Contemporary Public Art and non-capital Cities (of NW Europe and N America) – A framework for exploration

What follows is seen as a set of lines for thinking along, routes of exploration, rather than chapter headings or specific research topics (although things may end up being both of those at some stage in the future). There are various crossovers between several the elements listed. It is not intended as a description of all the thinking that can be done around topics of contemporary public art and cities, more of a personal guide for activities, readings and exploration.

My focus on contemporary public art (loosely defined) is a way of limiting things by excluding historical monuments and modernist pieces of public sculpture. The option of excluding capital cities is based on the belief that such cities are often unusual, with more in common with each other as a group of global cities than being representative of their nation’s cities. Limiting the geographical focus to north-west Europe and north America is partly based on my personal experience (and ease of travel from a base in Birmingham, UK) and partly because cities in those locations broadly share some sort of underlying culture. If opportunities arise to look at cities in other parts of the world, these will be taken.

This framework-for-thinking has already shaped activities between 2015 and 2017, and will continue to guide activities over the period 2017-2025. Outcomes will include deeper personal understandings of the relevant topics; contact across a network of key intermediaries with personal, occupational or academic interests in public art and cities; as well as various writings and presentations around key themes that emerge.

An early action is to share this framework of ideas with others, as well as scheduling visits to more cities and undertaking more studies. Cities already visited have included 10 UK and 4 US/Canada cities. Proposed visits in 2017-2025 will be to at least 30 further cities (10 UK; 10 US/Canada; 10 mainland European).

The thinking-framework being used includes:

Initial understandings of:

What counts as, and current/historical perspectives on:


Public art



Contemporary issues of cities:

Devolution; city-regions; networked cities

Landscapes; amenities; international rankings

Demographics; cultures; identities of place

Change; renewal; regeneration; sustainability

Public/ private interplays


Intelligent decision-making/ smart planning

Purposes of public art in contemporary cities:

Interplay of spaces and interventions

Really useful art; art as decoration … in purposeful city, liveable city and city as destination

Legacies, statements, signature pieces of art

Economic impacts

Community cohesion and community development

Artistic impacts; legibility and visual literacy; cultural representations, reputations and realities

Cities of culture; cultural cities

Art as respected object, art as familiarity; art as ambiguity

Art as problem-making; as opposition; as shock; art for thinking with

Who is it for (and on what basis)?

Artist ambitions and public expectations:

Different interventions, different engagements, different approaches; different financial models

Actions and objects; seen and unseen; fixed and mobile; isolated and gathered together

Artist careers; new artistic strategies and ambitions; different media/ different modes

Experimentations and evolutions

‘Career’ of neighbourhood; city trajectory

Site and location

Reputation and opinion

Permanence and transience

Curating public art

‘Career’ of a piece of public art

Decision-making … how and by whom:

Policies, priorities, practices, amendments

Collaboration and engagement

Determinations of place/ people/ organisation/ artist

Commissioning and decommissioning

Competitions and purchasing

Stock and flow

Who pays and how?

Bureaucracies and creativities

Governance, planning, funding, policies:

Economic development; placemaking; civic and community engagement

Cultural offers; cultural industries; cultural quarters

National/ Regional/ City/ Neighbourhood/ Locality

City administrations/ voluntary organisations/ business interests

Political dimensions

Values (for money)

Public art policies, strategies and approaches

Synchronicities and diachronicities:

Maps, lists, directories

Interconnections and intersections

Local (and wider) histories of art/public art

Histories of places and peoples … national, city, community, site

Recurring operational issues:

Ownership; maintenance; security and protection

Individual responsibilities/collective overviews

Promotion, publicity and role of the media

Assessments and evaluations

Public art and .. :

Architecture; commemoration; protest; urban design, internet as place, writing, performance, vandalism, meanings, histories, freedoms.

Linkages to identity; ambiguity and uncertainty; story-making; wellbeing; significance; value/use; progress; issues of public/private; representation; meanings; histories; freedoms; consensus and controversies.

Continuing emerging puzzles and challenges:

Changing context … political, economic, social, artistic – changes in the work, in the space

Implications for cities, artists, observers, residents

Assumptions, existing scripts and narratives (re control, power, access, relationships, ethnicities, disabilities, genders, cultures)

Post financial crash/austerity; post-ideologies; post-class; post-expert; post-truth, post-fact; post-post.

Geoff Bateson


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