Splendours and miseries of public art

It’s hard to think of any public art in Britain before 1945. There is public sculpture, some of it very fine, but its public purpose is overtly symbolic, like Grey’s Monument in Newcastle or, more often commemorative. Its purpose is to mark a shared triumph or tragedy and art is simply a means to that end.

Then, with the post-war construction of the welfare state, came the ideal of cultural democratisation – giving people access to great art alongside access to work, education, health care and leisure. It was the brave high-water mark of the industrial working class’s vision of collective self-improvement and it still, rather problematically given what has happened since, underpins the thinking behind most state cultural policy in Europe today.

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At its best, in the construction of Harlow New Town or Coventry Cathedral, this idea saw very fine artists commissioned to produce work of an unprecedented quality for public spaces. If that vision of a new, egalitarian and progressive society seems tarnished or faded today, it says as much about the failures of subsequent generations as about its own flaws. Many of the beliefs that guided public policy – including in the arts – have been abandoned or betrayed since the 1970s, but you wouldn’t know it to judge by much of what passes for public art nowadays. Shopping precincts and roundabouts are littered with the mediocre creations of an enfeebled culture. Most public art today is simply ignored by the people whose quality of life it is somehow supposed to advance: it’s not even worth vandalising.

Les Nouveaux Commanditaires

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That’s why the approach to public art developed by François Hers in the late 1980s at the Foundation de France is so interesting. By then the idea of cultural democracy had emerged as an alternative to the post-war democratisation of culture. It offered a vision in which citizens had not just access to great art (as selected on their behalf by experts) but access to the means of cultural production. In Britain and America this often meant community arts, with all its strengths and failures. But France, where art has a different relationship with the state and national identity, was less fertile ground for this practice. Other approaches to cultural democracy were needed and François Hers’ Nouveaux Commanditaires programme has proved to be one of the richest and most enduring.

Essentially a method of enabling citizens to commission new public art, the programme is governed by a short protocol which sets out the different roles and responsibilities of the commissioners, the artist and the mediator who facilitates their work together. Since its inception, scores of successful commissions have been completed in France and several other countries, by hundreds of artists such as Nicolas Floc’h, Liam Gillick, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Ettore Spaletti and Rémy Zaugg. The commissioners or patrons – it is hard to find an exact equivalent for the French word commanditaires – have been residents, doctors, voluntary groups, farmers, journalists, gardeners, teachers, politicians and many others. And guiding each commission to completion have been the independent mediators, who are central to the programme’s success.

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The development of each work is slow and painstaking, sometimes stretching for years as funding is found, permissions secured and ideas developed. The process can be difficult. There may be conflicting visions of a place’s meaning or what art should bring to it. One of the programme’s strengths is to see these tensions as positive and necessary: they are the dialogue that is often advocated (though rarely so richly achieved) in contemporary art discourse.

There is much to admire in Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, not least its longevity. The Foundation de France has been supporting the programme since 1991 in an exemplary commitment to giving an original idea time to develop: arts policy in Britain might benefit from such long horizons. So might it from the intellectual and artistic rigour that surrounds the programme, including its documentation. The website gives a richly illustrated account of the work, in French and English, making its ideas as accessible as its artworks; an 800 page book of essays by artists, philosophers, historians and sociologists – Faire art comme on fait société (Making art as one makes society) – was published last year.

There are great strengths to cultural democracy as it has developed in Britain since the late 1960s, including its energy, its iconoclasm and its openheartedness, but it is very exciting to explore such a different approach as this, and to ask what lessons it might have to offer.

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