I’ve had a busy couple of months since my last post, with professional and personal projects taking over my blogging schedule. A few days ago, I spent the whole weekend on an open space by the Thames, near Vauxhall station, running an event commissioned by the Nine Elms development consortium and part of the Big Draw, the annual month-long celebration of drawing. I was acting as Project Manager for The Brick Box, a Community Interest Company that creates collective experiences in underused public spaces, from Brixton and Tooting to Canning Town and Bradford. Here are a few photos, and there’s now a video available at the end of the 5 Questions to… Eleanor & Rosie, The Brick Box Ladies.


Drew manhanding the giant Golden Slice that adorns the Toast Temple (photo by Jesus Ubera / The Brick Box)


The Toast Temple in full swing  (photo by Matt Badenoch / The Brick Box)


Young Brick Box recruits building a den with Our Hut (photo by Matt Badenoch / The Brick Box)


Light Labyrinth at night, Nine Elms cranes  (photo by Fabienne Jung / The Brick Box)


While I was planning this event – from contracting artists to figuring out how on earth we’d get a portaloo on site – I moved out of the Highbury flat I had lived in since arriving in London 6 months ago to start a big adventure with my husband: we’ve taken over a pub in South West London, which we’ve now been running for a month. As of today, the website is still ‘coming soon’, but here are a few photos. I’ll be looking after the marketing and programming, and as we’ve got pop-up dinners, live music, films and parties in the pipeline, that’s enough to keep me busy outside the day job. There’ll be a monthly newsletter to keep locals in the loop, which you can sign up to here.


Opening night – Anh, Shane and Strawberry Thief (photo by Scott Kershaw)


Opening night – Me on mini-pies duty (photo by Scott Kershaw)


Mantelpiece silhouettes (photo by Peter Martin)

No There There?


There is no there there.
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.


The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.


The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.


Roman Road Vacant Units Project

Why Art Works

The Long Read

I’m visiting England this summer – to reunite with old friends, deliver a workshop on audience development during the Manchester Jazz Festival and undertake a research project for Jazz North – and to stay in the loop, I’ve been following as closely as it is possible from abroad the discussions around arts funding and the What Next? movement.

In a difficult economic climate and under a Conservative government, making the case for public funding of the arts is high on the agenda for artists and arts organisations, but also for audiences, as presented by this compelling video produced by Arts Council England.

In their advocacy toolkitArts Council England estimated the cost of culture at 14p per week per person – that’s CAN $0.22 or €0.16. However, there’s a place where (research has shown that) culture is even better value: north of the North West region of England, in the counties of Lancashire and Cumbria, culture costs just 3p per person per week.

Why Art Works in figures Creative Concern

This attention-grabbing infographics displays the key findings of Why Art Works, a 2011 strategic research project conducted by Manchester-based ethical communications agency Creative Concern and Cumbria-based consultancy Rebanks Consulting. This project was commissioned by North by NorthWest, “a network of (12) publicly funded visual arts organisations who have come together to support, promote and develop the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria”, two predominantly rural counties in the North West region of England. This network is itself part of the national Contemporary Visual Arts Network.

Here is a summary of the report taken from the Harris Museum website:

Why Art Works
Published in 2011, Why Art Works is the summary of an evaluation study commissioned by North by NorthWest, a consortium of 12 publicly funded visual arts organisations who have come together to support, promote and develop the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria.

The report 
The report makes a compelling case for supporting and exploiting the impact of the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria.

This case is illustrated by the Why Art Works benefits model, which identifies 10 key benefits categorised into three thematic areas:

1. Creating better communities to live in
2. Changing the way places look
3. Changing perceptions of places

Economic Value
4. Attracting and retaining talent, trade and investment
5. Attracting higher value tourists
6. Stimulating a creative economy

Engaging and connecting communities
7. Connecting communities to the world (and vice versa)
8. Engaging communities with other agendas
9. Changing the way people think, see and act
10. Creating art for its own intrinsic worth

Here is an illustration of the benefit model (click to enlarge):

Why Art Works benefit model Creative Concern

The report concludes with 10 case studies illustrating these benefits with recent projects involving member organisations. They’re all fascinating, and I have just picked a handful here, which happen to be the first three benefits, but also projects that I am familiar with.

