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7 October. Maggie Bolt - The Arts of Place conference
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7 October. Maggie Bolt - The Arts of Place conference


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  • 1. Bradford talk<br />Now Things are Different – We Have to do Things Differently<br />The changing face of public art – linked to professional experienceWhat the current challenges are – and how a new and sustainable way of working needs to be <br /> found<br />Good morning everyone – it is a pleasure to be here – and actually quite strange for me – because for the first time in my professional career (which is more years than I care to remember!) I am representing myself – as up until now I have always being conscious of the fact that I was the face of a publicly funded organisation and on occasion have had to be more diplomatic than I would have wished!<br />That’s not to say you are going to have a rant from me (well I hope not!) but it does mean that I can talk entirely from a personal point of view.<br />I was asked by BEAM to talk a bit about how public art has changed, work I have done and then what I think the challenges are for public art practice, and where new partnerships might be found as we head into a very different world.<br />I thought hard about what I would show you visually – as for once I am not talking about case studies or schemes – so instead I thought I would treat you to a stream of images of projects which I have found stimulating and intriguing.<br />So, firstly a bit about my background. I don’t admit this to many people but I am actually a failed artist!<br />I went to art school and soon realised that my strengths did not lie in being visually creative – I wanted my work to be up there with the best and it patently wasn’t – so I sought out an area which I could do well in and that was facilitating and enabling creativity to become an accepted part of our everyday experience.<br />I guess this was my first lesson – quality is paramount and we always have to challenge ourselves and question whether what we are doing is good enough.<br />We have in this country had a rather dismissive attitude to quality – value for money was equated with getting something as cheaply as possible – and we have reaped the benefits of this approach, as we now have so many places which are fragmented and run down and desperately in need of regeneration - which of course would not be the case if we have invested properly in the first place.<br />When I started to get involved in public art – in the late eighties when the then Arts Council of Great Britain launched ‘Percent for Art’ – it was viewed very much as ‘art in public places’ – of course there were notable exceptions but primarily it was either sculptures or bins benches and bollards that the local authorities wanted. I became frustrated with this because I couldn’t see the ‘why’ of what people were doing, only the what. There were very few strategies – just the funding mechanism – percent for art. <br />So when I established Public Art South West in the mid nineties – I wanted to link my work with the real change that was taking place in our built and natural environments. I didn’t want to just decorate the public realm and treat it as an outdoor art gallery – I wanted to involve artists in the thinking, the conceptualising and designing of new places and spaces.<br />There were lots of opportunities for people to mount temporary programmes and events that brought artists’ work to the public realm – but precious view that brought them a place around the table of those who were responsible for how we experienced our shared environments of work, leisure, living and open spaces.<br />I believe that we need to think about the total needs of people. And whilst we need shelter, food and clothing and work that financially supports all of this – we also need to feed the emotions and the intellect. I am intrigued by the concept of emotional intelligence and the fact that we now recognise that the corporate world has to recognise the total needs of people in the work place and make sure they are communicating on an intellectual and emotional level, because this is exactly what our environments need as well – emotional intelligence. <br />I studied Urban Design because I wanted to understand where architects, planners and designers were coming from. It was quite revealing – as I thought we would also look at the science or art of place making – study how people perceive and react to places – but it was more formulaic than that and I realised that this was what was also holding back public art – it had become another thing on the ‘to do’ list – artists began calling themselves public artists, and public art became an artform and in many cases subservient to the contexts in which it was being placed.<br />There was a lack of discrimination, a lack of debate, thinking time – standard briefs and contracts were established, models of delivery devised which mimicked the building process – demands for public art to be ‘risk free’ and ‘vandal proof’ meet the needs of everyone and their dog, be selected by everyone and their dog and most of all – cheap!<br />Again, there are always exceptions – but I think we can all immediately think of many examples which fit this description. So in 2000 I established public art online – with the intention of creating a resource on all aspects of public art practice. The editorial policy was simple: - to provide a practical resource that promotes good practice when involving artists in public realm projects.