During my chat with Olivia Hyde of GANSW last week, we discussed the role of public art in Design Excellence. She said “Public art can be transformative when it is done well, but it is often thought of as an add-on rather than an integrated element. The best public art is developed alongside the project from the early stages.” I couldn’t agree more!

This got me thinking about “plonk art.”

“But what is plonk art?” I hear you say.

Plonk art is an afterthought.

Plonk art is there to tick a box.

Plonk art is forgettable and not engaging.

Plonk art is a bad investment and a waste of money.

Plonk art is a public art piece that is just there.

So how do we ensure that public art doesn’t turn into “plonk art”? Well the term public art covers a large range of projects or mediums (of which, Art Pharmacy Consulting are experts in each). Public art could mean a large scale sculpture or a mural spanning the side of a building. But it could also include hoarding on a construction site, have a practical use like street furniture, or even be a form of lighting improving the safety of an area.

The piece of public art planned for your development, regardless of its form, will become part of your brand, who you are, and how people from the outside see you. It’s possibly the first thing people see when they visit the site, and it’s definitely going to be the most memorable. So this is why it’s so important that any public art isn’t an afterthought!

Jason Wing with his mural  Between Two Worlds  by day. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

Jason Wing with his mural Between Two Worlds by day. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

Kimber Lane lit up at night. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

Kimber Lane lit up at night. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

So first thing’s first, we need to decide what sort of project we’re undertaking, and once we’ve got that sorted, we move onto what seems to be the really daunting part of the process - coming up with an idea that will make a genuine connection with the local community (also known by that buzz word, placemaking). But with our help, it doesn’t have to be that scary!

Public art is seen by hundreds, if not thousands of people a day, so it needs to make a positive and lasting impression. Be aware of the cultural heritage of the area, but also take into account the current and future users of the space. Whether it’s a large scale development in the CBD or a quiet residential area in the suburbs, this is always important. By committing to more than one piece of art, you can speak to a larger range of themes, engaging with more people. You want the local community to learn something and feel a connection to the work. You want them to be excited by it, telling all their friends, and going back to revisit it, instead of just walking past it once and simply saying “ah that’s nice” thus ending their relationship with the work. Hopefully the artwork makes such an impression that it’s around for a fair few years to come.

A great example of how you should tackle this is Between Two Worlds by Jason Wing. Jason’s mural, commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2012, is right in the heart of Chinatown, sitting in Kimber Lane. Jason’s heritage plays a role in his work, with a strong connection to both his Chinese (Cantonese) and Aboriginal (descendant of the Biripi people) heritage. Part of Jason’s planning process was to just be present in the space. For two weeks, he sat in and around Kimber Lane to study how and when people moved through the space. From there, he started to chat to the local residents and business owners about how they use the space, and what they’d like to see there. The end result is a gorgeous mural depicting clouds across the walls and road, and cherub-like figures suspended in the air that are lit of an evening.

Jason Wing’s  Between Two Worlds” in Kimber Lane in the heart of Chinatown. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

Jason Wing’s Between Two Worlds”in Kimber Lane in the heart of Chinatown. Image Credit: Art Pharmacy Consulting.

Jason’s artwork is a wonderful example of what plonk art is not for a number of reasons. I think the most important thing is that he’s made a conscious effort to actively engage with the local culture and heritage, and actually consult the people that live and work in the area. Many of the Chinatown elders didn’t want the colour blue to be so prominent, but would have rathered yellow or red to symbolise prosperity. Jason was worried that having red or yellow lighting would take away from the mural when it was lit up at night. After some discussion, it was agreed that blue would be used as it was a colour that was consistent across all the elements (water, earth, wind, and fire) which is very important in traditional Chinese culture. The addition of lighting gives the artwork a practical use, making the otherwise dark lane safe to walk down at night. And finally, the idea of set and forget is thrown out the window here, with the mural getting a bit of a touch up this year.

Another great project I’d like to tell you about is a series of murals by a nonprofit organisation called PangeaSeed. Their Sea Walls Program invites muralists from across the globe to bring awareness to the state of our oceans by painting beautiful ocean-themed murals. They’ve found that many artists will consult with local scientists or activists to better inform their designs. A fantastic outcome of this program is that the local communities will continue to hold workshops and meetings in and around the murals, making it an important part of the community’s landscape.

An example of a  Sea Walls  mural by Curiot.

An example of a Sea Walls mural by Curiot.

Here’s a little checklist of just a few things you should be aware of when commissioning public art to avoid just throwing down another piece of plonk art. If you’re not sure whether you’re ticking all the boxes, talk to us and we’ll ensure that you are.

  • Is it enhancing the space and the community?

  • Do people connect with it?

  • How does the artist relate to the site?

  • Does it connect with local culture or heritage?

  • Could it have a practical use?

  • Are you committed to maintaining the artwork?

  • Do you have something planned to launch the artwork?

  • Will there be any campaigns or activations during the artwork’s lifetime?

  • What process has the artist gone through to develop the site specific content or response in the artwork?

So if you’re in the development stages of a project, want better community engagement and safety, or you’re just in the market for some good art and don’t know where to start, reach out! Whether your project is big or small, we’d be more than happy to help.

An example of a  Sea Walls  mural by Onur.

An example of a Sea Walls mural by Onur.

Samuel McEwen