Dire Straits – outside the gallery

No lies he wouldn’t compromise
No junk no bits of string
And all the lies we subsidise
That just don’t mean a thing
I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
And now all the vultures are coming down from the trees.*

Who trusts public art development? The burghers of the West Midlands don’t (William Pye’s sculpture at Ackers); the planners of Milton Keynes didn’t (Liliane Lijn’s Circle of Light kinetic sculpture); nor did the vandals of Cambridge (Barry Flanagan’s Laundress Green totems) or those at Grizedale Sculpture Park (David Nash’s Running Table), even in New York City some powerful people didn’t (Richard Serra’s Tilled Arc and Robert Newmann’s Manahattan mural); you might even speak of the puritans in 17th-century England.

Curious acts of vandalism. Indeed; in deed. The recent mushrooming of public art projects is funded in large part by public money through national / regional arts councils’ / associations’ schemes for residencies and commissions. While these monies directly subsidise artists, they also indirectly give the public direct access to visual artwork. Moreover, the Public Art Development Trust, funded initially by the Gulbenkian Foundation, as a broker for artists and potential commissioners, acts as a further spur/catalyst for the commissioning of public artwork. But how effective and efficient are such schemes in practice; for example:

  • are they intended to be temporary, semi-permanent or permanent investments of public (sometimes, private) monies?
  • what arrangements are made to guard against alteration/mutilation/removal/destruction?
  • what steps have been taken to minimise/obviate damage/loss/injury to property/people from deterioration/defects (inherent/latest) of design/construction?
  • what public liability insurance schemes have been established?
  • has anyone provided for the possibility/likelihood/threat of superior existing legislation / regulations /rules which might override the financial/administrative/legal arrangements made for the siting/construction and (hopefully) maintenance of such works?
  • have public funds been secured to ensure that all the above matters are effectively and efficiently dealt with?
  • last, but not least, what education and training is being offered to artists, arts administrators (public and private), financiers (public and private), bureaucrats and lawyers, to ensure that such monies are properly expended on such schemes – in the public interest – plus, of course, money for such instruction?

Just a thought or two for those now responsible. Naturally, the public isn’t directly responsible; it trusts the professionals, politicians and bureaucrats alike. Or do we? Sadly, what tends to happen, it is evident all too often, is that strong concern about, and action over, public artwork is expressed and taken (often unlawfully) by those politicians, bureaucrats and, indeed, the public – after the event. Foresight is often lacking at inception and commissioning stages. Hindsight is usually manifest through vandalism/alteration/removal/destruction resulting from usually rash decisions made in camera and/or by outraged phantom perpetrators. That’s the downside.

The up-side is that much can be achieved through the creation and application of skilful and imaginative administrative, financial and legal foundation work; to wit:

Commission contracts
During negotiations leading to public commission contracts, the first and paramount consideration for all concerned should be the longevity of the artwork. All the arrangements, terms and conditions, for design, materials, fabrication, installation, maintenance and public liability insurance should flow there from and stand thereupon. (See: ‘The Legal Aspects of Commissioning’ in ‘Art Within Reach’ – 1984, Art Monthly/Thames and Hudson.) Maintenance is the trickiest area; especially its funding. So many projects have had vast sums of public money invested without a thought, let alone provision, for proper maintenance and public liability – whether it be through a trust / foundation or maintenance contract. But such arrangements, however tight, clear and financially supported, cannot always properly foresee and deal with future changes in ownership of the artwork, the site, the keepers or maintainers. Witness William Pye’s piece at Ackers – originally commissioned for siting by the West Midlands County Council years before anyone could have foreseen its abolition on April 1, 1986. This, and how many other public artworks will now have their ownership/keeping/maintaining in doubt as a result of the Local Government Act 1985 which abolishes six metropolitan counties as well as the GLC.

Moreover, such contracts, essential and sound as they are and should be, cannot survive the application of overriding orders from central/local government authorities and bodies empowered, often, to bulldoze into place slum clearance schemes, industrial development projects, new town developments, green belt creation/preservation, road/air/rail/sea transport initiatives, and so on. It would take new superior legislation to protect public artworks against these current powers, and their exercise. What kind?

Legislation for public artworks
Elsewhere in Europe and in the USA, legislation has been enacted protecting public artwork against physical abuse, which can override commission contracts that neglect to make, or adequately to make, provision for such events; and which is superior to the powers of public authorities that might otherwise abuse such artwork. Not so in the UK. Whilst public funds would be required to ensure that such works were properly maintained – at public expense. Indeed: guarding against abuses is one thing; its correlative, or vehicle, is proper maintenance. But how?

Listed public artworks
A National Future Heritage Fund would be needed, so to speak. Plus, an independent public body entrusted to decide (list) which public artworks should be maintained; and to make arrangements accordingly. Membership of this ‘National Public Art Trust’ might comprise all or any combination of the following: the Minister for the Arts, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and representatives from the arts councils and regional arts associations, and from professional artists’ and arts administrators’ organisations. Where would all this further public money come from?

% for art legislation
Elsewhere in Europe, Scandinavia and in the USA, legislation has been successfully introduced variously requiring by law that, whenever a public building/space/place is constructed/created/restructured/maintained, a percentage of the overall cost of the scheme shall be spent on art, for the public benefit. Percentages range from 0.2% to 3%. (See: ‘The case for the one percent’, in ‘Art Within Reach’, ibid.) Were such legislation to be introduced here, the release of already committed public funds into the art marketplace for the public benefit would be enormous.

Such a scheme could and, in my view, should include legislation dealing with the listing of public artwork through the creation of a National Public Art Trust which would also oversee the % for art scheme simultaneously. In this way, in one gigantic fell swoop, all the current lot) of public art development could and should be effectively and efficiently tackled – for the public benefit – including the education and training of artists, arts administrators and others necessarily involved.

Education and training
Experiences of basic % for art schemes abroad, over the last fifty years, have shown that a first essential step towards the establishment of effective public art development and funding, through legislation, is the creation of publicly financed experimental projects/schemes/residencies/workshops/commissions/professional studies courses – exclusively – tackling public artwork. Through these processes, not only is the public and its money protected against profligate spending on/commissioning of artists inexperienced in working to a large-scale brief with administrative/legal/financial deadlines and demands to meet, so are artists / makers protected against their own inadequacies of experience and ability; so is the artwork; and, probably most importantly, what can be diplomatically developed and secured thereby is the public’s confidence and trust in public art.

Oh, and were all this to come to pass, the Arts Council’s current policies of providing direct subsidy to artists would inevitably be changed – to direct subsidy for public art development. I trust.

© Henry Lydiate 1986.
*@ Straightjacket Songs 1978.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.