art can be everywhere; public art in western australia

Although its forms are now quite different, public art has historically played an integral role in our public realm. In recent years public art has enjoyed a revival in conjunction with our focus on improving the quality of our built environment. Claire Doherty’s ‘The New Rules of Public Art’ published in 2013 reflect a change in direction. New forms of public art such as performance, ephemeral, installation and electronic media alongside traditional forms such as sculpture and murals are contributing to engaging, memorable public spaces.

The emergence of the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF), Form’s PUBLIC Urban Art Festival and the FRINGE WORLD festival, which are now significant events on the world stage, reflect Perth’s cultural growth over the past ten years. PIAF has delivered captivating performance, ephemeral and installation works by leading international artists such as ‘Place des Anges’ by Les Studios de Cirque in 2012 and ‘Walking with the Giants’ by Royal de Luxe in 2015. FORM’s PUBLIC Urban Art Festival brought leading international street artists to Perth. Pixel Pancho’s ‘Protection Against the Immigrant in Myself’ on the Central Institute of Technology building in Northbridge, Phlegm’s giant ‘Impossible Flying Machines’ on silos in Northam, Alexis Diaz’s ‘Leafy Sea Dragon’ in Wolf Lane, Perth and DALeast’s ‘Inertance W’ on the Water Corporation building in Leederville are all high quality murals.

In a global economy cities are competing to attract attention, talent, business and tourism. Cities that have established and embraced creative cultures such as Melbourne, have benefitted in not only a social but economic sense. Public art by definition is the most accessible form of art and an opportunity for cities to establish memorable, authentic identities. Generating quality public art however requires comprehensive government policy, forward thinking master-planning, artist education, training programs, knowledge sharing networks, affordable art studios, dedicated public art management staff, passionate advisory groups, public private sector relationships and funding investment. A co-ordinated holistic approach.

Some local councils such as the City of Vincent, Joondalup, Fremantle and Melville have embraced public art acknowledging its ability to engage a diverse range of social groups within local communities. The City of Vincent were the first local council to establish a Percent for Public Art Scheme.

The Government of Western Australia has also commissioned significant quantities of public art through its Percent for Art Scheme. Operating since 1989 the scheme is implemented by the Department for Culture and the Arts in conjunction with Building Management and Works requiring government buildings over $2M to commission public art from local artists. This has generated significant quantities of public art however the quality of many outcomes are questionable. Any form of artistic expression is subjective and often controversial, however whilst the need for public art is not often questioned the quality of outcomes raises questions. Should we be commissioning public art from a broader mix of international, national, established local and emerging public artists to improve outcomes? Or can we provide a better infrastructure framework for local artists to achieve high quality outcomes?

Perth has a number of talented mural artists such as Stormie Mills, Amok Island and Kyle Hughes-Odgers, who are acclaimed internationally and have contributed numerous works to Perth. We are also blessed with many emerging street artists producing engaging work. The quality of locally commissioned performance, ephemeral, installation and sculptural work however does not often achieve the same heights. Sculptural outcomes in particular are often somewhat less successful. Sculptural public art intended for the public realm is complex requiring a diverse skill base, interaction with many contributors as well as significant budgets to cover artist fees, materials, fabrication, transportation and installation costs.

The most successful sculptural outcomes often result from strong collaborations between artists, architects and specialised fabricators which is outlined in almost all public art policies but doesn’t always occur. Architects bring their knowledge of siting, materials selection and construction techniques. Skilled fabricators and contractors such as Urban Art Projects (UAP) are also critical in ensuring strong concepts translate into quality outcomes. Artists, architects and fabricators need to be open to engaging in collaborative relationships as all three participants are important in achieving high quality outcomes.

Education and training for public art practitioners is lacking. Until recently there were no recognised high level paths of study dedicated to public art in Australia, let alone Western Australia. Most artists engaged in public art studied broader visual or fine arts courses and evolved into this form of art from smaller scale painting and sculpture practices. The leap in scale demands the use of construction materials requiring specialised construction techniques. It’s location in the public realm demands the use of highly durable, low maintenance materials resistant to vandalism. Both requirements can erode artistic integrity if not considered and executed well. The results can often be generic, predictable and un-imaginative.

The arts are considered by many to have purely social benefits, however embracing public art will also bring significant economic benefits to Western Australia. The Government of Western Australia has committed to public art through its Percent for Arts Scheme however its surrounding infrastructure framework needs to be strengthened. Providing a more holistic approach will allow local artists to achieve high quality outcomes.

Art can and should be everywhere. Engaging narratives, captivating images as well as intriguing sounds reflecting local history, people and places should enliven our built environment and reflect Perth’s cultural identity. Art done well will more meaningfully contribute to our shared public realm as well as inspire West Australians to achieve great things in many other fields.

Written by Simon Venturi, first published in May 2016 and edited in 2019.
Image – Kyle Hughes-Odgers ‘Searching the Night’ mural on Forbes Road, Northbridge