in the Lobby. GAP also runs an Artist in Residence program that allows a chosen artist to work and live in the room of the Sofitel for around 3 weeks. The end result may be an exhibition or a subsequent related event. Why can’t more hotels have similar programs?!

Anne Zuhalka-Artist in Residence at the Sofitel Hotel Suite, 2008

There is an event, Spring 1883, which takes place in the Windsor hotel every year but that it only open to certain galleries by selection and is partly a commercial venture for the galleries involved.

If having more, notable public art is a direct reflection on the prevailing government’s interest then maybe we need to make the case clearer. Even if it is viewed as financial sinkhole and not something to win votes then maybe we could get something more controversial to attract conversation about our evolving identity and not be apathetic to choose caution over creativity.

As an example, it would be great to see a few more projects similar to the photoboard billboard in Melbourne CBD that exhibits a new work by a contemporary, Australian artist on a prominent billboard for a whole year.  The more new art in public places generates discourse and “reflects and reveals our society and adds meaning to our cities”. Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).

Kathryn Del Barton's work on the Photo Art Billboard outside the Republic Tower

Kathryn Del Barton's work on the Photo Art Billboard outside the Republic Tower