The Vocal Local: Dapper Man

Brendan Bunting is a Blackpool-based youth worker and artist. Find him on Twitter @DapperArtist
In the first of a new series of columns exploring creativity and politics, Brendan Bunting, aka Dapper Artist, writes about the divisive issue of public art

Public art is there for us all to enjoy, but from the initial proposal of an idea to creating the art, right through to its installation, there can be many strong opinions.

Recently, though, it has evolved from not only the artwork causing the controversy, but the actual space for the art causing a stir.

In London last month Antelope by Samson Kambalu was unveiled as the latest sculpture to be commissioned and placed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The plinth has acted as a space for contemporary art since 1998, with Art being commissioned for a temporary exhibition, adding an extra dynamic to the space.

They say timing is everything and the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II coincided with the anticipated launch of the plinth’s next exhibition. After the mourning period for her majesty had passed, the press and the public called for a memorial to the late Queen and with the Fourth Plinth’s latest exhibition being promoted and reviewed in the press, there was a sudden focus on that space. Calls were made for it to be used as a permanent site for a statue of the Queen.

What took place next was not only a public outcry, but sadly the all too common lack of understanding of how art commissioning/funding projects works.

It is important to not only support commissioned artists, but the process of commissioning and funding too.

The Fourth Plinth has artwork programmed for the next four years, it has been a temporary space for art for nearly 25 years. But unfortunately that did not calm the rage towards the Mayor of London or Westminster Council, with calls from politicians and some in the media for not only a Queen statue, but literal heads to roll.

This type of misguided outrage is not exclusive to the capital. Blackpool has also faced its own controversy and hand-wringing around commissioned art.

In 2021 The Call of the Sea sculpture by artist Laurence Payot was unveiled in Blackpool town centre. Partly inspired by sea goddesses, mermaids and protecting the environment it’s the £35,000 cost which raised the most eyebrows among vocal locals.

Tina Dempsey Fancie Bench series of bright and uniquely designed benches in Blackpool town centre also faced similar questions. Why couldn’t the money be spent on cleaning the streets or housing the homeless, for example? The media, meanwhile, are quick to use provocative headlines that ensure both clickbait and angry comments directed towards the art and artist.

But this is the trouble with this type of knee-jerk reaction, it fails to grasp a full understanding of the terms and conditions of commissioning art.

I have had many debates locally, pointing out how certain funding pots are exclusive for the arts, whilst highlighting the fairness and transparency of processes in which all are free to apply for if they have a creative idea.

I feel it’s important as artists who take an active part in our communities that we highlight, educate and challenge where is needed. It is important to not only support commissioned artists, but the process of commissioning and funding too.

Some public arts installations can land right, take for instance locally They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Michael Trainor. His giant Mirrorball on South Promenade has become the backdrop for many a tourist selfie. Or Gordon Young’s Comedy Carpet opposite the Tower, which sees public engagement from dusk until dawn.Both are popular art installations that have faced very little criticism.

Maybe that is key? As artists perhaps we need to consider public reaction more when undertaking any commission for public artwork. Are we about to divide a community, or can we positively contribute towards it? Have we fully consulted the community so our artwork is co-produced with it?

But as an audience, before we criticise, it’s worth considering the funding stream with its terms and conditions, as well as the artist’s intention within their art.

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