The installation of art works in public places has not always gone well in our City. The sculptured teeth at Portsmouth Drive and the ephemeral installation of the “peep show”in the Octagon have been met with plenty of public derision as the public comes to terms with the works of each artist. The artistic merit of both works has been a matter of considerable debate defined partly by the public’s poor understanding of the artists intentions and the decision-making process that surrounds its selection. These factors give the clear impression that the City Council is both hesitant and confused over its role in the installation of public art works and why the inevitable policy review is about to be undertaken. Accompanying that review, is the decision to stop funding the programme until 2016-17 and provide funding of $100,000 every four years, as the Council gains a tighter grip on its ever decreasing finances.
If the Council are to embark on the arts policy review then it’s time for the City Council to look at its own performance in the arts world, and question whether it is the right organisation to be administering, selecting or developing public art in Dunedin. Perhaps there are opportunities for external organisations to better manage the process based on a consultative process instigated by Council in the newly developed arts strategy. Certainly the Council have a role in terms of the management of public open space where art would be installed, but does it have a role or experience in suggesting a particular aesthetic? The manner in which the harbour molars and the peep show were selected and managed as public projects reflect the lack of expertise and understanding of art and artists within Council. A criteria for public art in Dunedin might consider;
The real necessity of the arts strategy is not about the judgement of the aesthetic alone but the quality of the work based on the physical and social setting that the work inhabits. That means encouraging artists to work collaboratively with organisations who have environmental, cultural and community interests so that public art meets the needs of the community in a successful manner. In short, it creates dialogue, between the artist and interested parties in the community, resolving the consultation process for the work to proceed. If that criteria is developed in the pending arts policy, then the Council’s involvement is only to ensure the criteria is met, rather than judging the works merits in a muddled way. This also lessens the continued “politicisation” of art in public places by Councillors looking over their electoral shoulders when poor decision-making is made in the selection of works. Rather, Councillors could be more confident that when they finally see applications in committee, the criteria for new works has already been tested and their decision is a financial rather than artistic one.
Public art is always a subjective issue that some have no opinion on and others vigorously debate with a passion (though it may be misplaced at times). The polarisation of opinion is not helped by the insularity of the decision making process that surrounds its selection. What is clear though is that if Dunedin is to vitalise the city with creative energy we need to create opportunities for the established artistic community and our young artists emerging from the Polytechnic School of Art. That means creating an arts strategy where we engage and enable both the artist and the community together in something that will challenge but also complement our cityscape, landscape and suburbs in a meaningful way.