<br />It was intended to appeal to everyone and anyone interested in and/or involved in public art, whatever their discipline and whether new to the field or experienced professional. And because the emphasis was on best practice and accessibility, we endeavoured to only commission articles and case studies on projects which we felt to be exemplars or which had useful experiences to share. The case studies were intended to be a 'warts and all' documentation of the project and any issues which arose. <br />And I think this is why it became such a success because it was about sharing information and making things accessible – making connections between different disciplines – which at the time it was established was not as common practice as it is today. For instance, my main contact in Local Authorities were planners – and colleagues in the then Arts Boards, and latterly Arts Council, were surprised that I wasn’t working solely with the arts development officers – of course I had contact with them also, but I focussed on the planners because I didn’t view public art as an artform. I believed it was a principle: a principle of improving the changing environment through involving artists in the conception, development and transformation of public space. But in order to achieve this strategies and frameworks needed to be in place and that was what I chose to focus on.<br />For me public art is entirely about collaboration – bringing disciplines together to spark off each other, question and engage in creative research in order to deliver the best places they can. Quality of thinking, quality of people, quality of opportunity – it’s not about big budgets but about getting the brief right and the team right, that then delivers.<br />So when the opportunity came to tender for a new funding scheme aimed at integrating public art practice – which was funded by CABE and Arts and Business – I leapt at the chance to develop what I had been plugging away at –a desire to see artists conceptual skills utilised rather than them just being brought in at the end of the process to place ‘objects’ in space. This national scheme aimed to involve artists as ‘visual engineers’ and encourage creative clients. By bringing artists into the mix of people already considering the creation or development of an area, you are opening up a channel that encourages and allows local people to feed in imaginative ideas and thoughts as to how they want those spaces to develop. For example, if the artist is engaged in the master planning process, they can contribute to the consideration of issues of transportation, navigation, spatial layout, and hard and soft landscaping for instance, rather than being viewed as someone who only works on individual components within an already designed public realm.<br />And this was what PROJECT aimed to do. It provided an exciting new stream of funding which enabled the involvement of artists at the earliest possible stage of development. Artists worked on master plans, urban design frameworks, and designs for new housing settlements and worked creatively with communities on issues of change and acted as a commentator or provocateur, through encouraging a critical discourse in relation to regeneration, its impact and resulting expectations. The scheme aimed to influence and create a shared vision for architecture, public space, planning and high quality urban design. It ran for two years as a pilot format and raised the level of debate, changed working practices in some professions (particularly the private developers) , unlocked partnership funding and analysed the impact of working in this way through an independent evaluation process which was undertaken by Comedia. There was also a publication which looked at the lessons learnt and which provided practical advice.<br />But corporate memories are notoriously short. The public sector can be obsessed with the new, with additionality – with added value – and doesn’t always stop to evaluate what it has done and learn from it. People, schemes, objectives and campaigns move on and initiatives that have had considerable public investment become forgotten – only to be re-invented further on down the line.<br />So why is this – why don’t things ‘stick’?<br />There has been incredible work undertaken over the past ten years – and many organisations, like BEAM, have continually pushed for an inclusive public realm. There has been a stream of publications, conferences, guidance and initiatives – and it did seem like we were really making headway but the reorganisation of the Arts Council and the refocusing of priorities in the public sector and local authorities is starting to push public art back down the ladder - projects coming to fruition now like The Arts of Place, and Creative Places in Sheffield have been showing the way – but will there ever be funding in the future to set up similar initiatives.? All our endeavour’s are under threat – the Liverpool Biennale has just opened – an incredible event for the city and country but can it continue to grow and develop in this climate?<br /> We have had, up until the coalition government, an unprecedented focus, in my view on environments, design, community engagement and the art of making sustainable places. Professionals have come together, schemes have demonstrated this way of working and a new confidence was emerging. But in this current ‘slash and burn’ mentality how will we protect this and how will we continue to mainstream this area of practice?