14 December 2011

Question: Public art or public nuisance?

When it comes to art in public places – and questions of what it is, who it’s by, who it’s for and what it’s meant to do – there have been a few memorable incidents in Cape Town this year. The mistaken identity of an Artscape zebra, a Sea Point secret garden, and a hacked (then hijacked) series of statues along the Sea Point Promenade spring to mind.

These fairly high-profile public art incidents/accidents have forced us to ask fairly basic, but important questions: What is public art, and why does it matter?

The Free Dictionary includes a surprisingly good definition (while also going into scope, controversies and public arts’ connection to politics):

The term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that has been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. The term is especially significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a particular working practice, often with implications of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. The term is sometimes also applied to include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings.

What do our local curators and commissioning bodies say about its purpose?

Jay Pather, who heads up UCT’s Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts and is curating Cape Town’s 2012 public arts festival Infecting the City, explains: “Public art is simply a way to bring the work of artists into public spaces instead of the usual expectation of the public going to theatres and galleries. This grew into a form in and of itself. Now public art is highly sophisticated and deals with ideas of public-ness, open spaces as well as developing awareness of the city and each other – thereby contributing to the wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants. In South Africa this serves two purposes: We have a history of segregated art and as a result the development of audiences has suffered – it is crucial that awareness of the value of art is raised in every possible way. We are also still a divided society in some respects. Public art brings us together into a common focus and takes what’s on the inside and makes it accessible, poetic, dynamic, vibrant.”

Jonathan Garnham, from the Visual Arts Network of South Africa, develops: “Public art enhances a city’s quality of life, making places where we live and work more dignified, interesting and beautiful. It is accessible to all and creates civic pride, reflects and promotes local identity and leaves a legacy for future generations. Public art responds to the higher needs of a community. It gets people thinking, reflecting and promotes engagement and discussion, which are important in the development of a community’s sense of self and place. It also helps with the regeneration and upliftment of an area, creating civic pride and attracting business and tourism which obviously has economic advantages.”

For Roger van Wyk, who managed the public art installations at the MyCiTi bus stops, the art form’s value is most effective when it helps people connect – which is part of why he believes in public art connected to public transport: “Public art is significant not so much for its material or sculptural qualities but rather for the opportunities that can be created for enhancing social interaction in public spaces. Art policies linking public art to public transit systems are an effective strategy proven in cities around the world. Making public transport an attractive and pleasurable experience is vital to the system’s success and is an egalitarian way to justify public expenditure. New York’s subway art programme is exemplary for decades of consistent investment in a range of public art commissions of high standard, giving the system cultural value, orientation and enhanced identity.”

What’s the state of the art in Cape Town?

Graffiti is by-and-large regarded as a public nuisance – something “unauthorised that is obnoxious or injurious to the community at large” – if you go by the City of Cape Town graffiti bylaw. Graffiti artists who don’t have the right permissions face a fine of R15 000 or imprisonment for up to three months. As Anton Visser from the City of Cape Town recently argued in an article in the Big Issue: “What happens is disorder creates disorder. Where graffiti is rampant, it invites other forms of disorder. It attracts certain elements and sends a message that it’s okay to do whatever you want there, you then have people urinating there and so on. It culminates in crime.”

If this is our legislation around street art, what’s the city’s stance on performance art, or statues or installations?

Tanner Methvin from the Africa Centre explains: “In Cape Town, our current approach to public art is via our busking rules, which dictate who can perform in public at what times. Everything else requires a permit, whether an installation piece or a performance piece. That means you need a full permit with a full plan before you can engage in any kind of public art. This kind of time consuming, resource constraining process makes it completely debilitating for artists to engage in public spaces unless you’re an organisation with capacity and resources. This keeps individual artists out. If the city wants to become a vibrant place, wants to be engaged in publicness, then we need to have a progressive and enabling (and transparent!) public arts policy.”

Jonathan elaborates: “For a city of Cape Town’s size and ambition, the situation is dire. Not enough is done by local, provincial or national government to promote and fund public art. With a population of around four million and claims of being a world-class destination, we are lagging far behind. Cape Town does not even have a public art policy in place.”

And Jay? “It is surprising that public art is not more evident – Cape Town’s environment lends itself so well to it. The reason for this is the absence of a public art policy for the city and the great bureaucratic difficulties in getting permissions. I think generally only the very persistent survive. Artists who try to do some good get lumped with large film companies who are making commercial products. Our City needs to understand that people who do public art are non-commercial, since you can’t charge pedestrians. People who do public art are doing it for the city and its residents and visitors. The City needs to realise this essential fact and act accordingly. This will help this vital art form to grow.”

How then do we ensure a more progressive stance for public art in Cape Town, one that doesn’t see it as a public nuisance?


Answer: Public policy

A public art policy – a document and an agreed-on sense of place and purpose for public art in the city – would go a long way.

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, MD of Cape Town Partnership, explains: “The line between legal and illegal public art is not always easy to draw, since it is open to interpretation and subject to differing views. Consensus is not easily reached. All artists must get pre-approval for their works to avoid contravening bylaws. But during the World Cup, these bylaws were interpreted in a way that resulted in a more enabling environment for public art. Installations breathe life into public spaces that would normally go unnoticed. A happy medium must be found and mapped out in policy form. In this way it will not be so much about ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ public art from a bylaw perspective, but about a vision of how public art can enrich Cape Town’s public spaces.”

A South African city that knows this and is acting accordingly is Johannesburg. That’s right: The city of gold trumps World Design Capital 2014 (at least in this regard). You can read Jo’burg’s public art policy here for yourself, but it requires, in amongst other things, that up to 1% of all capital expenditure of R10-million or more should be set aside for public art: That is, for every R10-million public investment – a new park or building – R100 000 is allocated towards a mural or sculpture or performance of some sort.

In line with this policy, the Johannesburg Development Agency – charged with stimulating and supporting area-based economic development initiatives throughout the Johannesburg metropolitan area – has commissioned 175 new public artworks and installed them in strategic public spaces across the city.

“We should lobby local and provincial government to implement a public art policy,” argues Jonathan. “It is a public right to experience such culture. It should not only be enjoyed as an optional extra, but is actually one of our basic human rights: A principle of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, at principle 27.1, ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’”

Towards a public art policy

So how do we bring a public art policy into effect? The Africa Centre, as part of the Infecting the City public arts festival in March 2012, will be hosting a half-day conference on developing a public art policy – looking at different policies effected in cities across the world, and try to distil what makes most sense to adopt in Cape Town.

When? Around 9 or 10 March 2012, during Infecting the City
Where? Somewhere in the City Bowl
Who? You, together with the Africa Centre, the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts and Cape Town Partnership
Watch this space: www.infectingthecity.com

If you want to be a part of devising an appropriate answer to our public art predicament, be there. And until that time, look on the bright side:

“The one positive to all the rules is that there are more art projects happening in our townships,” muses art curator Shani Judes. “PASTE, the street art exhibition, went into Khayelitsha – and if you take a drive you will see some of Faith47′s pieces, some Mak1one works, even two international artists – Tika and Dal – in Khayelitsha.”

Take another look at Cape Town’s public art scene:

  • Public art or public nuisance? What’s public opinion? (Read more)
  • Public eye on public art (Read more)

2 Comments On "Question: Public art or public nuisance?"

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