Lost in Translation: Percent for Art

by Hannah Hull, 2008

In this paper I take a closer look at the relationship between the public realm and art, specifically the relationship between public funding and artistic autonomy. My interest in this subject stems from my own Public Art practice. It is my concern that artists are able to work in the public realm without compromising the artistic merit of their work. In this sense, I am interested in how an artist can retain a form of autonomy when producing works within the politics of this realm.

Throughout my experience as an artist, many socially-engaged practitioners have been brought to my attention. And although from diverse fields and backgrounds, many share a similar ethos. Unaware of one another, I staged a seminar for several of these practitioners to discuss similarities and differences in their work. Specialisms represented included design, theatre, architecture and arti. All participants noted compromises made in realizing publicly funded projects. This seemed an issue of language - of translation. A language comprising of the politics of the public realm and this realm's expectations of creative practice is being imposed during the commissioning process. Modernist autonomy rejects art's involvement in the public realm on the basis of this apparently unavoidable predicament.

Through historical comparison, I aim to unravel the language used in the funding of Public Art. This language is shaping the current climate of Public Art, a climate which it hotly debated and largely criticized. I will plot the development and establishment of this language by dissecting Percent-for-Art schemes. Percent-for-Art schemes are implemented in-house by Local Authorities. Local Authorities are heavily entrenched in the politics of the public realm, and therein these schemes provide a clear example of the effect of these politics in the translation of Public Art's value. To provide a solid basis for examining this translation I will compare Percent-for-Art schemes to the Artist Placement Group (APG) founded by artist couple John Latham and Barbara Stevini in 1966, who I will demonstrate to be the founding influence of Percent-for-Art schemes. The differences in the language of these two initiatives will provide a platform to examine the discrepancy between the public realm's intentions with art and artists' intentions in the public realm. I will claim that a change in this language will mean a change in the climate of Public Art.

There are claims of political conspiracy surrounding the restrictions placed on public artists, an idea which is highlighted in the practices of the Richard Serra and APG, two practices regarded as key contributors to the public/art debate. Both have had public support retrospectively removed from artworks, to the result of high controversy: Serra's seminal Tilted Arc was removed from New York City Federal Plaza in 1989 and the Arts Council withdrew funding from APG in 1971, both of which I will expand upon. Subscribing to conspiratorial claims lends the idea that attempting to establish artistic autonomy in the public realm is futile. This dissertation intends to establish a solid reasoning to the resistance to Serra and APG's work in order to create a feasible route of progression in realizing artistic autonomy in the public realm.