Ideas for a brighter future for all

How public art can reinvigorate Australia’s landscape

Contemporary public art captures the imagination and ire of the Australian public on a regular basis. Fallen Fruit in Melbourne, Big Swoop in Canberra, and Sheila, the recent commission for Queen’s Wharf in Brisbane, all generated passionate debate. Meanwhile, the public artworks on Melbourne’s laneways are internationally lauded and marketed, while festivals like Swell on the Gold Coast have become central to the national cultural calendar.

Public art shares diverse sentiments and concepts with a broad audience and invites exploration of the spaces that host it. It is increasingly used as a mechanism for cultural commentary in cities. Provocative examples, like Scott Marsh’s mural of Scott Morrison wishing us a ‘Merry Crisis, or Peter Drew’s ‘Aussie’ paste-up series, delivered strong commentaries on current social issues before intentionally vanishing.

It took time, but Australian public art in the twenty-first century has established its own aesthetic. Colonial-era monuments and statues are no longer the zeitgeist; nor are over-sized, roadside plastic objects. We might still assign cult status to the Big Banana, but the Australian public now demand more variety, novelty, sophistication, and self-reflection from public art.

AUSSIE
Aussie, Peter Drew

Taking many forms, public art can include any medium experienced in public outdoor or indoor spaces, through permanent or temporary exhibits. Large-scale painted murals are a rapidly multiplying medium in Australia. Other artworks include sculptures, installations, and soundscapes. These can be embedded in architectural surfaces and landscaping, occupying three dimensions, while utilising the multi-sensory realities of urban spaces. Done well, public art can improve the amenity of public space while accounting for local historical, cultural, and social contexts.

Far from being ‘plonked’ randomly in urban spaces, city-shapers often use public art strategically to renew the fabric of built environments and energise surrounding communities. Public art is often leveraged by city councils to contribute to the urban renewal programs, designed to remediate urban decay and activate urban spaces. While complex and long-term projects, urban renewal can improve quality of life outcomes, residents’ prosperity, and the urban area’s amenity. 

Within these programs, it is an essential that councils ensure that living, working, and recreation spaces are fit for purpose and meet the needs of residents. Artworks should be sympathetic to setting and location, as well as the communities who co-habit the space. Quality public art can assist with urban renewal but cannot uplift entire communities alone. As such, urban renewal programs should focus first on addressing deep social, economic, and environmental problems before commissioning artworks.

The Big Banana, Coffs Harbour
Cultural heritage

Public art provision offers a unique opportunity to reflect the cultural identities and values of different communities. Our published research examines examples of this from Ireland and Australia. Solidifying a place’s identity through public artwork engages community members and fosters a sense of civic pride and belonging. Increased social cohesion within a community can result in positive outcomes for group and individual wellbeing. Public art can identify, develop, and promote a sense of distinctiveness that distinguishes a place setting both from neighbouring areas and from comparable locations elsewhere.

Reflecting cultural heritage is a cornerstone of contemporary public art in Australia and elsewhere. For example, Yarra Trams delivered Art Trams on the 250km tram network in Melbourne in 2021. Six trams were vinyl wrapped with First Nations artworks, with a single artist responsible for each tram. The trams were reimagined as moving artworks, creating a high-profile, travelling acknowledgement of the city’s Indigenous culture. The collected works encompass themes of caring for Country, personal connections, and the diverse ecologies of First Peoples lands. Previous Art Tram series reflected iconic dining venues, music history, and modern Melbourne’s multicultural demographics. 

Festivals of public art are becoming increasingly common. These provide training and employment opportunities for local artists, while renewing urban spaces, attracting visitors, and building place reputation. Townsville, for example, uses a Street Art Activation Framework to strengthen the city’s arts and cultural presence. A suite of sanctioned public artwork now reflects the tropical environment and well-known cultural identities. Our research documents how the Framework delivered positive outcomes to the city, as well as reducing graffiti occurrences.

The same research also examines public art provision and art festivals in Toowoomba. Like Townsville, Toowoomba has benefitted from an increase in tourism and reputation, while the skill sets, exposure and confidence of local artists and other creatives has also improved. In both cases, public art programs also reduced graffiti and the costs associated with removing it.

