As Auckland develops, helter skelter, to meet its population growth and infrastructure deficit, how should it spend on public art to brighten the soul? Tim Murphy reports.

Auckland spends $3.3 million a year on public art, commissioning and maintaining works to lift parks and new infrastructure. But should it be spending a little on a lot or a lot on a little?

The range of pieces is extensive, the sites are anything from pedestrian overbridges to libraries to walking and cycling routes.  

The underground rail line being built through the central city, the City Rail Link, will soon demand its share of aesthetic investment and a comprehensive public art plan will be developed for its spaces.

A dozen smaller works are currently being considered by the council’s Environment and Community Committee.

One, a reflecting ‘O’ artwork costing ratepayers $191,000 will soon be hung above the upgraded Auckland city back-street, O’Connell St.

Five bronze sculptures of working waka prow will grace Beach Rd in downtown from next month.

The city has just accepted a free sculpture to brighten Teed St in Newmarket and is being gifted a work for the Onehunga foreshore by artist Peter Lange, brother of the late Prime Minister David.

Also on the agenda is a piece costing $650,000 over the next three years by Māori artist Graham Tipene working with architects Warren and Mahoney to enliven an underpass in Myers Park in the upper CBD.

Cloudgate. Photo: Supplied

The city has an advisory board of business people, designers, property owners and residents and it discussed the new hanging ‘Lightweight O’ by artist Catherine Griffiths, which has been under consideration for nearly five years.

The work, bronze on one side and a mirror on the other, will be suspended above the roadway of the smart shared space created on O’Connell St – hung from nearby buildings. It will rotate in the wind and care has been taken to avoid sun strike from the reflections. Efforts by the council to position the ‘O’ at the intersection with Vulcan Lane to maximise public viewing failed because permission could not be reached from building owners at that point.

The advisory board endorsed the O and debated how best to approach the funding and selection of public art.

One member, Ben Corban, who is managing director of design company Alt Group, said Auckland was a “big geographic city with a massive collection of very small works”.

He said public art for place making raised an interesting question: “How can we do less and invest more in much larger things?”

Internationally, the benchmarks in public art were typically big. He cited the famed Anish Kapoor work, Cloudgate in Chicago’s Millennium Park and Balloon Dog, by Jeff Koons.

The ‘O’ was “good and appropriate and seems extremely cost efficient” but he suggested Auckland had an opportunity “to re-frame what public art can do.”

Corban said precedents in the United States had set budgets for public art in major public projects in civic spaces at 1 percent of the development budgets.

Another committee member, Patrick Reynolds, said in Auckland terms that would mean setting aside $35 million for public art if the 1 percent was applied to the multi-billion dollar City Rail Link project. “But they have budgeted $1m.”

Corban is set to brief the city centre advisory board about the role of public art in place making.

Balloon Dog. Photo: Supplied

He said works recognised globally cost a large amount. “As a city based in Auckland where we are – in the grand scheme of things we have a pretty modest budget for public art. Not that there is a problem with that but the city collection is of works that are mainly small.”

Auckland’s largest public art work is the Michael Parekowhai lighthouse on Queen’s Wharf – mainly funded by the Barfoot & Thompson real estate company.

The Chicago example, the Cloudgate work by Kapoor, was for a park development costing many hundreds of millions.

“As Auckland develops, my hope is that a system a lot like that 1 percent one could be adopted. If it was, you would be able to commission integrated works.”

At the moment, Auckland’s modest budget was spread quite wide. “Small works are quite good and important for different parts of the city. Beyond that there is also a place for iconic works elsewhere.”

While the waterfront could an obvious venue for something substantial, the key was finding an appropriate work for an appropriate site. “The O’Connell St one is an appropriate work for an appropriate site. Not everything needs to be bigger than Ben Hur.”

He believes the opportunity for larger scale public art should be considered, for “all sorts of different disciplines and types of art and in reflecting the culture of the city in the works we commission.”

Another international example was Philadelphia, which had since 1959 funded an extensive programme of public art. Some cities in Australia had followed that lead. The Swedish capital Stockholm had built the world’s largest underground art gallery inits subway, across 90 stations.

The 1 percent model was a useful funding mechanism, helping engineers and planners integrate art from the beginning of major civic works.

“That’s the future of placemaking in cities.”

Corban rejected any thought that Aucklanders or New Zealanders would not go for publicly funded art. “This is the largest Māori city in the world, and one of the most culturally aware. People want to live in desirable, liveable cities. How do we define the kind of city we want to live in? We don’t want to end up with grey concrete.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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