It’s always been there, bubbling under, but we’re starting to see more and more of it – and if, and when, it suddenly explodes (or implodes?), I’m wondering if we can entirely free ourselves from blame. I’m talking about public art. I’m talking about the little snippets on the radio and in the newspapers, where this councillor here is objecting to percent-for-art budgets being spent, and that councillor there is making glib equations between how much €90,000 would do for the local school or hospital. Trying to write a piece recently in defence of public art, I got a little stuck. I mean, the ‘good examples’ are wonderful, ranging from magnificent pieces of permanent sculpture that subtly alter and enhance their environment, to the thoughtfully worked out and executed engaged projects, during which entire communities begin to connect to their locale and their lives in a different way.

But – oh – the bad examples…

There are the projects where a proposal and a bit of scratching around with ‘storytelling’ becomes the vehicle for a costly book, which possibly benefits the artist (who maybe sends out 50 from a print run of 500), but not really anyone else – beyond those (myself occasionally included) who are paid to write about a project that few experienced in reality. Then there are the sculptures, costing tens of thousands, lining motorways and sitting on roundabouts where the artists and the commissioners are so coy, it’s impossible to discover who made them.

If these make up most people’s experience of public art, it’s no wonder we’re fighting a losing battle for credibility, and running short of arguments to continue spending on it. The local authorities, who administer the majority of budgets for percent-for-art projects, do little to let you know what you’re seeing. Their websites, hardly a costly way of getting information out there, make a search for this spiky thing here, or that lumpy thing there, next to impossible. There are a couple of local-authority websites that are less bad than the others, by the way – but I have yet to find a single one where you can input the location and discover what it was you were looking at. And when you think that what it was you were looking at cost a small fortune, it’s remarkably strange. The new website www.publicart.ie may address this, although presently the maps they have are thematic, and the majority or projects are contextual rather than physical – the site currently being primarily aimed at those in the know, rather than a public interested in following up on the issues raised in the media – or simply trying to discover what it was they saw on the road to Clare…

This is not to denigrate those contextual practices at all – it is just a call to take on the full meaning of the word ‘public’ in public art, and open discussions about it, in all its forms, up to The Public. Neither am I suggesting we ‘get rid of’ public art, any more than a criticism of how a hospital is run would be to suggest closing the hospital – what I am suggesting is that we own up to how bad, and how badly run, a great deal of public-art projects are, so that the ‘good’ ones can flourish, and so that next time there is a debate about the spending of money on public art, we can enter it with a greater confidence of having our arguments heard.

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