A discussion about the future of art in public space

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam – – Great things in life don’t last. We’ve learned it last week when, after two decades of depression, the Dutch soccer team finally shook off the superb style of the old Dutch masters and defeated France and Italy with stunning postmodern efficiency. We saw it yesterday and learned that the new style had no more than a one-week lifespan… and the Dutch team lost against Russia… Despite the odds, Anna Tilroe, curator of the Sonsbeek 2008 exhibition, decided to organize this year’s edition around the theme ‘Grandeur’. But will this greatness last?

I invite you to join a discussion about the future of art in public space.

Sonsbeek traditionally stands for the largest outdoor exhibition in the Netherlands, a legacy it owns largely to the legendary edition of 1971 that presented the first land and performance art of that time. It sought to extend and challenge the barriers of art: its location, the white cube, the relation to its environment and audience, and its presupposed autonomy and universality.

Whereas the 1971 edition was the first one to leave the Sonsbeek park and integrate the art works into the city of Arnhem, Tilroe has decided to revert this dispersion and return to the park. Alongside, the tradition of examining the relational and site-specific aspects of art has been abandoned as well. The works seem to be out-of-place, self-contained entities that bare little or no relation to the environment, its historicity, nor its visitors.

Zooming out of the exhibition and looking at art in public space from a larger perspective, I see more problems. The public domain traditionally represented a highly dynamic place where opinions and world-views were published and public discussions were situated. That quality is diminishing, a process that is caused by a number of factors: the privatization of public space for one (read more about that in this article on Point of view, by Janna Holmstedt), the commodification of public art works and, above all, the gradual dispersion of the public debate itself into new and more vital sites and media such as weblogs, internet forums, schools, community centers, comments sections of news papers and art initiatives in neighborhoods.

Therefore I ask you the following question: What is the future of art in public space?
You are invited to join a discussion in the comments section of this article.


16 Responses to “A discussion about the future of art in public space”

  1. 1 plumbed June 22, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Of course, the blogosphere is a public space of sorts, but that is probably a discussion for another time. You’re talking about publicly owned, physical spaces.

    Part of the difficulty about art in public spaces, as opposed to temporary exhibits in galleries, is that the art chosen is either dated or current. If it is dated it is seen as conventional, safe, and perhaps pointless. If it is current it dates itself as soon as the fashions and thinking change, and we say things like “that is so 80s”. It would be nice if art in public spaces were intimately connected with the environment, but we seem (at least here in Canada) to lack a coherent artistic tradition from which to draw. The cosmopolitan nature of art and fashion today means that styles, influences, and tastes swirl about like too many sauces in the pan; how then does the public space have a unified vision? But then who wants the alternative: artistic dogma that prescribes the vision. It’s a tough balance.

    Perhaps incongruity is an appropriate artistic metaphor for today’s world.

  2. 2 Martijn van Berkum June 22, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Dear plumbed,

    Thanks for your reply. A coherent tradition is an interesting point I think, which links to the Sonsbeek exhibition I mentioned in the article. That may partly represent our tradition of art in public space. To maintain legitimacy for working in public space, indeed, as you mention, needs to have that intimate connection to the environment and unfortunately Tilroe is abandoning the tradition of examining today’s conditions of art in the public domain.

    And therein lies one of the problems I would like to issue in the article. Not only is the changing of rules, regulations, control and ownership of public space affecting the way art can function in that realm; it also causes activism, debate, publishing of ideas and worldviews to move away from the traditional arena’s of public space – streets, squares and walls – into other, more situated, places such as schools, neighborhoods and community centers, or more conditioned places such as weblogs and forums.

    Incongruous perhaps, I think I would say: diverse!


  3. 3 a Finn June 22, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    I think one of the biggest problems are that many important art-institutions and museums are playing it safe. They don’t want to cause any kind of political polemic, in fear of upsetting and loosing funding from the state or private sponsors and donators. And if this is the case, then the artists also have to play it safe to exhibit in or sell any art to the institutions and museums.

    I’m living and working in Finland and have had first hand experience of a national art-museum saying (in a very short and Finnish way) “We don’t do public art”. They did not say anything if they liked the public art-work or not.

  4. 4 Janna July 4, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Hi Martijn,
    despite the important question I found it difficult to comment your post – it slips my hands/mind and I don’t know where to begin. Maybe because I sense an air of nostalgia and between-the-lines-statements that are not spelled out. I get a feeling I am supposed to “get it”, but I don’t really. Should I start in politics, art history, the changes during the 1900s, in Sweden (where I write from), the Netherlands (where you write from) or in Europe (as a pretended common ground)? Where is the “public”, in the streets?

