Last July the Vale of Glamorgan Artists (Voga) sent an Open letter to the ACW, Welsh Assembly, Cardiff City Hall and other high profile public bodies. The letter queried the lack of public art provision in the development programme at Cardiff’s Central Square. We suggested that a 4th Plinth or platform be placed within that development. Their prompt replies were wide ranging and detailed. Our concerns were acknowledged and the responses boiled down to the need for more meetings and discussions at various levels with the corporate world. There appears a lack of cohesion regarding the amount of commitment large urban projects need to have in providing public art. And most importantly what percentage (if any) of funding do corporate developers have to contribute? The body that oversees such matters in Wales is defunct as is Ixia* which had a similar role in England. This is a disaster as their clout and wise words aided civic bodies unsure of direction in these matters. The way forward is an open ended approach to each corporate development. The essential thing is to get the public art option written into contracts at the initial planning stage. Without binding clauses art will become marginalised and fragmented and have little presence in our towns and cities producing a bland and boring environment.
Of concern in the replies to our letter was the lack of response from The Civic Trust of Wales and The Cardiff Civic Society. Their roles may seem out of keeping with the needs of contemporary artists. We should remember those institutions have their eye on architectural practice and urban development projects. Such links are vital to artists – with no new sites to exhibit the visual arts face a more restricted public profile. Even more worrying is the fashion for new builds from giant corporate arenas to small scale ‘Grand Designs’ to show little evidence of pictures, sculptures, wall reliefs or murals of any kind. Art needs to get back onto the architects’ and planners’ drawing boards. Alarmingly, if Coventry cathedral was built today there would probably be only bare walls with no Epstein wall sculpture, Sutherland tapestry, John Piper windows or Barbara Hepworth sculpture. When developers are forced by their contracts to include an art element the results are excellent as shown by the new Hearth Gallery in Llandough Hospital. ALL new building programmes should have inclusive art representation. The institution that can make it happen is the Arts Council because they have the authority and public standing. For the ideal ref. google: Barcelona and Vancouver.
Since its introduction in 1983 the Collectorplan initiative has been a godsend for private galleries in Wales. Is it possible that new entrepreneurships might uncover more buyers for the present market place? In England there are more visual arts support initiatives being introduced for arts councils at home and abroad.* This should be welcome news for the younger generation of artists and curators when things could not be tougher.
The benchmark for good public art is the Angel of the North – a gigantic piece that cannot be ignored. It is not for nothing that great public art has been on an epic scale from vast canvases to huge tapestries and gigantic sculptures - from the Sphinx to the Sistine Chapel to Mount Rushmore. The Cardiff city fathers were well aware of the impact of public art and in their document Cardiff Public Art Strategy 1998, artworks are catalogued around the city from WW1 memorials to Cardiff bay wall reliefs. Also worthy of mention were The Art Pioneers producing murals around local schools. Those were the days. It comes down to ambition and what do we in Wales really want from Art?
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Art Today. 17th October, 2015.
If we continue as we are the subject will become more fragmented. A place for the gifted few, - fortunate to have promoters in tow. Others, the painters, printers, sculptors etc. will continue fighting a brave rear guard action against fashion and a relentless digital revolution as they have done for the past 20 years. In the offing is a cultural guerrilla war involving deeply entrenched art bunkers keeping the creative pot brewing.
At the lower end of the education establishment art faces even more marginalisation. English schools no longer include it as a core subject. In Welsh schools art still has some core value and critically the support of the Welsh Assembly. Its loss from the final years of children’s time in school is a thoroughly bad thing for them and for the future of the subject. I am quite convinced that those buyers in private art galleries are the result of good experiences in school art departments. The art teachers of the past and present were responsible for one of the most popular school subjects. It was their hard work that produced the impetus and foundation blocks for aspiring young art school entrants and the subsequent success story of British Art over the last 60 years.
Where are we now? Artists will have to make their own way with diffident support from Architecture (so-called ‘Mother of the Arts’) and hope the Arts Council can get into contract negotiations with corporate projects at the earliest stages – putting Big Public Art alongside Big Public Architecture. See it, believe it, buy it. The first visual experience is the most important - to commit to anything you have to see it first.
Finally, this brief review is not meant to be discouraging but realistic. The statements, and questions put forward in this short review are based on recent correspondence from well established, authoritative sources fully committed to this great subject.
Richard O’Connell. c/o: www.vogavaleart.org
contact email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
4th Plinth Open Letter (posted 27th July, 2015.)
Replies from ACW, Welsh Assembly & Welsh Office, Cardiff City Council, HRH Prince of Wales.
*Ixia – Public art Think-Tank formerly based in Birmingham.
*Creative Survival in Hard Times’ Report. 2010. ACW England, 2015. British Council, 2015.
Cardiff Public Art Strategy, 1998.
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