Art-ache or Tooth-ache in Dunedin?

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;

  1. How the work reflects the history, culture, landscape and topography of the city.
  2. How the work engages with Dunedin’s people and its community.
  3. A consultative process that initiates education and understanding of art or wider issues emanating from the work in the community.
  4. Whether the work can contribute to development or vitality of a community or suburb within the city
  5. A high standard of excellence that fits within the other factors of the criteria.
  6. How the proposed work responds to the context of the site in cultural, historic or environmental terms.

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.

Read Art in the Heart of the City

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Art at the heart of the City

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.