    The future, and present condition, of public art I have previously written about in this article together with Po:

    And in this post, which is also in dialogue with your previous post on public art:

    To my mind the traditional arenas you mention (streets, squares and walls) have never been that inclusive, open and democratic as implied, and the more “situated” places (you mention schools, neighborhoods and community centers, I could add cafes, homes, the work place, clubs, etc.) have been of vital importance for civic society, policy and opinion making and debate long before the 1970s. I think the physical town square first and foremost function as a symbol of liberties democratic countries pride themselves with having, not as a forum for discussion.

    But to try to approach your invitation, this is how I read your post: you are alarmed that a major institution with a grand and edgy tradition of art in the public sphere has caved in.
    Public art projects are heavy work. The process meanders and involves dialogue with many people during a long time. It is an art of communication. I sometimes think it requires a certain “breed” to go through with it. Who will take on the responsibility and skill it demands if our major institutions retreat (as aFinn points out: if the play it safe)? What kind of framework is required to manage complex processes like this?
    There is so much to be said here. I guess I should write a post on the subject, rather than a comment… Maybe a new post from you could take the discussion a step further?

  5. 5 Martijn van Berkum July 6, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Dear Janna,

    Thanks a lot for your reply. First, your remark about where to approach the discussion from makes me realize that I ignored a crucial issue: point of view. Quite ironic because, needless to say, that is one the principal approaches we have on the blog… But it strikes me also because the first lesson you learn when you work in public space is that it’s different everywhere… (should have known better…) So then, what are we discussing here? Too late to answer that one now, not in the last place because we are well on our way in this discussion. But I’ll give it try nonetheless.

    Your comments on the ‘publicness’ of public space, and more ‘situated’ places of public debate are super interesting, but I would like to add some questions marks to it. Perhaps you are right that public debate has taken place in these more ‘situated’ places long before the seventies, however, I wonder if artists have always been there to take part in it? One of the things I find striking when it comes to art in public space is the development of its relation to public debate. Indeed, public spaces such as the square have been a sanctuary where we marvel at our democratic merits, rather than the actual site where the debates, which mark that democracy, takes place. However, assuming that contemporary art draws largely on a modernist tradition, I think the same can be said about art in public space.

    The first modernist public art concerned mainly commissioned works that symbolized the artists’ originality and autonomy (and a society of freedom as such). But since these works were all commissioned, they can also be read as signifiers of those who are in power and therefore their control over what’s debated in public space (the removal of Tilted Arch by Richard Serra is of course a super interesting case that challenged that notion of power, also in the light of this discussion, since the debate over the work took place in court and not on the square where the work was placed!!). However, from the 1960’s on there has been a change of attitude and public debate became increasingly important in the work of artists who work in public space (much of which has to do with Hal Fosters’ “Return of the real”).

    From the nineties until now we can see how relational art and community practice have enhanced that attitude and it seems not more than logic that this has inspired artists who work in public space to move away from the square and into the ‘situated’ sites where the actual debate takes place. At the same time, you can see that institutions haven’t always adapted to these changes necessarily, as aFinn points out, and as you can see in the Sonsbeek exhibition. So, to come back to your point, perhaps public debate has been taking place in these situated places, it hasn’t been until the last 10-20 years that artists are starting to work there as well, and in doing so they are gradually changing the conditions of ‘art in public space’.

    Furthermore (this is where my personal point of view comes in), I have observed that in the Netherlands public debate has become much more situated then before (there was not so much of that before the seventies). Grassroot movements are increasingly determining a micro-level of public participation in decision-making and problem-solving. I can see that schools, neighbourhood centers, art spaces in neighbourhoods and indeed, as you mention, cafes and the work place are taking more and more responsibility in solving problems of social, economical and cultural nature. Often for the reason that they have simply taken that responsibility, on their own initiative and by the motto: if we have a problem in our backyard, then let’s solve it ourselves. We didn’t really have such a tradition in the Netherlands, at least not to this extend.

    But perhaps you have an entirely different reading of this, or maybe I have misinterpreted you completely. I’d very curious to hear more. So yes, please write a post about this! looking very much forward to read that!

    Oh and I will read the article you wrote with Po!

    Very best,

  6. 6 Martijn van Berkum July 8, 2008 at 9:00 am

    I feel that I need to make an addition to the last paragraph about the workings of democracy in the Netherlands. We do have a ‘grassroot’ tradition that comes from the period of what we call the ‘the pillarization’ (when, during the first half of the 20th century, society got divided by four ‘pillars’: catholic, protestant, socialist and the liberals). The pillars were anchored in seperate schools, sport associations, televisions channels and entire villages were split and each group had their own church, baker, news paper, youth associations etc.

    This certainly inspired a certain decentralization of governance and identity politics. E.g. it lead to the Freedom of education act, which allowed religious groups to open up their own schools, besides the public schools. They still exist and for both my primary and secondary school I went to a protestant and a catholic school; at the former education still took place with the bible in one hand and a school book in the other. I must add though that I think this system of decentralized democratization didn’t serve debate and differentiation, but rather represented an enormously rigid system of self-preservation and isolation.