<br /> Well, there can be a certain freedom in not having formal programmes - Artists can challenge accepted thinking (because they are outside the box), question the perimeters and boundaries of a project – question the perceived problems and present a new way of looking. They can bring an informality of consultation and discussion, which leads to real community engagement. But it takes courage, respect and a belief in their role – in the importance of bringing a unique personal vision into a shared set of requirements and allowing that to find its voice and become part of the solution. We all like to think that our professions are creative in their own right, and they can be, but the best form of creativity is also recognising it in others and being open to influences, ideas and visions which are shared, not owned. <br />So why wait for a scheme or a budget or permission to allow this to happen. For those of us involved in regeneration – we know that involving artists makes a real difference – we have all read the reports on how communities have responded, grown in confidence and had a vastly improved quality of life because the schemes have been sensitively developed, and probably most of you will have experienced it at first hand. <br />So why don’t we just do it? Why don’t we automatically include artists’ involvement in our budget headings?<br />One of the questions raised as a context for this conference was:<br /> ‘In the current economic climate what value do the arts and culture have and how can we join up culture, communities and regeneration? ‘<br />Well the value is still there, it doesn’t go away just because budgets get tight.<br /> <br />Traditionally when the going gets tough – creativity gets dumped – but this is exactly the time to be more creative – to plan, step back and re-think how we embed cultural involvement and apply ‘total place’ thinking. In fact some would say that there has never been a better time with more opportunity for the creative community, because everything is up for grabs – we all have to look at new ways of working.<br />Hard times encourage us, through necessity to eschew pressure to seek new and shiny goods and experiences, and to step off the never –ending retail treadmill and to re-connect with the home made, local and non-retail pleasures. People seek meaning; we cease just being customers and remember that we are also citizens. Contemporary craft and innovative community engagement projects are well placed to celebrate this innovative thinking, and should be a key element of the place maker’s skill set.<br />Adding value can be about doing things differently rather than more – we all know the old adage ‘less is more’ well this is an opportunity to pare things down – look at what really counts and maybe put more effort into working with and building the communities who are going live with the regeneration and stop creating over engineered and over designed spaces. Instead, create places which allow for personalisation, which can evolve and be further shaped by the people who use them. Good urban design is progressive, sequential, and some of the more interesting public art projects have been durational – ones that have bedded down in a community over a period of time, building relationships, taking time to listen and explore and it is these sort of projects which ‘stick’.<br />We all need to become more politicised and set up bodies or organisations which question current practices and start to form discussion and debate about how we can work differently. Organisations like ‘New Deal for the Mind’ and the South Coast Forum, are doing just that – formed by creative professionals who wanted to take things back into their owns hands and question current practices and provide new solutions. <br />I have always felt that design teams should be widened but now I think it is essential. We need to broaden the skill set not just to include artists but also urban geographers, cognitive psychologists, gender specialists – so that we bring all the knowledge and expertise to bear from these specialists to ensure we really do create inclusive spaces, which are genuinely socially sustainable because they are fit for purpose.<br />We should question the division of budgets, particularly the way the car is still put first – and these initiatives are on the way – like the soon to be published update on Manual for Streets – which will literally throw the rule book away.<br />One of my favourite quotes is from President John F Kennedy, which is:-<br />‘The life of the arts, far from being an interruption in the life of a nation, is very close to the centre of a nation’s purpose’ <br />This belief has also been reflected in Obama’s presidency which has emphasised the importance of sustaining cultural activity and working creatively to keep communities together in a time of recession, and which was such a marked contribution from the Roosevelt era – artists working as artists for the good of the community.<br />The move from ‘nimbyism’ to ‘imbyism’ (yes I did pinch that out of planning magazine!) could provide real opportunities. If localism does lead to a 'demand-led devolution' which puts control over the management and finance of public services into the hands of local users, and if Local Authorities increasingly focus on encouraging genuine community leadership by building capacity within communities to lead, then we could see an opportunity to claim the ‘Big Society’ for ourselves. <br />This also goes back to the now ‘old-fashioned’ notion that people can come up with their own solutions to problems and that the state doesn’t need to step in all the time. And whilst it is unlikely that more money will be found – in fact we know it to be the opposite; it does present us all the opportunity or is it a challenge!? to be resourceful - after all art is culture and without culture we have no society – ‘Big’ or not.