% for Art Legistaltion

Since the 1982 Art and Architecture conference at the ICA, there has been an enormous growth of local authority policies which aim to encourage collaborative efforts between artists and architects. In 1988, Oxfordshire became the first county to adopt a ‘per cent for art’ policy. Today, more than 50 city and district authorities have adopted per cent for art policies and implemented schemes in relationship to their refurbishment; construction; environmental and planning programmes. As well as the appointment of numerous local authority public art officers, the growth of Urban Development Corporations (obliged by law to provide a ‘visually attractive environment’) has ensured a steady supply of commissions to artists working in the field, and the development of the range of skills necessary for successful public art projects.

Initially, national legislation (requiring a percentage of all publicly funded building and maintenance schemes to include funding for artists’ and architects’ collaboration) was seen as the ultimate solution to guarantee the propagation of such works. But the 1980s were not the best time for introducing what the government saw as a restriction on the freedom of capital, or as an increased burden on the public purse; even worse, as a burden on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. The demand for legislation was, to all intents and purposes, shelved in favour of publication of information, education, and the persuasion of bodies responsible for both the environment and the arts and crafts – a strategy that has proved successful.

Throughout the country, increasing numbers of artists, administrators and business people have hands-on experience of what ‘Art in Architecture’ means; certainly compared with the situation ten years ago. Indeed, the mid-1980s saw a boom in private building. The lobbying of developers, and more adventurous approaches from artists and architects, led to an increasing number of projects commissioning the work of artists with architects. Half a decade on, that boom is well and truly over. Legislation which requires say, 1% of the budget of public building projects to be spent on art, would put a weapon in the hands of planners, developers, artists and architects in their struggle against the dull conformity and cheapness of the recession. Such enforced expenditure would not be new or additional, but would simply require better management or good housekeeping, as it is often described. The advantages to artists are manifold: they would benefit from public commissions and purchases; gainful employment; training and experience of public art works; and new and large scale creative opportunities.

The ACGB launched a Percentage for Art campaign in 1989, linking it with its Urban Renaissance Programme. Although the steam appears to have gone out of its campaign (amidst its own survival and identity crises) ACGB still officially favours a mandatory scheme, whereby developers would be obliged to put a small proportion of the overall budget into artworks or artists working with architects. It favours a scheme that would apply to all government or executive agency buildings costing over £3m. But will ACGB support even lobby for the introduction of Percentage for Art legislation? The public is hardly likely to form itself into an effective lobby for the introduction of such legislation; ACCB is the only effective voice with any real standing or influence to articulate obvious arguments on behalf of the public: public benefit derives from the enhancement of public spaces; from the demystification of fine arts; from acquaintance with the works of artists of their time; from improvement of the environment, particularly for the benefit of public employees; from enhancing the community’s reputation and providing a reason for civic pride and by making people happy.

Some things are changing. The UK is now a member of the European Economic Community. Moreover, percent for art legislation already exists in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. UK bureaucrats, local and national, will sooner or later be forced to acknowledge that per cent for art legislation is not the evil they profess it to be today. UK artists and architects are increasingly taking up per cent for art commissions in European countries and other states where such legislation does exist. It has been demonstrably the case that the number of countries where collaboration between art and architecture have been supported by legislation has increased, and that it will continue to do so. Pressures for harmonisation of percent for art legislation, especially in Europe, will not disappear and will likewise increase.

Although the recession has hit the UK construction industry very hard, and at a time when art and architecture is still in its formative stages, its disciples and evangelists need to redouble their efforts to carry their message onwards and upwards – to Whitehall, where a new minister waits to receive the Word! Even the President of the Board of Trade recently promised to intervene ‘before breakfast, dinner and tea’, so we can assume that the most dogmatic of ideological impediments has weakened substantially, perhaps even disappeared. The Prime Minister, for what it may be worth promised to open lavatories (not personally, we understand, from our lobby correspondent) every ten miles along the M1 – a thundering endorsement of the concept of providing more and better public utilities for citizens; public artworks can be seen to be public utilities; for the purposes of these arguments. The encouragement, the lobbying and the hard work arguing for more and better collaboration between art and architecture has paid dividends in some striking artworks, which provide a strong basis for arguments in favour of per cent for art legislation. The question, therefore, is not whether we should have legislation in this country; but when. The answer is now.

© The Artlaw Team: Henry Lydiate, Natalia Berkowitz, barristers, James Odling-Smee, writer 1992

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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.