Sunday 6 September 2009

Drawing on public spaces

Apart from brightening up a sometimes sterile environment, what are the economic arguments for spending on public art, asks GEMMA TIPTON

WHEN CONTROVERSY erupted within Limerick County Council over the allocation of €110,000 towards roadside art on the M7 and N7, it reopened the discussions (that never really go away) about the value of art. Obviously exacerbated by the current economic climate, these debates also existed in the good times. Even when €110,000 wouldn’t have bought you a badly-built apartment, spending on art has always required extra justification.

Hidden from view, unless you choose to seek it out, art in galleries and museums tends to attract less comment and criticism than the art that sits out on our streets and lines our roadways. The Limerick commissions, as with most public art on major roads, are under the Percent for Art scheme, whereby up to 1 per cent of the cost of capital projects undertaken by public bodies is set aside for art works.

The scheme has existed under various guises for 30 years and has resulted in projects that range from the loathed to the beloved, and from the mundane to those that stretch the boundaries of what art might be.

Monica Corcoran of the Arts Council says that “linked as it is to capital projects, the actual budget for the art generally pales in comparison to the amount that is being spent on construction . . .”

But how valuable is art in this context, and do local authorities, who are the bodies most usually charged with spending Percent for Art funds, give us what we’re looking for? Well-commissioned public art can turn space into a “place”, and this is particularly significant as our new motorway system bypasses idiosyncratic towns and villages, negating any sense of the local, and turning trips across the country into potential journeys through nowhere.

Alex Davis, of the artists’ advocacy group Visual Artists Ireland, adds that “the use of Percent for Art funding for permanent roadside artworks represents a democratic and efficient use of public money, as it provides collective benefits rather than private – the artworks are available for all to enjoy. They enhance the (often sterile) physical environment and are accessible by the widest possible audience.”

Punctuating the national routes, an eclectic selection of work appears. On the M7, Dan George’s Race of the Black Pig is a series of shapes that resolve into the form of a St Bridget’s Cross as you pass. Probably even more effective, however, is the landscaping around the Portlaoise bypass section – sequenced planting of Norway maple, red and yellow dogwood, larch and spindle creates bands of colour that remain magnificent in all seasons and lift the spirit.

The “holy grail” of public art commissions is probably Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North , the huge metal figure that did such a good job of making place out of space, that it led the cultural regeneration of run-down Gateshead in England. Many local authorities are moving away from simply commissioning large-scale works to punctuate our journeys, and are opening up opportunities to artists across a range of disciplines.

So while Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council was behind Mark Joyce’s The Wave , (250 coloured aluminium columns at the Sandyford interchange of the M50), it also used Percent for Art money to support a three-year programme including residencies and one-off projects that resulted in a series of events. This ranged from Dermot Bolger’s talks at Deansgrange library (and a new novel by that author) to Gary Coyle’s portraits of people from the area. Here is where the economic arguments for art come into play. A report from the Council of Europe described how a neglect of cultural dimension in town planning “will cost a lot in the form of maladjusted inhabitants, especially young people”.

Commissioning public art in recessionary times is not unique to Limerick County Council. Public art adviser to the Arts Council, Jenny Haughton, notes that “this year for the first time, there is evidence of significant commissioning taking place in every county in the country”.


Between the Known and Unknown Elizabeth Caffrey and Sean Campbell’s bronze hawthorn on the N15 in Donegal is impressive, although there were some worries that the public couldn’t appreciate it fully as they drove by.


Gateway Michael Warren’s metal monument in Dún Laoghaire was not universally adored, with detractors claiming it looked rusted. It was also a target for graffiti.


Perpetual Motion Rachel Joynt and Remco de Fouw’s enormous “motorway ball” on the M7 at Naas (pictured) is an icon probably loved and loathed equally.

Irish Times

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