Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: The art we meet when we're walking down the street

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Graffiti artist Askew One, aka Elliot O'Donnell, with his latest work done on the tanks at Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Dean Purcell
Graffiti artist Askew One, aka Elliot O'Donnell, with his latest work done on the tanks at Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Dean Purcell

"Who are the taste Nazis?" a man asks.

We're crowded into Ponsonby's Whitespace gallery to hear about Auckland Council's plans for public art. As they should, Aucklanders feel strongly about the city's most visible "Culture", the art we necessarily meet when we're walking down the street.

A couple of years ago, we were up against council taste-making as the rugby world cup triggered a grey wash of graffiti murals, and the suffragette memorial artwork in Khartoum Place was saved from trend-slave art experts - but only after a long, hard battle.

"That's a good question," replies the council's Rob Garrett.

The question leads to a bigger, unspoken one: how democratic should public art be? Is it by the people, for the people or, as per the title of Auckland Council's draft public art policy, is it merely "art in public places"?

The draft policy has many laudable aims: more "temporary" works; more public Maori art; better, earlier incorporation of art in public building plans; more money. Other aims are open to interpretation - by the taste-makers.

What does "site specific" and "unique to Auckland" mean in practice?

Officially, the council and local boards will make the decisions. Public art officers will make recommendations, guaranteed not to be "just one officer's hare-brained ideas" via a "peer review" by an external advisory panel (made up of art, architecture, urban design and Matauranga Maori experts).

Unofficially, local board members have made it clear they "don't want to make art decisions", says Garrett. "Politicians can rely on the fact that [the public art unit and panel] know what they're talking about; they're experts."

But when did the public (and our elected representatives) feel they lost the qualifications and capacity to say yes to public art without permission?

I'm not always going to agree with the good burghers of our more conservative local boards, but no artwork is ever going to please everyone.

"Art experts" also often disagree with each other. Case in point last year: art expert Hamish Keith commissioned tank farm murals by Askew One in Wynyard Quarter, which the current public art panel complained were too close to Michio Ihara's Wind Tree.

Thankfully, the panel's nitpicking was ignored.

The taste-making question is particularly pressing in a multicultural city. Pasifika cultures are the only immigrant cultures that the policy specifically mentions. Why not South and East Asian, African and other cultures also? (Garrett says this might change.)

Even then, one panel can never represent all the city's many different cultural (let alone individual) ideas of "quality" art. One commentator thinks that a one panel funnel is a "perverse kind of colonialism - it's not letting other cultures speak for themselves."

If public art is to connect communities to their own spaces, why not let them choose their own "art experts" specifically for each project, with whichever credentials they see fit?

The public won't get a say on the policy's all-important "action plan" details (including panel guidelines) once drafted. Now's your only chance: submissions on the policy itself close on Monday.

- NZ Herald

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