Feeling the vibe – the value of public art

Published Feb 2020

If you feel like sparking a heated conversation, throw the match of public art into any group get together, and it’ll warm up pretty fast.

While we have become totally at ease, or perhaps emotionally immune to memorial styled ‘monumental ‘sculpture such as kings on horseback, queens on thrones and soldiers at their posts, modern sculpture is more divisive. Perhaps because we actually notice it.

For some reason, once art of any type breaks out of the genteel confines of an art gallery, it becomes generationally, and perhaps financially contentious. By that, I mean a youngster doesn’t care who paid for it, a tourist doesn’t care what it cost, and perhaps the conversation in social circles is more often about value for money, rather than simple, social value

The growth in public art is on the upswing, with legislation in place that demands developers spend one per cent of their construction budget on public art.

With the cost of construction skyrocketing, this represents a huge boost for historically struggling artists, as much as the artistically starved population.

Barangaroo, perhaps the most talked about development in some time, has a staggering allocation spread over the next decade of $40m, all to be spent on creative initiatives.

In Sydney, public art plans have to be submitted with DAs (with a budget over $10m) when planning a development in the City of Sydney precinct – and they are quite specific about the quality required; ‘Plonk’ art (public art which is not commissioned specifically for the site) is not encouraged but it is not excluded if the rationale behind the selection of the work is deemed by the Public Art Committee as sound.”

Lendlease, for example is on the hook for $20m worth of public art for the Barangaroo development.

And yes, ‘Plonk art’ is a thing, and rather descriptively refers to art that is just plonked in place to satisfy nothing more than bureaucracy. An ignorant move on the part of the plonkees. Public Art has remarkable benefits all round.

On the surface there is the aesthetic value of increasing the beauty and attractiveness of a space both inside and outside buildings, but where that is not seen as enough there are commercial advantages to well-curated or commissioned pieces. Identity is everything.

Who can picture the award winning Jackalope Hotel without its magnificent UAP Emily Floyd trademark sculpture in mind? On the other hand, who can see the sculpture and not identify the resort?

At a time where Instagram rules, and social networks control the narrative, amazing sculptures drive traffic. While a tourism campaign with Kylie Minogue may appeal for a while, #melbourneart has 474,000 posts on Instagram, and countless ‘likes’, and it cost nothing.

Sculpture by the Sea is trending upward every year, and the simpler, smaller-scale works, such as West Australian Mikaela Castledine’s Meercats appeared on ‘insta’ in Perth and in just days it got 1200 likes.

Google “London Bronze baby elephants Gillie and Marc” and you will get 167,000 hits. It would be impossible to work out how many likes this remarkable and talented Australian sculptural duo Gillie and Marc Shaettner have achieved in their stellar career together.

Their works can be found worldwide, from Park Avenue to Marble Arch, from Perth to Post Stephens.

Their passion for the positives of public art is inherent.

“If the bricks and the mortar are the body,” says Marc Shaettner, “Then the art is the heart.

We think that we actually bring breathing, light and sort of love into a public space.”

They are the creators of Dogman and Rabbitwoman, whose exploits have endeared them to people of all ages across the globe. The anthropomorphic creatures, which when created in their street-smart bronze, can be seen having a coffee together, or riding a wave or poking fun at familiar images. The characters celebrate that love can overcome differences.

The duo were recently written-up in the prestigious New York Times, where they were described as “the city’s most prolific creators of public art, which ticked off some American artists who weren’t so keen on the Australians’ surprising market share. But their profile, yet again, was raised.

Cleverly, the couple have parlayed their talent and success to create a brand (as harsh as that sounds) that supports global animal conservation. Hence the Baby Elephants in Marble Arch.

“Marc and I went to Kenya last year and we were fortunate enough to spend time with the orphan elephants at Sheldrick,” says Gillie Shaettner.  The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, operates a simply brilliant orphan baby elephant rescue service.”

It seems a meeting of the minds took place – where funds could be raised, and joy could be had.

“It was a mutual love affair,” says Marc. “They only exist from donations; they have to spend a fortune on planes and helicopters. So we worked out we would do something to raise money for much needed funds.

“We met the 20 orphans that we eventually sculpted. We sketched them, photographed them and got to know their personalities,” recounts Gillie.  This is their modus operandi. Gillie and Marc form a personal, close relationship with their subjects which is reflected in their amazingly life-filled, final, pieces.

The sight of a herd of baby elephants, in the centre of London, drew enormous, positive response from Londoners and tourists, who were shocked into seeing, really seeing, the animals as they frolicked incongruously amid a torrent of red busses and smart high rise buildings.

The life-sized baby elements were an enormous attraction; every day hundreds if not thousands took the chance to meet up with, touch, ride on and become friends with baby elephants. A happy experience, with an important take-away.

“We put the QR codes on each little elephant, so the children could adopt the real orphan elephants, it was a wonderful story.” Adds Gillie, “It’s been a great awareness campaign, they deserved it. It was an honour to help them.”

Their work “The Last Three”, a triple decker statue of the last three northern white rhinos on earth, was created by Gillie and Marc after they spent months with the creatures in Kenya. The enormous sculpture, which gets a remarkable 30 million hits on google, fostered tremendous support for both the endangered creatures, and those who brought the sculpture to their door. Cleverly, and in keeping with the trend to digital inclusion in art the Rhino exhibition came with a VR programme by Inde, so people could actually see the real rhinos walking around right in front of them on their phones.

A far cry from the rather sterile, ‘hands off’ attitude of art galleries.

And perhaps this is why people feel a connection to public art unlike any other.

The access allows a sense of ownership, of involvement. It enhances what has been described by some as ‘social cohesion’.

Plus, there is the simple benefit of bringing humanity to the built environment. Of making us stop, look away from our phones as we transit the day, and be shocked into the now.

Melbourne is perceived by many as a far more culturally elite city than Sydney, actually thrives on art controversy. From Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne “International Gateway” sculpture (colloquially called the Cheese Sticks) which greets Tullamarine travellers, to the absolutely glowing Queen Bee, by artist Richard Stringer.  

The works in Melbourne are brash and beautiful. The annodised aluminium installation adorns Eureka Tower, bringing the building a much-needed positive profile upgrade.

The buildings architects, Fender Katsilidis, commissioned the work which continues to evolve; a new bee was added just last year at which time architect Karl Fender commented “Boldly executed, art is infused into the building fabric at grade level demonstrating its significance to enriching the public domain.”

And do we even have to mention Southbank? The works here go from strength to strength – as does the tourist traffic.

But while 3D art is very tactile, it is 2D wall art that appears to go for the more social comment.

Fintan Magee, a son of New South Wales travels the world creating works that tower over cities, reducing human bystanders to little more than ants.

His work is prolific overseas, yet has managed to maintain an important profile in Australia. “Housing Bubble” on Enmore Road, Newtown stretches three storeys upward, and has become a favourite of locals, and art seekers, alike. It comments on the dream of home ownership slipping through people’s grasp. The Plain Jane building/canvas is now remarkable.

Guido van Heltern’s work is a wonder in itself. The eyesore of the old cement works in Portland NSW (now called The Foundations) has been transformed into the most wonderful canvas of gargantuan and rather majestic proportion, depicting actual locals. The formerly bypassed town has a revived identity and attracts the sort of attention that boosts the small-town business coffers.

While there will always be kinks in the system of public art (usually at the hands of Governments i.e. the multimillion-dollar Cloud Arch debacle) the benefits are many, and the conversation it sparks continues to be exciting.