The continued debate over the process of selection of art in public places continues with the recent furore over the selection of Julia Morison’s giant worm sculpture, Ouroboros at the Botanic Gardens. With local artists including the Otago Sculpture Trust claiming the request for proposal process was unfair and poorly managed. There has been consistent pattern of controversy and outcry that has dogged the placement of artworks in public places in Dunedin over recent years. Rachael Rakena’s “Haka Peepshow” in the Octagon, Regan Gentry’s “The Harbour Mouth Molars” at Portsmouth Drive and now the proposed “Ouroboros” in the Botanic Gardens have all had controversy surrounding their design, placement and funding. The debate around the process of selection of public art works is very damaging for the creation of vibrant public spaces and for artists in the city.
In August 2012 the Dunedin City Council slashed its public-place art works budget and new works are on hold until the art in public places policy is reviewed. Yet that review has been oddly quiet and nothing has been made public as to when that policy will be reviewed or how. Recently in the Otago Daily Times Mayor Cull challenged critics of the selection of “Ouroboros” to come up with a better process if they did not like the outcome. That’s less of a challenge to the art loving Dunedin public and more of one to the Council’s own failings in the procedures and policy relating to art in public places. If anything can be learned from many of the controversies surrounding public art works it’s the Council’s inability to provide a meaningful policy that has caused such an outcry. That’s the real challenge which unfortunately has yet to be taken up by the City Council.
The Dunedin Amenities Society have long supported the notion of art in public places and monumental structures that tell the story of our city and its culture. They add meaning and character to our city that is of benefit to the community and to visitors. It seems a great shame that while the Botanic Gardens is celebrating 150 years of bringing pleasure to many people, the focus is on the argument of how art work should be selected to honour those celebrations.
Other Society Articles on Art in Public Places in Dunedin
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.