<br />This weekend – The project 'Black Country Creative Advantage' is holding a conference at ‘The Public in West Bromwich, the initiative is a partnership of the School for Art & Design at the University of Wolverhampton and the community arts organisation Multistory. The Conference title is Working Together. Partnerships, Regeneration and the Common Good in the Artsand Beyond<br />I can’t think of any other research project or event which has stated ‘the common good in the arts’<br />The conference is the conclusions to a two-year arts-based research project into culture in regeneration, democracy and the common good. It aims to contribute, as this conference is, to the critical debate around culture-led regeneration but also to investigate and develop public art practice which is focused on democracy and the public interest in a context of urban regeneration.<br />We live in interesting times – as they say – as we are witnessing a reclamation of power, a taking of control and rising interest in commonality, real community engagement – which leads not follows a project – and the power of collective action.The ‘Doing it for ourselves’ approach is also being reflected in the Royal Society of Arts Citizen Power programme. The pilot in Peterborough has various strands, one of which is Arts and Social Change; which will explore (and I quote) ‘the role of the arts and imagination in building a sense of belonging in Peterborough and underpin engagement for the entire programme of Citizen Power. Artistic interventions and creative processes will enable and support citizens as well as those in key roles in Peterborough to develop better understandings of needs, build joint aspirations and share ideas and solutions. This will be done through a range of programmes that will help to shape a new creative and artistic hub in the city. This is not an arts project, nor a research project that uses the arts, but a practical re imagining of how social change and the arts can work together to help people help themselves’.<br />These are only a couple of examples of projects which have sprung up all around the country over the past few years. Riversmeet is a multi-disciplinary collective of active citizens in the Market Town of Cockermouth, Cumbria, which was established in 2006, when a small group began to experiment with ways to widen community awareness of the changing global context and the local implications. Riversmeet involves artists and volunteers in experimental approaches to engage local people in considering the future sustainability of their community. New ways of working and structures have emerged in an organic way, building on the strengths of local people. The Network now comprises a growing cluster of active citizens drawn from different sectors, age groups and vocations, who are contributing personal time for the benefit of the community and are involved in supporting community groups and networks on a wide range of topics and activities. <br />I should point out here - that I don’t agree with withdrawing paid employment and then expecting the community to ‘volunteer’ to keep the service going. But I do support collective action and civic engagement which leads to real improvement for communities, and on their own terms.<br />Climate change is a major issue for all of us and regeneration projects of the future will have to build in measures which allow adaptation to the consequences of global warming. Many local authorities have already switched the emphasis of their Section 106 negotiations to contributions for flood alleviation schemes. So rather than worrying about percent for art ,we should be pushing for creative solutions to the problems that face us all – and artists can take an active role in solving the problem through their own work via " solution-based art practice" .<br />I once had a long and extended discussion with a developer and local authority who was pushing for percent for art – the new development included new public space and a school – but they just could not understand that rather than build the new public realm and school and place public art in or near it, they could actually engage an artist in the development of the new space and school and that would be their ‘percent for art’. They had defined public art as a rigid stipulation – develop site then place public art in it – no-one had ever said this was the ‘rule’ the only constraints being brought to the process were the ones they were placing on themselves – and how often have we all been guilty of that? Assuming that there is only one way to go about things – because it is tried and tested?<br />What I am trying to say is now is the time to forget our silos – forget who should be paying for what and look at the bigger picture. Look at what that community is going to need now and in the future.... and creativity would very much be in the equation. <br />Now things are different we have to do things differently<br />Of course artists have been engaged with environmental and ecological issues for decades but it is only in more recent times that movements like Eco Art are beginning to take centre stage.<br />The sector has also been gearing up for some time - the RSA had a highly influential programme - Arts and Ecology, which ran for several years and Encounters – who have established an ongoing lab to evolve and join up existing practice and establish new practice at the intersections of art, ecology, place making, sustainability innovation, environmental education, conflict resolution and experiential learning – are just a couple of examples. <br />There are also studies on carbon footprints for touring companies, Slow Art initiatives, and many other projects around the world which are making new partnerships between artists, ecologists and scientists.<br />The findings of all these initiatives and projects are vital to all of us – rural as well as inner city communities and will, undoubtedly influence more and more our view of place making.