For all its benefits and popularity, public art can sometimes lead to controversy and community opposition. Too much reliance on public art in urban renewal projects has led to ‘art washing‘ accusations by communities, art practitioners and academics. As it is generally cost-effective, local councils and developers frequently commission public art projects to kickstart a renewal process. This may include offering short-term leases to creative professionals to generate a sense of liveliness in a precinct. A hazard is that the resulting improved urban amenity is only affordable to wealthy tourists and ‘creative classes’ of urban professionals with high incomes. In such cases, public art provision can lead to gentrification, often pricing existing residents out of their homes. Beyond that, these artworks are unlikely to reflect the identities or aspirations of actual, living communities. This can create overly sanitised urban environments which lack a sense of place and meaningful identity. 

FINTAN McGEE
Fintan McGee Mural, Fish Lane, South Brisbane
Creating confidence

Cities and regions learn from each other’s experiences and results with public art production, helping build confidence and vision for commissioning new artworks. Local councils sometimes respond to the increasing profile of public art by requiring that art plans be tied to development budgets. Depending on circumstance and context, artworks and styles may be deemed acceptable based on a particular quality, theme, materials selection, or medium. In a small professional field, successful artists with highly recognisable styles may become overexposed within a particular city, region, or country.

A case in point of public artworks selected based on a formula, Marc and Gillie Shaettner’s Dogman and Rabbitwoman characters continue their bronze sculpted love story across international time zones. Fintan Magee‘s painted murals tower internationally, from silos to inner city buildings. Anish Kapoor‘s biomorphic sculptures in stainless steel and Vantablack confuse and mesmerise people around the globe. In these instances, the public art reverts to its institutional origins of gallery art and the cities it is located become simply unidentifiable open art galleries. 

As we move on from the Covid pandemic and turn deliberately towards re-igniting public life in urban spaces, it is a moment to review the public policies and programs that drive urban renewal and urban activation. Artists can assist local authorities to reconnect communities to themselves and others as urban life, travel and cultural experiences once again thrive.

" ... there is an important role for high quality public art in Southeast Queensland as the region invites the world in for the 2032 Olympics."

New public artworks can again hold a mirror up for local communities that have changed in unexpected ways. They offer opportunity to celebrate differences and commonalities and reflect the lived experiences of communities navigating unprecedented change. Now more than ever, public art can create and reimagine sense of place, while inviting adventures in space, design, perception, and curiosity.

As a final thought, there is an important role for high quality public art in Southeast Queensland as the region invites the world in for the 2032 Olympics. Cultural precincts and sporting infrastructure will leave an unrivalled built legacy for communities. Planners and the arts community can work together to ensure that these are enriched with culturally specific and vivid public artworks. This could provide a unique training opportunity for a new generation of artworkers and producers to enrich the Australian cultural arts scene. Southeast Queensland has an opportunity to paint itself anew, with potential to tell the world about its Indigenous heritage, immigrant communities, the singularity of the natural environment and the culturally and socially connected communities lucky enough to call it home.

Author

Sophie GadaloffSophie Gadaloff is an Urban Planner and PhD Early Candidature at Griffith University. Sophie is part of the Cities Research Institute and an active Queensland Young Planners committee member. Previously a consultant, she is passionate about building strong connections between people, communities and urban environments. She has a professional interest in public art, regional planning, placemaking and the intersection of transport and land use planning.

Dr Tony MatthewsDr Tony Matthews MRTPI is an award-winning Urban and Environmental Planner, with portfolios in academia, practice and the media. He is a faculty member at Griffith University, where he is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Environment & Science and the Cities Research Institute.

In addition to a Masters and PhD in Planning, Tony holds the professional designation of Chartered Town Planner, earned through the Royal Town Planning Institute. While primarily based in planning academia and research, Tony maintains an active practice portfolio. He has led and participated in a wide variety of planning and sustainability projects in collaboration with government, the private sector and community organisations. Tony is also an in-demand public speaker and regularly delivers invited keynotes and speeches at academic and industry events.

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