It’s difficult to move through the Twittersphere these days without coming across a discussion about statues. Most of the statues being talked about are from the late Victorian era – a time where Classical notions of using public art to tell stories of history and culture was normalised. Throughout the 20th Century too, public art was commonplace in schools, town halls, department stores, city squares and residential blocks. But despite our modern focus on wellbeing in design, on urban green and smart modern blocks, we’re often lacking that extra artistic flair – and this is society’s loss.
Not just a ‘nice-to-have’
Growing up a stone’s throw from England’s oldest purpose-build public art gallery in Dulwich, I believe in the accessibility of art and baulk when masterpieces are squirrelled away into private collections. But it’s barely relevant who can capture a glimpse of an Old Master or endure hours of queues to see the Mona Lisa’s half smile through a glass case. The truth is that the public expression of art is irrepressible, and as old as time – from cave paintings and Roman graffiti to Barbara Hepworth and Banksy. We should work to include more of it as we change and update our towns and cities.
Good public art is in itself a destination. New quarters or locations can sometimes struggle to attract footfall, and filling commercial units to provide punters is harder now than ever. Art, on the other hand, gives visitors a purpose. It can intrigue and interest, spreading by word of mouth and creating an immediate landmark. To neighbours, residents or passersby it marks a place out as unique – and gives the development a voice of its own. A statement of something beyond the bricks and flagstones.
Creating a connection
Each sculpture, frieze or mural is an expression of a person, time, place and state of mind – to be interpreted and reinterpreted through a thousand pairs of eyes. It’s then our personal experience of this art that shapes our memories and connection with a place.
This is true everywhere and has the potential to enhance any kind of development. In our recent work with National Grid regenerating a former gasworks site in East London we saw the potential in a dilapidated set of murals on a historical Bow Common wall, and launched a community project to design and paint six new murals representing the life and culture of the area. The response was striking, with neighbours delighted to put their creative stamp on a place they love.
People are desperate to avoid ‘cookie cutter’ redevelopment – criticising modern blocks for being indistinguishable, or purpose-built high streets for being soulless. They feel no connection with such places as distinct from any other. Memories and experiences have not been formed – and the missing nostalgia cannot be manufactured.
Public art can provide this connection anew. Whether you love or loathe any particular example, good art provokes a reaction, evokes an emotion, or rekindles a memory or feeling. More than this, when public art is developed by local talent, or artists with a link to the area, then a mural or sculpture becomes part of a wider cultural heritage that will continue to evolve and grow over time.
These are the reasons that public art has stood the test of time – and that people cannot help but be creative. We should embrace this and invite artistic expression and community connection deeper into the fabric of our towns and cities at every opportunity.
Thomas Parfitt is a senior account executive at Camargue