What is Public Art?

Explaining the term Public Art is a difficult and much debated issue. To be able to create a singular definition is much like trying to describe the diverse nature of contemporary art practice in a few sentences. Therefore, it must be made clear that the following text specifically outlines the key principles to consider in relation to projects that this toolkit and the city of Aberdeen wish to encourage - to develop a diverse and challenging creative urban environment. You will find that many local government agencies have adopted formal public art policies now and details or emphasis may differ from area to area.


WHO - For the purpose of this site all public art projects should be designed or produced through the work of an artist or creative maker. However, due to the diversity of exploration that may take place within a project, secondary collaborations with other art forms and professionals are often encouraged and developed (musicians, performers, writers, engineers, scientists, etc).


CONTEXT - One of the first things to consider about any given work of contemporary visual art is the context in which it was produced. The various ways - ethical, political, sexual, religious, and so forth - through which we may view art are often instrumental in giving us an appreciation of the work. In considering public art, context and a site specific focus are the key attributes. Obviously no work or event could reference all times and all perspectives in relation to a site, but site specific work will rely on the artist engaging with a space, considering its position in the city, reflecting on its life and history, the aspirations of its community and its relationship with a wider world - one or all could be used as a starting point.

What is fundamental here is that public art is not about taking work from a gallery and placing it in a non-gallery space and it is not about applying a 'one liner' aesthetic approach to create a pleasing piece of urban decoration. It is fundamental that the public artist makes work that seriously considers the context of the chosen site, how that consideration informs the making of the work, and then how that work respects and carries a responsibility to the site and its community. A successful process relies first and foremost on the initial creative intent of the artist and also the genuine desire of the commissioner to encourage exploration and innovation.

ARTIST ROLE - What artists do and what they 'should' do, has created an area of public debate that forces us to broaden our model of understanding of contemporary art practice. The discussion can be complicated, questioning the place of craftsmanship, subject matter, types of venue, and the relationship between new public art and more traditional commemorative art forms. The nature of discussion needs to be examined within the worlds of both art and social discourse - ideas that include new interactions and new audiences. The artist does not hold a fixed role. Some of these methodologies could include the artist as researcher & reporter, artist as watcher & experiencer, artist as analyst & designer, or artist as social activist. The response will rely upon a mix of individual artist practice, the focus of the commissioner and the nature of the site and community.


AUDIENCE - By the very nature of art in public spaces the artist is often thrust into contact with a broad and diversified audience, each group bringing its own character and contribution as a response. Traditionally an audience can often play a more passive role in experiencing art, as a simple one way dialogue. Public art often encourages a two way communication where the space between the audience and artist is considered to be the core of the work. There is a choice where the first hand experience can switch from viewer, to assistant, to activator, and this relationship can inform how the work is created. At no point is the level of participation fixed, and depending on the criteria established through the work, participants move back and forth between levels. It is vital that accessibility, either generally or for a specified community, is thoughtfully preserved.


WHERE AND WHAT ART FORMS - The term 'public' refers to works of art in any media that have been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the physical public domain. Either inside or outside, but not in a gallery, museum or designated exhibition or performance space. These spaces should be openly accessible or visible to the public.
The scope of public art approaches is as wide, varied and far-reaching as the places, materials and people involved - outcomes can be both permanent or temporary. Some approaches to consider, in isolation or in combination, may include: environmental responses; heritage and conservation; community connectivity; performance and sound works; landmark and place marking; integrated design partnerships; festivals and celebrations; sensory artworks; socially engaged practice; educational and training initiatives; digital and virtual platforms; print and publishing; architectural and landscaping; 'guerilla' interventions; navigation and alternative signage.

As previously stated, the focus of public art projects is to promote the wider role that artists can undertake in a variety of social, environmental and collaborative contexts - to create 'accessible' art that cares about, challenges, and is in a genuine dialogue with the audience, respecting specific site and community.