    In the second half of the 20th century, with secularization and postmodernism the lines between the different groups gradually blurred and disappeared altogether in the eighties and nineties. The loss of political involvement at micro-level disappeared with it and I guess that is something we are currently regaining.

    The ideological character of the old ‘pillars’ is striking in that regard. You could argue that with the disappearing of the pillars a certain idealism and vision on society has disappeared as well. That sounds romantic indeed, however, I feel that we are going back to those same places because, much like in the period of the pillars, current issues deal with culture and identity as well, and these sites (schools, neighborhood centers, sport clubs, cafes) are exactly the sites where these issues are situated, discussed and solved. The difference today is that we face a challenge of bridging differences, rather than maintaining them.


  7. 7 Antonio Scarponi July 12, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    public space is nearly dead. Art is not doing too well either.

  8. 8 Antonio Scarponi July 12, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    … maybe we should focuse mutally on the funerals and the necrology. 🙂

  9. 9 Martijn van Berkum July 13, 2008 at 11:21 am


    Wow, some very bold statements you’re making there! I guess they deserve some explanation!!

  10. 10 Antonio Scarponi July 13, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Well, I do not write a new edition of “the capital” for two reason: first long beard does not fit my fashion; second you never know, someone might take it too serious, we did this mistake already and we are still working on it. : )

    However, you do not have to have a long beard to see that the concept of “public space” became the concept of the “space of the public”, or “the spectacle” if you like.
    Also the so called “public art” should be better called “roundabout art”, or sort of urban decoration.
    My point is simply that the way we talk about “public art” is actually a trap. Because any art is related to a “public”. We do not have to allow to forget that.

    apologize for my cynicism : )

  11. 11 Martijn van Berkum July 14, 2008 at 9:32 am


    Thanks for your reply. First, to make one thing clear. The term ‘public art’ is mentioned once or twice, but in general we talk about ‘art in public space’, precisely for the reason you mention. Public art doesn’t really mean anything to me, funny also, because it implies the existence of ‘non-public art’ indeed, as you mention.

    Second, roundabout art is one of the reason I invite readers to look critically at art in public space! Furtermore, as you mention in your first comment, the fact that public space is at best moving to new sites, at worst lying in a coma.

    But still Antonio, you manage to come up with something interesting in your Geodesign project (see this article), so I guess you are still hopeful and see opportunities there. It’s a visionary project and I wonder how I should reconcile it with the cynicism in your comments here.

    So, I guess I’ll have to repeat the question, I’m sorry for that…, but I’m still very curious about your opinion on art in public space, why you think public space is dead, why we should still work there, and how, or not? And then what?

  12. 12 Martijn van Berkum July 14, 2008 at 9:41 am


    one last thing, I wonder about that beard. I’m not sure at all whether it would look bad on you, perhaps not too long, like the guy you mention. I mean, that’s a beard indeed. But a good beard can be very attrative you know.

    And perhaps a stretch, but maybe you can even grow beards and not write controversial books at the same time… 😉

  13. 13 antonio scarponi July 14, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Dear Martijn,

    thanks, I am glad you like the project I have made. But I would like to point that any of the several project I have actually made in the category of the “public space” are actually being financed, nor realized. The project you have mentioned is a prototype, let’s see if it will turn real.
    At the moment I a bit tired of words. That is why I like to condense an opinion into one ironic line, that summarize my thoughts well enough.
    No words for now, a joke is a joke, it is not funny to over explain it. I just wanted to make a definitive bitter lough in order to start a new topic.
    I do not feel for writing essays about the state of the public space. All the project I have made are sort of autopsies. Some time I feel like an anatomist illustrator.

  14. 14 Janna Holmstedt July 31, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Hi guys, thanks for the laugh. I needed it.
    I must say I agree with Antonio, the “publicity” part of public space is not really alive and kicking (I mean ‘Öffentlichkeit’, how issues of concern are communicated, made available and handled in society). Some say we suffer the consequences of living in a post-political society, where issues of political concern are made apolitical and thus not possible to change.

    In our discussion we swing between a contemporary conception of art in public space being temporal interventions or even prototypes (as Antonio’s Geodesign ) and the more traditional form of everlasting objects erected in parks and on squares. The latter falls into the category of urban decorations as Antonio points out, or could simply be called “the turd on the plaza” (a quote from Tom Wolf I couldn’t resist to use, found in Proximity magazine ).

