If Public Art Communicates, Who Chooses the Message? Birmingham’s Iron Man as a Case Study in Selection Processes for Public Art

By Sian Everitt.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

It is at the selection stage in public art projects that the issue of control is most apparent and potentially most problematic. In 1991 the Public Art Commissions Agency (PACA) was contracted by TSB to organise the gift of a sculpture to the city to mark the move of the bank’s headquarters to Birmingham. As well as advertising an open competition, PACA also directly selected some artists to participate and formed a selection committee. The maquettes by short-listed artists were exhibited and the public was officially consulted through a questionnaire. It is during the selection process that subjectivity is most inherent and a commissioning agency can be subject to contradictory pressures, from clients, public representatives and the agency’s own artistic ambition. In the TSB commission, despite avowed inclusive procedures in reality the vested interests of client and Agency prevailed. Using the unique records within the PACA Archive, I examine issues of bias, public consultation and control. The selection procedure for the TSB commission, and its eventual award to Antony Gormley, reveal difficulties inherent in public consultation. True engagement with the process is problematic, the public is not a homogenous entity and whilst self-selected publics can be involved (elected councillors or visitors to exhibitions), their views cannot necessarily be regarded as reflecting a general consensus. Can such public consultation be anything other than patronising, or is it really possible to engage the public in debate? Are committees an appropriate way to make artistic decisions? How does the siting of art in the public realm influence the processes of private patronage? Defining and implementing a process is an exercise of power and as such is always questionable. Can an agency devise and implement artist selection procedures for public art that negotiate, clarify and acknowledge the distribution of power?

Keywords: Public Art, Sponsorship and Philanthropy in the Arts, The Work of the Arts Manager

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.47-54. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 567.083KB).

Dr. Sian Everitt

Keeper of Archives, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham City University, Birmingham, West Midlands, UK

Dr. Sian Everitt is Keeper of Archives at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design and an art historian. Her research interests fall in two main areas - public art and visual archives. Her research in public art examines commissioning procedures and the use of archives and documentation to capture current process-based socially engaged practice. Her work on the management and interpretation of visual archives focuses on cross-domain collaboration with libraries and museums and creative practices of interpretation.

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