Any visitor to London would be hard-pressed to miss Trafalgar Square. At the very heart of the city, one side houses the National Gallery; Charles I sits astride his horse, staring down Whitehall to the place of his execution; and way above, naval hero Horatio Nelson surveys the city from his column. And there, for the past nine months, on a plinth left empty by parsimonious Victorians, a giant gleaming rocking horse, cast in bronze and ridden by a cheery boy in shorts, has startled passersby and amused and irritated the public in equal measure.
“Powerless Structures, Fig. 101″ by the Norwegian/Danish artistic partnership Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset is the latest in a series of commissions to take up temporary residence as part of the Fourth Plinth program—a project that ranks alongside Antony Gormley’s permanent “Angel of the North” sculpture, on a hill in northeast England, as perhaps Britain’s most visible public-art project.
Judgments have varied about the relative merits of Marc Quinn’s bold “Alison Lapper Pregnant” (2005-07), Thomas Schütte’s enigmatic “Model for a Hotel” (2007-09), Mr. Gormley’s populist “One & Other” (2009), or Yinka Shonibare’s poetic “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010-12). But each represents a significant work that has provoked debate—17,000 members of the public commented on the maquettes submitted for the latest round of commissions—and tackled the challenges of producing art in such an extraordinary public position.
This month, to celebrate the 10 years that the Fourth Plinth project has been run from the Mayor of London’s office, the Institute of Contemporary Arts is hosting “Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument” (until Jan. 20). But the exhibition opens at a time when, across Europe, both private and government funding for the arts is being slashed. And some are beginning to question whether public art is money well spent.
Public sculpture is as old as civilisation itself. From ancient Egypt to the Soviet Union, every culture has proclaimed its power with memorials to great battles and statues of its leaders. In the 19th century, particularly in the U.K. and U.S., public subscriptions would be raised to put up monuments to civic worthies, national heroes or even football stars. A city’s status could be measured by the number and splendour of its fountains and sculptures.
Over the past 20 years, that idea has expanded. From the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, the prevailing ideology has been that art and culture can revitalise communities, provide jobs, attract visitors and raise aspirations in rundown cities. As a consequence, public art has become a significant strand of contemporary art, receiving a hefty chunk of public and private funds every year.
There are various models for project financing, including matched funding, whereby public bodies contribute money, provided a similar amount is raised from the private sector. “The public-art market is largely driven by private-sector money aligned to public-sector policy,” think tank Ixia says in a 2011 report on public art in England. “We estimate that 80% of public-art funding can be linked to public-art policies within local authorities and the regeneration, health and education sectors.” “Powerless Structures, Fig. 101″ is a perfect example. Its construction was funded by the Mayor of London’s office to the tune of £140,000 (around €170,000), and by £120,000 of corporate sponsorship from Louis Vuitton and financial consultants AlixPartners.
In many countries across Europe, public art is ingrained in government policy. In France, government building projects are required to spend 1% of their budget on public art. In Germany, this operates as a guideline only at the federal level, whereas lower Austria sets aside 1% of its regional construction budget. In the Netherlands, the integration of art in state buildings has been an element of government policy since the beginning of the 19th century, with a formal percentage program in place since 1951. There is no statutorily enforced outlay in Britain; nonetheless, the public-art market in England was worth at least £56 million in 2010-11, according to Ixia’s report.
For Ruth Mackenzie, director of the Olympics-linked London 2012 Festival, which involved more than 200 public-art commissions, the primary purpose of public art is “the same purpose as all art—to delight, inspire, provoke. But also, by being in a public space, to surprise and to offer itself to a more random group of people than the people who choose to come to a gallery.”
But after 20 years of unprecedented expansion, recession has drastically reduced the money available for these projects from public and private sources alike. In the Netherlands, for instance, the government has cut its culture budget by 25% from 2013, and the state-funded SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain has been closed. Even the French are facing a 4.3% cut to their culture budget, while the country’s public-art program has seen its budget slide steadily from a high point of €4.5 million in 1990 to just €1.8 million this year. In the U.K., Arts Council England has had to absorb an almost 30% cut to grant-in-aid for 2011-15, and while the Cultural Olympiad saw a burst of commissions, the combination of cuts to local-authority budgets and financial pressures on private developers will restrict new projects.
“During the economic climate of the last three years or so, regeneration has reduced in the regions,” says Tamara Salhab, a spokeswoman for Arts Council England. “This has meant that the number and scale of public art opportunities has also reduced.”
Even existing, well-loved works aren’t safe. Last month, “The Artist as Hephaestus” (1987) by Eduardo Paolozzi, which had sat in a niche in the facade of an office building in Central London for 25 years, was removed and sold for £140,000, despite objections from the public and the local council. And Tower Hamlets council in East London is considering plugging its budget deficit by selling Henry Moore’s famous “Draped Seated Woman,” given to the London County Council in the 1960s but moved to Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1997.
In a statement on the possible sale, Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman set out the council’s dilemma: “We are faced with a stark choice in these times of recession. Do we keep this valuable sculpture in Yorkshire or do we try to sell this globally important artwork in order to release much-needed funds to invest in local heritage projects we can sustain, affordable housing, improving opportunities and prospects for our young people and keeping our community safe?”But Clare Lilley, program director at the publicly funded Yorkshire Sculpture Park, argues that there is still place for public art. “Nobody would question the notion that a city’s theaters, galleries, concert halls and museums are an important part of what that city has to offer,” she says. “It is curious, therefore, that people don’t consider public sculpture an important part of the civic landscape.” By way of contrast, she points to the seriousness with which public and private bodies in New York undertake public art—in Madison Square Garden, for example, or the acclaimed High Line elevated park in Lower Manhattan.
One private-sector advocate of public art in the U.K. is Wilfred Cass, whose Cass Sculpture Foundation has commissioned more than 400 pieces of large-scale sculpture, for sale to private and public clients. His philosophy was inspired by his friendship with Moore. “Part of that friendship was the idea of public art, getting pieces outside,” explains Mr. Cass’s son, Mark Cass.
Wilfred Cass funded the first three Fourth Plinth sculptures, by Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread, and this autumn brought monumental works by Tony Cragg to London’s Exhibition Road at his own expense as part of the Cultural Olympiad. “Here, people could touch Tony’s work, which they cannot do in a museum.” says Mark Cass. “The Foundation has been a catalyser, an enabler of public art. It is important now to move forward.”
Article written for The Wall Street Journal by Emma Crichton-Miller.