    In Sweden there is a long tradition of commissions for art in public spaces. As a result of the cultural policy in the 1930s, the National Public Art Council was formed. The mission was to foster good taste among the people, provide high quality art in public space and to meet the demands for more employment for artists.
    The result, as it can be seen today, is a huge amount of naked bronze women spread all over the country. Naked women were considered to be ideologically and politically neutral, as if the female body itself signifies ‘high quality art’. Thus, at the same time as ‘good art’ was declared to be apolitical, it was used in a political program to foster good taste.
    A curious side effect of this policy was that there was rules against importing bad art, which left the guys working in the customs with the tricky decision of descriminating between good and bad…

    Thus, art in public space in Sweden means that a tradition of “good taste” meets the tradition of monument-making and now merge and reappear in the name of city branding. To the overoptimistic, there is no conflict at all. To the overtly pessimistic, nothing can be done. I think Antonio could be placed in the category of “absurd optimism”, since he sees a grim reality but still produces proposals for how to alter it. This is where I try to position myself too, with or without a beard.

    Another option is to dive deep and fully engage in a particular situation, i.e. to become immersed in the social “material” rather than implying/pointing to/highlighting it. Along the way, sometimes these engaged actors don’t find it relevant or constructive to call their activities art anymore. I think that is often a wise choice.

    Martijn, I think you describe the situation very well in your comment. For example you write: “So, to come back to your point, perhaps public debate has been taking place in these situated places, it hasn’t been until the last 10-20 years that artists are starting to work there as well, and in doing so they are gradually changing the conditions of ‘art in public space’.”
    Which in my point of view brings us back to the question in my first comment: What kind of framework is required to manage complex processes on a larger scale? Who will take on the responsibility and skill it demands if our major institutions retreat or play it safe?

    A friend who’s an architect said that we don’t lack skilled artists and architects, but there is a serious lack of competent persons/organisations ordering the work. I think that sums it up.
    A single artist can’t be expected to manage all the parallel processes required, involving many different stake-holders, financing, negotiating, etc. A “buffer” is needed. Building up the National Public Art Council in Sweden in the 1930s was one attempt. Artangel in London is another more edgy example (they made Rachel Whiteread’s “House” possible). Mobile Art Production is a recent initiative in Stockholm. Commissioned work is not a bad idea, but the task has to be assigned in a different way than the usual “total cost 20’000 euro, artist fee included, use long lasting materials”. It demands skilled project leaders and the dialogical, meandering process has to be accounted for.

    The designer Samir Alj Fält initiated an interesting project: Ultra Violent Design, acknowledging the fact that public stuff tends to be beaten up. The project is about creating new furniture designs for public spaces by allowing young people to vandalize materials and furniture specifically designed for this purpose.
    Samir’s Vandalism project also adresses the fact that art in the public sphere needs to be reactivated and reclaimed. Actions and reactions can be seen as an ongoing dialogue, as alternative ways of ”speaking back”. That’s why Po and I in Monument for the Masses proposed to blow up a brand new monumet in Tallinn (or rather subject it to the threat of becoming ruined). The reasons for it being there thus have to be constantly renegotiated. The reasons will change, as will the meaning or ascribed symbolism of the erected object. People’s stories and actions are what keeps it alive.

    Maybe temporal proposals are what we can hope to offer. Antonio reminds us that his Geodesign is neither financed nor realised, pointing to a gap art institutions who doesn’t play it safe could attempt to bridge. ”What if…” could enter the real – and then what? Will the produced ”edition” be bought up by collectors and put on display as a luxury commodities in a Rem Koolhaas-designed space?

    Now Antonio I’m ready, what is the new topic after the bitter laugh?

    PS. As for city branding I have a solution. Since most of the major tourist attractions in Sweden are catastrophic mistakes put on display (for example the warship Vasa that sank on it’s maiden voyage and the Dead Falls where one single man managed to drain a mighty waterfall completely while trying to make it useful for transporting timber), we should be more attentive towards our most embarrassing mistakes. Treasure them, wait a few years and then declare them national monuments. That way we would have an organic and steady growth of monuments reminding us of our greatest hopes and fears. “Monument” after all means “reminder”.

  15. 15 Antonio Scarponi August 5, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Thanks Janna,
    I love your brain! Thanks so much for your warm concrete day dreaming. You are very challenging as always. I have to think about all this. I do not have solutions in my note book yet… I hope I will. I have a lot of mistakes, maybe I should consider showing them up more often.

    However, I am very interested in the things you have discussed about the nudes and public space as a cultural policy to disseminate beauty across the country. We in italy also have that. But we are more modern than you are in sweden. We decided to put real nudes in television, a more efficient public space to promote beauty.
    I always thought that Italy was a country a little left behind compared with the others european ones… Now I am actually thinking that we are twenty years ahead the others. After travelling a bit around I am starting to recognize the same pattern of democratic dissolution.

    thanks again Janna.

  1. 1 A discussion about the future of art in public space « Trackback on December 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm

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