“Art, by its very nature, was always public,” he says. “If you go back in history, the [clergy] were always the greatest painters of art. They put up wonderful paintings in churches and cathedrals, where people went every Sunday. And it was like a free museum for people to see. Museums didn’t come until much, much later.”
As the ways that it is staged and consumed continue to evolve, public art has become increasingly embraced as a platform for critical, political work. Particularly for artists looking to reach an audience for whom art mightn’t be an active indulgence, public spaces have become an attractive format.
“You want to get to as many people as you possibly can,” Professor Callum Morton, a practising artist and Director of Art Projects at Melbourne’s Monash University, says. “That has its issues, of course, but as an ambition I think that’s a good thing – particularly when the work is critical.”
For Eugenia Lim, a critically-acclaimed Australian artist of Chinese-Singaporean descent, the sentiment is shared. In her experience public art has proved an opportunity to connect with an audience she otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to captivate, on topics core to the evolution of Australian identity.
“It is about this encounter with art – people who don’t expect to come across challenges or questions in their daily walk from A to B,” Lim says. “I always feel like that’s a really important space to be engaging people, because it’s setting up a question; it’s setting up an encounter.”
Lim has found that giving the public access to her work, which comprises behavioural studies of everything from Australian-Chinese identity to the human cost of our relationship with technology, has become core to her practice.
“With The People’s Currency, which is a project included in my show The Ambassador, it was a work which was devised for Federation Square and it was very much devised for a mass audience,” Lim says.
“It was important to me in that work that it wasn’t going to be a rarefied experience, but instead, visually striking and inviting. It was a wonderful experience to be able to do something like that, to be able to take an artwork to tens of thousands of people — it’s such a rare opportunity for an artist.”
And the opportunity to stage works for an audience who might otherwise be disengaged has proved key to the practices of artists from a range of cultural backgrounds. In the rewriting of Indigenous voices, and the inclusion of First Nations people into Australia’s cultural landscape, artist Fiona Foley believes that art shouldn’t just be public, but should serve as a voice for Indigenous people, who she thinks have been otherwise voiceless in the creation of architecture and public spaces around Australia.
“[Public art is] very important, particularly for Aboriginal people who are working in that space,” Foley says. “Usually the premise behind my work in terms of public art is that I like to write an Aboriginal person, or aspects of Indigenous history, or an Aboriginal nation, back into the visual landscape because there’s nothing there to represent them.”
Despite emerging as a platform for protest, critical engagement, and art education in recent years, public art remains a point of contention among art world experts and critics around the world. The criticism it attracts has often boiled down to the bureaucratic processes through which it’s commissioned, and the way they can at times deter critically-acclaimed artists, leaving work that might read as sanitised, or ornamental.
“We have a perception of public art as something that’s often mediocre, cliché,” Morton says. “It’s art by committee, so it’s something palatable for people based on what their notions of what art is.”
“So the ambition that I and a number of colleagues of mine have had for it, is to try and get good critical artists into public art. But often good artists won’t go to public art because the processes are so complex,” he says.
According to Callum Morton, working within rigid and drawn-out commissioning processes often mount tiresome challenges in the face of artists creating public work, despite council and government efforts to improve them.
“I think a lot of councils and state governments have implemented better commissioning processes; they’ve got better people in the room,” Morton says. “So it’s often surprising that when they [have them], that you still don’t get a good outcome, just because of all the processes.”
“I mean, someone might be in the room at the beginning, an expert, and they’ll choose something good, but then the process is still so difficult, that it kills the project.”
With the cultural landscape of Australian cities becoming an increasing subject on the agendas of all levels government, Lim sees an opportunity for growth that could lie in the hands of local, emerging artists.
“I think it would be interesting for city and state governments to think more locally about how they commission works,” Lim says. “I’ve been lucky enough with The Ambassador to be touring around regional locations that I may have never had the opportunity to visit. And I think that’s amazing, but I also think there are often talented or emerging artists who live locally, that similar opportunities could be given to [instead].”
But for Kaldor, it remains simple: all public art could improve if the primary objective of the work — and those who commission it — is to educate, as all art should.
“I think there should be a greater focus on art education,” Kaldor says.
“Young people are very open to seeing things without prejudice. And if they can be taught to look at art in a certain way, or to look at art without prejudice, then they have a chance to enjoy art throughout their life. So art education should be the focus of all public art — of all art — whether in a gallery, or in public.”