Essays & interviews

A House for the Community

Ole Bouman – Nov 1995

For a long time, all has not been well with art in public spaces. Things were expected of it which it, by definition, could not live up to. It performed in a public domain which had a questionable level of 'publicness'. It shared in the malaise of art as a bearer of collective memory. In short it had become a stranger in its own realm. Clichés, taboos, idee fixes and fallacies on all sides. All the things that were expected of art - that it should contribute to a 'stimulating municipal environment', 'create an atmosphere and identity', 'react upon spatial situations' and 'the experience of the inner city', 'orientate and identify' and fulfil the role of 'cultural distribution' - sterilized it before its work could even begin. Art was asked to fulfil the abstractions of art theory, urban sociology and political jargon. This amounted to employing freedom and spontaneity within the driest and most bureaucratic of frameworks. It was bound to go wrong. In the end this art had nothing more to do with art, the city or publicness. If fine art was made in public space, it was almost always exclusively a product of a tradition that was being maintained and handed down from the past; a tradition that had become institutionalized into 'commissioning policy' with committees, invoices and budgets. In the end it went so far that carrying out this policy no longer had anything to do with art - the reason for its existence in the first place. Neither the traditional role of commemoration nor the autonomous artistic image were any longer the issue. What was left was force of habit. Quite simply there were commissions and there were artists, but no one knew when or why art was missed in any particular situation.

I am saying all this in the past tense, though anyone who's even remotely interested in the subject also knows that almost everything I am describing still applies today. Except that something remarkable has begun to happen in the world of art commissions over the last few years. Slowly but surely patrons and commissioning bodies are moving away from the idea that art's role is merely to 'finish off' a building project. They are beginning to realize that art cannot take responsibility for masking or compensating for urban and architectural catastrophes. The production of work too, in the form of a protest against the practice I have just described as inward-looking, inaccessible objects, autonomous and silent, no longer provides an answer.

I won't go into the deeper reasons for this turn-around, but it is quite clear that an important change is taking place in the mentality of some of those who commission art works - in their expectations and their open-mindedness towards other alternatives. Very slowly art is returning in the form of a communal act; no longer as a marginal addition to something that already exists, but, to use an unattractive term, as a partner in the developing process of our own built environment. Yet, the commissioners do not only think about art as a thing in an environment. This too means that art is no longer seen merely in terms of material elements, for example as an urban object, but as a dimension on the city. As something that can be taken into account not only in terms of the static urban image, but also as a part of urban life.

Of course, it is artists who are largely responsible for this change. They display the openness and strategic capacity to be creative in such dynamic situations. Though the commissioning body in particular - a local authority or arts organization - does play an essential part. Here the sacrosanct is annihilated, making way for the realization that another role is possible. And this is why I want to shout from the rooftops that what municipal services such as traffic, environmental agencies and so on sometimes offer, is contributing to the revision of the process structure and of the creation of opportunities for an art that accounts for more than a dessert at the end of a cheap meal. Conversations about this art always revolve around the artist. But we cannot bestow enough praise on those civil servants who dare to revise established procedures and allow or even aid unexpected interventions. The outcome of this exuberant praise must be that it will eventually utterly become the norm for the built environment to be integrally designed involving the commissioning body, the architect and the artist. I am not exaggerating: in this respect we are now facing an historic opportunity in the development of commissioned arts. If this tendency - young though it still is - were to grow into a new role for art as part of the community, that is, of life itself, the fruits could be manifold. An old dream would then become reality through the new freshness of spirit within any town hall.

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A House for the Community

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