Art & the City

Woolwich Arsenal

My thanks to Peter Murray and Philip Dodd for inviting me to participate in Art & the City, a fascinating gathering of global opinions on art and culture, as they relate to placemaking, regeneration and urban development.

As part of the Art14 event – which attracted over 30,000 visits to the main event at Olympia Grand and featured 180 galleries and 700 artists from 40 countries – Art & the City brought together private museum and art gallery owners, hotel operators and leading real estate developers.  It was an opportunity to share ideas and experiences with representatives from as far afield as China, Turkey and Mexico, as well as local London developers and investors.

The key question that hovered over every conversation was simple: how can art add value to real estate development and urban regeneration?

After a short introduction by Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, some 35 guests were divided into smaller groups for more intimate and in-depth discussions.  Alongside two branding and investment experts, I was asked to stir up some debate around art and its role in placemaking.

Talk about an easy gig.  It isn’t as hard to provoke discussion about public art and placemaking as it used to be.  The problem with placemaking, as a discipline – if you can call it that – is not that people ‘don’t get it’ in the way that we genuinely didn’t get it about 20 years ago.  There have been so many examples of competent placemaking adding real value to new developments – see Covent Garden, South Bank, Cardiff Bay, Salford Quays, Canary Wharf, etc. – that to deny a link between art, culture and the creation of place seems hopelessly naïve these days.

The challenge with placemaking today is that through its ubiquity it is rapidly becoming far too simplistic.  You know that a term is past its sell-by date when it becomes a part of the professional jargon.  It happened to ‘benchmarking’ in the 1990s, ‘economic clusters’ in the early 2000s and ‘legacy’ more lately.  If you really want to have fun with an evangelical environmentalist, just try throwing around the word ‘sustainability’ with casual disregard for what it actually means.  See the reaction of a real marketing expert when you use the words ‘brand’ and ‘logo’ interchangeably. All of these are important concepts, pregnant with meaning, underpinned by ideas, full of nuance and complexity.  But they gained so much acceptance, so quickly, that they were eventually transformed – through a steady process of overuse and misuse – into meaningless badges and buzzwords.

That’s where I fear that ‘placemaking’ is today, and public art is both the beneficiary and the victim of this process.  On the one hand, there has never been greater acceptance of the idea that a piece of art can genuinely enhance a public space.  On the other hand, the idea is so readily accepted that people often don’t stop to ask themselves, what are we doing and why?

So it was with this in mind that I waded into each discussion, trying to get beyond the simple ‘art is good’ rhetoric and into
searching questions about why it is good.  What purpose does it serve?  What messages does it send?

I was mindful of being challenged by the ‘art for art’s sake’ lobby, for whom the application of any commercial, property or economic rationale to a piece of art is to undermine its authenticity. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not as robust a challenge as it would be in other forums.  I respect the sentiment and admire the integrity of the ‘art for art’s sake’ argument.  If you are an artist producing art for its own sake, I wish you well.  Go sell it in a Mayfair gallery.  If it’s on my dime, then you should be producing art for my sake, thank you very much.  It has to serve a bigger objective.  It has to have a purpose.

And public art can serve a vital function in placemaking terms.  Look at the big UK regeneration projects of the past 30 years.  They are all about re-purposing a physical legacy that was left behind by the post-industrial economy.  We have docks without a shipping industry; factories that don’t make things; breweries that don’t brew; warehouses that are empty; power stations that lie dormant and derelict.  These places are the legacy of a structural economic change, a seismic shift in the nature of production and demand.  They are places built to serve markets and industries that are simply not coming back.  Putting them to some contemporary economic use is no simple task.

Placemaking, in this context, is about finding those kernels of truth, authenticity and heritage that have some resonance today and using those to underpin a contemporary use and an economically viable identity.  It is fundamentally about changing people’s perceptions of a place; about sending the right signals to the whole market of potential residents, tenants, investors and visitors.  And all of that in the context of rapid and transformational change.

Messaging matters and what is art if not just another form of communication, and a powerful one at that?  Effectively deployed it can add in subtle but material ways to the whole process of placemaking and value creation.  To be effective, however, one needs to pause and think carefully about what the message needs to be and how perceptions need to change.  It is not simply a matter of scattering a few sculptures around the place in the hopeful anticipation that people will like them.

Canary Wharf is a useful case in point.  With the architecture and infrastructure in place, it was still hamstrung by the hardened public perception that it was ‘far away’, ‘disconnected’, ‘sterile’, ‘crowded by day and dead by night’.  Arts & Events Canary Wharf, the programming arm of the Canary Wharf Group, has largely changed this perception, achieving through quality, frequency and volume what others might have attempted through scale.  It wasn’t a question of putting Canary Wharf on the map – everyone knew it was there and what it was.  The message had to be more sophisticated than that.  People needed the comfort and confidence to know that they could go to Canary Wharf at any time and find something interesting to see or fun to experience.

It is a lesson clearly learned by Argent, at Kings Cross, where the same principles are applied even as the buildings are coming out of the ground.  Early signs from Battersea Power Station suggest that this kind of thoughtful placemaking is at the heart of project from the earliest stages of masterplanning.  And all of this pales by comparison to Cathedral Group, who seem to be playing a whole other ball game at The Old Vinyl Factory, Clapham One and Brighton Circus.  The Old Vinyl Factory Sessions are an object lesson in how to find a destination’s true ‘spirit of place’ and use it creatively to inspire a new and economically relevant identity.

As it happened, my attempts at ‘provocation’ – through a more pragmatic and sanguine view of public art – were not half as provocative as I thought they would be.  I must confess, I was spoiling for a fight.  But the people in attendance – ranging from Chinese developers to national art gallery directors – generally perceived the value of public art in the same way that I did.  Encouragingly though, I left with the impression that there is some life left in ‘placemaking’ as a word and as a concept – thankfully it has not yet gone the way of sustainability.