The Dunedin Amenities Society have been involved in the development of public spaces and the provision of public art in Dunedin for over 100 years. Two of the earliest projects that the Society undertook was the development of “the triangle” now Queens Gardens and the Octagon in the 1890’s. Both projects were highly influential on the development of open space in the city and they continue to be crucial to the urban landscape today. Public sentiment in the early 1890’s for both developments was often mixed as the city struggled to fulfill its economic and utilitarian needs while the public demanded a new urban aesthetic. The Octagon and Queens Gardens have gone through considerable changes but the importance of the urban space has not been lost.
The recent furore over the installation of the Rachael Rakena sculpture in the Octagon has raised public ire on a number of levels. Firstly, the question of cost and the decision-making process surrounding the project, which is the “opinion du jour” of Dunedin residents sensitive to the City’s financial situation. Secondly, the notion of ownership and by default the process of guardianship which is associated with public art. This area of the project’s installation and production seems to have been subject to a series of unfortunate and largely unspoken assumptions. Finally, the artistic merit of the work and its relevance as a public piece of art to the city and its people has been a constant source of innuendo and ridicule. However, schoolyard humour aside, there is clearly a polarised opinion in the community on the works merit and perhaps where there is opinion there is art?
Throughout all of the arguments over money, accountability, ownership and merit there has been little discussion on the marginalisation of the public space by the work. The muddled issue of ownership has led to no clear indication of what the future of the work is or whether it will stay as a permanent fixture within the Octagon. That creates issues of how the decision-making process for the installation of art in reserves is handled as a matter of public interest. Certainly it raises issues over how those decisions are communicated to the public. The collective nature of public open spaces like the Octagon means that there are clear expectations over their use and management. Sadly, in this case those expectations don’t seem to have been considered. As an open space the Octagon is transitory, fluid and largely based around public events. The permanent attributes of the Octagon are simply a venue for those events to occur. The question that needs to be asked here is does the artwork add to the transitory nature of the open space for future public use? Or does it actually impede that future use? While Councillors and the community have debated the cost, ownership and merit of Rakena’s work, there is a more meaningful debate required over its permanence in terms of the use of the public space.