<br />The mixing up of disciplines – the final breaking down of silos demonstrates that our new partners are not just within the development sector. The Land Art Generator Initiative – originated in the United Arab Emirates is a landmark project, aimed at bringing together artists, architects, scientists, landscape architects, and engineers in a first of its kind collaboration. <br />The goal of the Land Art Generator Initiative is to design and construct a series of public art installations that uniquely combine aesthetics with clean energy generation. The works will serve to inspire and educate while they provide renewable power to thousands of homes around the world. The first winner of this scheme will be announced in January 2011 and will have their idea put into production.<br />Existing structures are either being removed or broken down, some for the bad but some for the good. If we can shake off some of the shackles that our risk averse society has created – we can start to make places which allow people and particularly children to be more actively engaged and freer in – ‘Free range kids’ as Wayne Hemingway calls them. He calls for creative people to take control and be active in changing our appalling track record for making liveable places. <br />Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey is released annually. It compares 221 cities based on 39 criteria.. Important criteria are safety, education, hygiene, health care, culture, environment, recreation, political-economic stability and public transportation. The United Kingdom, in the 2010 survey had only one entry – London and that came 39th. <br />Now obviously we can’t put all our faith in surveys – and expect them to show us the way forward, but again and again we come out worst in these sort of comparisons: for example:- we have the unhappiest , unhealthiest, and worst behaved teenagers in Europe – we know that environments have an effect behaviour - so obviously what we’ve been doing – hasn’t been working.<br />There will always be the flagship developments and we needn’t worry about those – it’s the day to day, the ‘wallpaper’ that we need to tackle. <br />So to conclude (and I apologise – it does seem to have been a bit of a rant after all!)<br />We may be losing existing structures like Regional Spatial Strategies, and Regional Development Agencies and see mergers of specialist bodies, but there are other mechanisms which will still deliver regeneration and who can be influenced if we accept that politics are part of the narrative of creating new places. Multi Area Agreements, Local Enterprise Partnerships, the growing emphasis on Green Knowledge and skills development – all lend themselves to being influenced by creative thinking and creative solutions.<br />The local government improvement agenda is actively looking at the policy contribution of art in the public realm – so whether we are in the business of developing and delivering schemes or artists contributing and creatively shaping them we all need to become more engaged .<br /> In times of recession there is more derelict land or ‘land in limbo’ as CABE calls it. but these sites, at relatively low cost can be converted into amenity spaces which make a contribution to the communities – not just present a closed face which send signals of deprivation. <br />The Resource for Urban Design Information - RUDI - has raised awareness of solutions for these spaces and demonstrated that vacant urban space can be used for civic benefit. Here and across Europe there are examples of underused or vacant land and buildings being used for city farms, urban agriculture, allotments, community cultural centres, informal wildflower meadows, kick about spaces, tree nurseries and so on.<br />Sheffield has introduced grazing animals to underused land – and a project I am working on in Gloucester is looking at how a so called ‘wasteland’ can be brought back into community ownership – via an arts led programme – and this land already comes with its own unique Gloucester Bred Cattle.... <br />Another project I am involved in is about widening the role and impact of a County wide Forum for Heritage, Design and the Arts. It suffered from not establishing a wide enough partnership base and partners will now range from environmental through to construction and private sector. And it will not only be looking at spatial planning but also marine spatial planning and how that activity effects development on land. Artist will be integral to this mix – working with communities on issues that currently face them and the growth and change they will sustain during the course of this century. <br />And just a final word on happiness – according to the Happy Planet Index (yes it does exist – as an antidote to the Gross National Product indices which measure everything bar what makes life worthwhile!)<br />Costa Rica is the happiest place in world. The average life expectancy is 78.5 years – which is longer than USA. It survives on a quarter of the resources typically used in the western world and abolished its army in 1948 and invested in social welfare programmes for health, education and culture instead. It now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Costa Rica puts high value on social cohesion, and the people live by the motto “Pura Vida” which literally means “pure life.” The aspiration being to have a serene and simple life, which is culturally rich and to live surrounded by friends and family. Being part of a community brings wellbeing.<br />Countries around the world are increasingly responding to research findings – which may point out the blindingly obvious – that happy citizens and cultural capital are essential for growth and economic well being. So there is no argument for ceasing to involve artists in regeneration projects when all the evidence points to how essential it is – art is a great leveller and creates commonality - which in turn makes us all happier.<br />Thank you.<br />©MBA, September 2010<br />