December 11, 2005

The end of Public Art?

This week I received something (indirectly) from OPENSPACE in Edinburgh, sadly I think too late for my response to be included in the consultation. It is a “framework and matrix” for evaluation of public art projects. As I describe how it works you will probably lose the will to read to the end of this (or the will to live!) but the grinding bureaucracy of it is an important issue.

The Matrix is a table chart with columns for “stakeholders” – “the professional artist”; columns for “the collaborating artist”, “the lead architect”, “the collaborating architect”, “the lead designer”, “the collaborating designer”, “the contractor”(!?) to be used if these people are in a project. Then under the heading of “project location” there are 3 columns called “Public organisation”, “community”, and “corporate/private bodies”. Then another 7 columns for funding organisations. These then are all the peoples (or parts thereof) that will evaluate public art projects. The rows titled “Values” are the 4 overarching criteria (artistic, social, environmental, economic) against a project will be evaluated. Artistic “Values” are divided into 4 rows – “Visual / Aesthetic / Enjoyment”, “Social Activation” and “Challenge/Critical Debate”. There are also rows for “Innovation / Risk”, which is subdivided into “Conceptual” and “Technical”; and “Host Participation” subdivided into “During” and “After”.
I’ll come back to these in a moment. To complete the description: the “Social Value” of a project is measured by community development, poverty and social inclusion, health & well being, crime and safety, travel and access, skills acquisition. And so it continues down the chart, Environmental values split into landscape and wildlife, physical environmental improvement, conservation, etc. Economic breaks into marketing, regeneration, tourism, education, value for money, etc. The matrix is operated in conjunction with something called the “PERSONAL PROJECT ANALYSIS” in which “the artist or other stakeholder rates each project according to the following dimensions, listed below, using a rating scale of 1 to 10 as described against each. “ So it goes:
1. Importance* – how important is the project to you at the present time? (10 = very important, 0 = not at all important)
2. Enjoyment – how much do you enjoy working on it? (10 = enjoy a great deal, 0 = don’t enjoy at all).
3. Difficulty – how difficult do you find it to carry out the project? (10 = find it very difficult, 0 = don’t find it difficult at all).
4. Visibility – how aware are the relevant people who are close to you and your work that you are engaged in it? (10 = project very visible, 0 = project not at all visible to those around or close to me)
5. Control – how much do you feel you are in control of the project? (10 = in complete control, 0 = have no control over the project)

Anyway it goes on to a further 18 “dimensions”.
Having commissioned more than 40 public art of all types over 15 years, from community projects and residencies to international commissions with budgets ranging from a few thousand to half a million pounds, it has been amusing over the years to watch various government agencies (accountants and auditors, mainly) try and fail to work out how to measure the arts. Of course, the notion of measuring the arts is never one that involves purely artistic criteria. I remember Robert Hopper, the late director of the Henry Moore Institute, saying that art is 90% like plumbing but it is the 10% that is the important bit. Artforms where there is a door or a box office are increasingly evaluated by their visitor figure or ticket sales – in essence the accountants accepting that they will never get the 10% so they measure what they understand – the figures. This latest Matrix is a very dangerous document not because it has managed to quantify the unquantifiable but because it claims that it has. Quickly running through a comparative exercise: Say a R├╝ckriem stone installation or a Lawrence Weiner text: you can see these significant artists scoring low on many of the dimensions and values of this chart. However, if you score say a small scale “cartoon” sculpture in a children’s playground in a regeneration area you can see such a work scoring high. I would probably label one art and the other something else and would accept that there is a place for the latter. However, despite the fact that the majority of public art in the UK is commissioned by people who don’t know much about it, and most projects are tiny battles in their own right with vested interests pulling this way and that, what will happen is that this Matrix model (or something based on it) will be rolled out as the model of practice. In it artistic criteria are heavily outweighed by non-artistic criteria. Public authority managers who are increasingly strait-jacketed by Government targets culture will start by evaluating art commissions using the chart, soon they will project initiate with the chart as a built-in project conclusion. Governmental inspectors, who also know fuck all about art, will adopt the matrix as the assessment criteria, so that your public art commissions will have to have an overall high percentage of positively scoring projects. The chart has a built-in bias in favour of non-artistic criteria which will means that commissions that are difficult or ground-breaking or as Lawrence Weiner would say “useful” (despite there putatively being a tick box to value this – actually two boxes against twenty-one) will be matrix “failures”. A breed of artists who can do high-scoring matrix projects will grow up; artists with any integrity will actually refuse the commissions and public art will be dead.

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