artist-led, commissioning, socially engaged, site specific, Ground Up, Fiona Woods, X-PO, Deidre O'Mahony, Gareth Kennedy, Carol Anne Connolly, Alice Lyons, Anna MacLeod, Christine Mackey, Alfredo Jaar, After
Contemporary arts practice in the public realm is an ever-changing, constantly evolving and developing field. For public art commissioning bodies the challenge lies in how to become a relevant part of this ever-evolving cultural field. In Ireland the vast majority of public art commissioning bodies consist of arts departments in Local authorities, sometimes, but not always, administered by a dedicated Public Arts Officer. Within the Local Authority system, Public Art Working Groups are developed which can consist of engineers, administrators, community representatives, and others, stitching together a different type of arts institution, not always facilated by the arts experts that you would commonly find in other cultural institutions. Therein, lies the challenge - how might the local authority, as a cultural institution, expand its capacity to represent and appropriate the expansive nature of artistic practices in the public realm?
As an artist working as a Public Arts Officer, commissioning models that investigate an artist-led approach to developing art in the public realm are of specific interest to me and perhaps pose some sort of response to this challenge. However what does this approach really entail practically or ethically? What does it mean for commissioners and the public? What kind of public art projects are generated through these approaches, do they call for a shift in the expectation for a public artwork and most importantly do they expand the field of public art? In Ireland, we are witnessing a gradual move towards such models of commissioning and while there is no singular manner in which to describe these models they could be seen to contribute to a certain ‘philosophy’ or ‘ethos’ of commissioning. This philosophy is one that essentially enables the artist to become the leader of the commissioning process in collaboration with, not for, the commissioning body and relevant communities. Inherently this approach recognises the importance and appropriateness of placing the artist at the centre of the creation of our cultural environment and succinctly disrupts the dynamic between institution, artist and public, towards an ethos of partnership and collaboration.
One of the most important artist-led commissioning programmes to take place in Ireland has been the programme Ground Up, established by Clare County Arts Office and directed by Fiona Woods, an artist and the Regional Arts Co-ordinator in 2003. Not least because of the unique approach in engaging contemporary artists in dialogue with rural communities, the Ground Up programme placed artistic research and response as the core driver in the commissioning model. Resulting in a series of commissioning strands- ‘Ground Up’, ‘In, Under, Over, Out’, ‘Rural Vernacular’ and ‘Shifting Ground’, each strand was in direct response to the questions and issues raised through the previous strand creating a prolonged and continued research and engagement with twenty two local and international artists within the context of the mainly rural County Clare over the period of four years.
A direct descendent of the ‘Ground Up’ programme is the X-PO project by Deidre O’Mahony in Kilnaboy Co. Clare. Resulting from questions raised in her commission as part of ‘Ground Up’ entitled, the X-PO was initiated in 2007 by O’Mahony in response to an enquiry into the role of the artist in a rural context. Using the familiar public space, the former post office, she aimed to create a space in which different forms of knowledge and practice – cultural, agricultural. sociological, anthropological could be used to reactivate, and re-imagine the social networks and exchanges once commonplace in rural areas. Through a process of archiving the history of the space and local, followed by curating a program of contemporary artists dealing with rural issues, one year later, the X-PO has become a self-sustaining community resource, open 5 days and evenings a week with a team of volunteers in the locality working to direct the project for the future as a reflective social and cultural contact point.
Another relevant project to mention in this context is ‘After’ . ‘After’ is a public art programme supporting an artist-led approach from commissioning, development through to delivery stages. The programme began in 2007 as a residency programme resulting from the ideas and issued raised through the TRADE series of seminars and events commissioned in partnership with Leitrim and Roscommon County Arts Offices. The residency programme brought Alfredo Jaar to work in mentorship with five local artists for a number of weeks over the period of a year, to enable ideas and projects that were socially relevant to be generated by the group enabling the process to feed into the outcomes. The resulting public art projects by Gareth Kennedy, Carol Anne Connolly, Alice Lyons, Anna MacLeod, and Christine Mackey responded to ideas of changes in the landscape arising from the unprecedented economic growth that has occurred in recent years. Many of the common issues explores through the projects surrounded ecological, architectural and sustainability ideas, in various sites across the two counties.
Christine Mackey’s ‘Aggressive Localism’ created a neat reflection point for the implications of the ‘global engagement with local’ approach within the commissioning process itself. The project involved the artist planting native wild Irish flowers in various sites of unused waste land across Carrick on Shannon. The project also invited the public to participate in planting these seeds and be involved in documenting the results. Included in the instructions leaflet provided, was a diagram mapping the domination of the global seed industry by 10 major international companies with direct implications on the worldwide food industry and global markets as a whole.
With more and more public art briefs calling for a site specificity or local engagement, it is vital for us to look at the commissioning model itself as being an intrinsic part of the work that results. To attempt to negotiate with the unpredictable or the unknown can be a difficult thing to do within a commissioning process but what is a common thread within these commissioning models is the notion of framing artistic enquiry, with the realisation that instead of a set of answers to these enquiries we may well be left with a whole new set of questions. And as we gain ground here in Ireland and begin to experiment more and more with various models of commissioning public art, that place the artist and the development of creative practice at the core of the commissioning process we are permitting ourselves to take these leaps of faith with our artists and expand and influence the field of art in the public realm.
Author biography: Megs Morley is an artist and curator based in Galway and is currently employed as the Public Arts Officer in Galway City Council. Her most recent independent project is the Irish Artist-led Archive, currently accessible by appointment in the G126 gallery, Galway.