  • Benefit #1: Creating better communities to live in

According to the Visit Cumbria website, Barrow-in-Furness is “a large industrial town which grew from a tiny 19th Century hamlet to the biggest iron and steel centre in the world, and a major ship-building force, in just 40 years”; elsewhere, it is described as “a tired and worn coastal town on the Cumbrian coastline”; elsewhere still, as “the capital of blue-collar capital Britain”.

Barrow-based collective Art Gene undertook a series of projects in 2010-2011 under the heading Barrow by Design, engaging international artists, architects and designers with local partners and residents to lead a regeneration effort from within – capturing the very essence of the place and creating a legacy for the years to come.  “Barrow by Design is a portfolio of live projects trialling new approaches through an international residency programme and project work with associate artists, and architects linked to education programmes for professionals and communities.” Amongst these projects, the Shop Front Design Scheme consisted of personalised consultations and small grants for local shopkeepers (around £2,000) to refresh their facades, a deceptively simple way to make a big impact when applied on a large scale. About 30 small business owners requested a consultation, and the results can been seen on Art Gene website.

  • Benefit #2: Changing the way places look

Panopticons by Mid Pennine Arts, a series of four “21st century landmarks” erected from 2003 to 2008: Colourfield, Singing Ringing Tree, Atom and Halo, designed to enhance natural vistas and “intended to become symbols of the renaissance of the area – stimulating pride of place; creating new tourism offers; encouraging inward investment; and positively affecting quality of life”. The wonderful-looking Panopticons, which have been photographed many, many times, have become a visual symbol for the sub-region, and the project has its own very pretty evaluation report stating that “22,700 local people, 47 schools, 366 teachers, 46 community groups and 100 volunteers have been involved in the project. Over 100 businesses have been supported, 139 artists have been employed, 208 construction jobs have been created and over 175,000 people have visited the new landmarks.”

  • Benefit #3: Changing perceptions of places

Since 1977, Grizedale Sculpture has been working with local and international artists to create “the largest collection of site-specific art in the environment in the the UK” in Grizedale forest. “The artists lived in caravans and worked for months in the woods with the foresters. (…) Today there are more than 60 sculptures in the forest spread over 2447 hectares. The programme is now being reinvigorated through a major new initiative called ‘Art Roots Grizedale, and a series of ambitious new commissions are being developed.” 250,000 people visit Grizedale each year, and a third (83,000 people) experience or participate in the art. It has also inspired many similar site-specific projects across the world, as well as, close to home, Forest Art Works, “a new partnership between Arts Council England and Forestry Commission England to support achieving great art for everyone in England’s public forests.”


The report conclusion is powerfully illustrative, steeping contemporary art in tradition and appealing to collective and long-term thinking:

(…) Somehow, in recent decades, ideas about the public purse and public benefit have become confused and restrictive, as if all that matters in the modern world are potholes, dustbin collection, gritting the roads and hospital cleanliness. Arts and culture were valued in the mid 19th Century, as evidenced by the  building of museums and art galleries such as the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston. But it was more than constructing grand buildings in a neoclassical style. The decision makers of the time believed in the arts and put their money (or rather their community’s money) behind their idea. (…)

Communities like Preston historically saw their art galleries as an important public good, part of what made them progressive, forward looking and civilised communities. It was an enlightened, ambitious and progressive vision of the North, and one we can learn a great deal from.

Without this faith and the willingness to act, we risk being judged as the blinkered generation who simply could not see beyond narrow accountancy metrics. Much of the space in this report has been taken up in evidencing that art works, but there is a deeper point that is more important, art really matters, it makes us who we are.