Sometimes we ask artists to do impossible things – we demand from them things that are unrealistic and self-serving. I find this frustratingly true with public art. I am constantly reminded that as a field, it seems common practice to dictate an outcome or set ourselves up for failure.
Why is it that we want to work with an artist, and do we know how? Because it seems obvious to me and many artists I've talked to that sometimes a call for artists is really asking for a designer, technician, graphics expert or fabricator. Public art opportunities are often crafted to resolve a problem, to add-on or make-pretty; to fit an artists' practice into an extremely defined context or site – a square peg/round hole situation. Bad park design? Throw in a sculpture. Bad architecture? Ask an artist to fix it. This type of expectation can be an impossible challenge for an artist making public art. This is not to say a challenge is not intriguing, but perhaps we need to find the ability to see the artist as an expert of their subject-matter. Often, we want what we think public art is, and the want is great because it helps the field to grow and expand, but if we use public art as a fix-all solution, we are under-valuing both the artist and the work itself. Maybe this is just me feeling frustrated with the work I have immersed myself in for years, causing me to feel bogged down by the things that are actually solveable, but I'm passionate about public art and I know there are ways we can change.
As many readers and Hamiltonians well know, this city is full of talented, skilled artists who do and create unbelievable things, and that is not something new. But with our rapidly changing city (some things not fast enough!), how can public art – the arguably ever-democratic medium – be contextual within contemporary culture and remain grounded as a meaningful art form? I think we can help shape a public art field where artists working in all mediums, scales and with diverse experience can contribute to public art in our city, in any city. I think this means opening up the opportunities, inventing more conversations and ways in which we start to see why public art has immense value when we allow artists to question, examine and debate, to do what they do best and to trust in them. Let's rip the band-aid off and work collaboratively to set the path for public art success.
Ciara McKeown is a Hamilton resident currently working with Waterfront Toronto's public art program. Ciara is a member of the Supercrawl Curatorial Committee, runs a regional public art round-table event, and previously worked in The City of Hamilton's Public Art Program. Educated at McGill and NYU, Ciara has worked in public art in Calgary, was on the Board of Directors with CAFK+A, and ran a New York-based start up public art organization. She has written for Stephen Magazine, Public Art Review, Americans for the Arts blog, and looks forward to working with HAC on the LivingArts Program. @ciaramckeown