The City as Museum

Amsterdam policy concerning art in public space has been delegated to the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK). With an exhibition entitled 2001: A Public Space Odyssey and a public debate, the AFK hopes to stimulate discussion about art in public space.

Arti et Amicitiae is the Amsterdam venue for a major exhibition of art placed in public space over the past five years. Visitors to the exhibition can use a temporary entrance, a work by artist Michiel Voet. It is a wooden stairway in front of the facade on Rokin. Through coloured-glass windows and mirrors along the stairs, one is offered new and different views of the city – a symbol of the role art plays.

The commissioning of visual art is as old as art itself. Art in contemporary space is the usually a matter of public commissions, whereas in the past church or aristocracy usually acted as patrons. Now that a sense of community is rarely evident in society and the welfare state has become redundant, the purpose and necessity of art in public space can be disputed. Or is the role of art precisely one of commenting on society?

Amsterdam has enjoyed a grand tradition of integrating art in architecture and in our everyday surroundings. After World War II, national policy sought to deploy art as a means of creating a more meaningful living environment. Among the ways of achieving this was the so-called percentage rule (a percentage of a building’s costs were reserved for works of art). In the 1970s this forms of public space design reached its zenith, as artists were given the task of making up for the lack of visual quality in architecture and urban design. Such high expectations, combined with a high level of public involvement, often resulted in mediocrity and seldom in meaningful art. Attention today focuses more on the integration of various disciplines and, for some artists, on soliciting resident participation.

Although in principle the space of the museum is public, public space in cities is of a different nature. The context of the artwork here is the concrete world: the city as museum. Our public space is no longer an historical space filled with works to which society could claim affinity. Today, consumerism and leisure are dominant. The work of art must clamour for attention amidst a profusion of traffic signs and advertising.

What are the preconditions for good contemporary art in the public domain? Above all else: the commission. As with every form of design, the end result is determined by a good commission. The AFK provides this through advisors, themselves artists, together with representatives of boroughs, planning departments or housing associations. Given that public funding is involved, clearly defined commissions are chosen – never carte blanche for the artist. An explicit programme of requirements is also essential to a good commission. That must include a clear definition of urban spaces in advance (by urban designers and landscape architects) and ideas about what function art can fulfil there.

What is striking is just how many commissions presume a degree of functionality or service. Everyone knows examples of upgrading pedestrian tunnels or giving meaning to a non-place such as a roundabout. The question is whether our experience of public space is enhanced. Art can have a function; there are good examples of applied art (fencing, transformer buildings, etc.) and also of more autonomous art that can raise our environment from the merely utilitarian. But likewise, there is a need for experimental and more confrontational art, in which the artist can conceptualise autonomously, offer comment, and possibly even choose the site.

During the salon evening on art, architecture and urban design, the view was posited that public space contains too many ‘objects labelled as art’. Among the solutions advance were combining forces to create genuinely big art or major installations, and the removal of specific pieces of art. One can, alternatively, claim that art does not always have to be grandiose and overpowering. A work of art does not even have to be visible; it can be sited almost casually in the margins as it were, and blend into the everyday surroundings. The key to success lies mainly in involving artists from an early stage and combining their efforts with those of architects, urban designers and landscape architects.